When we visit the other metropolises of the world, most of us stick to the tourist attractions. We know where the Eiffel Tower, the Harbour Bridge and the Empire State Building are but who knows where Wattle Park, Puckle Street and Myuna Farm are? There might not be a thriving metropolis if not for the suburbs to feed the city centre. So how do the ‘burbs shape our great city of Melbourne?
Melbourne is apparently the most ‘liveable’ city in the world and therefore, allegedly, the most ‘liveable’ suburb in the world is South Yarra. How it came to be a suburb is part of the story of how Melbourne grew. In the late 19th century, Melbourne had reached a population of 473,000. Even then she was a sprawling city; her population at that time covered as much area as London’s 4.7 million. To this day, Melbourne is the largest city in Australia in terms of land area, covering 8,806 km2. In fact, suburbs are always more prevalent in cities that have an abundance of flat land.
Melbourne’s current wealth is the work of the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century. In the 1850s, more than £100 million worth of gold was mined, enabling Melbourne to establish herself as an affluent city. By the end of that century, one third of the population of Australia lived in capital cities, where the jobs were. Despite farming being the staple industry at the time, it employed a relatively low number of workers. While Americans perpetuated the ‘American Dream’, it was actually possible for migrant workers in Australia to aspire to owning their own property, even if they were cheap and flimsy. This increased urbanization led to Australia arguably becoming the first suburban nation and Melbourne one of her most inhabited capital cities.
The use of the word suburb is surprisingly controversial worldwide. Originating in the mid-14th Century, suburb comes from both the Old French word suburbe and the Latin word suburbium, which mean ‘an outlying part of a city’, an area that is ‘sub/below’. Inherent in the word etymology therefore, is the idea that a city is above a suburb. This is highlighted further with our Old English word being underburg.
Today, how Australians use the word is different to our British and American counterparts. For them, the word ‘suburb’ is not used when referring to urban areas that are close to a city centre. Australians, however, use the term to refer to both inner and outer suburbs. The distinction is that an inner suburb is an older, more densely populated urban area closer to the original city centre whilst an outer suburb refers to urban areas that are more remote. Our suburbs are as close to the city as the Docklands and as far away as Portsea. Commuter towns are also known as bedroom suburbs in North America or dormitory towns in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
In French, however, when explaining that I live in a suburb, the literal translation becomes banlieue, carrying with it strong sociological connotations that do not at all describe the idea that I live in a middle-class suburb. In France, banlieues are more frequently areas of low-income apartments and commission housing, our welfare housing, or council estates in the UK.
Hence, although suburbs are a somewhat logical worldwide consequence of large cities, their names and connotations vary. In Mexico City, suburbio denotes the slums and urban sprawl that lie on the outskirts of the city, similar to French use of the term. In Rome, in the 20s and 30s, suburbs were created and called ex novo for the massive influx of poor Italians from other areas of the country. These have since been engulfed by the expansion of Rome itself and exurbs have had to be created at an even further distance from the centre of town.
In Russia, the term finds middle ground between the American and the European uses. In the US, a suburb denotes a residential area for the middle and upper classes, made up of single-family homes. In Russia on the other hand, a suburb is filled with high-rise residential apartments that contain families in two bedroom flats. The Russian use of the word differentiates from the Western European in that these are not low socio-economic areas, like in France.
Lastly, in Asia, most cities have experienced the urban sprawl effect and therefore many suburbs have popped up. For the most part, they are similar to American suburbs, except in Hong Kong. Here, once again, suburb is used to denote an area of government planning that contains numerous public housing estates.
It therefore becomes clear that the word carries many connotations. In France it is the ‘dodgy’ areas of town while in England, it’s the outskirts where one can actually use a car. In America, the suburbs are the realms of the wanna-be Stepford wives. Here, though, our suburbs are so spread out there is no one unifying association other than what city dwellers think of them – ‘they are so far away’.
To answer the opening question, Wattle Park is a public park in Burwood that is proud of its 12,000 wattle trees, Puckle Street is a shopping street in Moonee Ponds and Myuna Farm is a public community farm in Doveton. While the Botanical Gardens, Bourke Street Mall and Collingwood Children’s Farm are great attractions in the city, there are a lot of treasures outside the city loop, and in Melbourne, there’s nothing to be afraid of.