Melbourne Metropolitan Area


When Robert Hoddle laid out what became Melbourne's Central City area in 1837 he positioned its south-west corner next to Batman's Hill near the intersection of Flinders and Spencer Streets. The town's southern boundary (Flinders Street) ran approximately along the northern side of the Yarra River, but as the river did not flow exactly east-west, the central city block plan was tilted: northwards thoroughfares run north-west.

Peripheral thoroughfares running true north, and the cross roads true east-west, were achieved by Hoddle running a line north for one mile from Batman's Hill, and from the point where it ended drawing a line east for two miles and west for one mile. The resulting line became Victoria Street and Victoria Parade. At the end of the two-mile long line (Victoria Parade) he drew a north-south line that became Hoddle Street and Punt Road. So began the typical metropolitan grid of cross roads, laid out as farm blocks were surveyed and main roads drawn in along their boundaries.

Town and villages

Metropolitan Melbourne could scarcely be conceived of as such until after the influx of the goldfields population in the early 1850s. Central Melbourne was the primary township. Williamstown, surveyed in 1837, was the potential alternative port and seat of government, separated from Melbourne by Hobsons Bay, two rivers and the West Melbourne swamp. It was a satellite settlement, as were Warringal (Heidelberg, 1839), Sandridge (Port Melbourne, 1839) and St Kilda (1842). South Melbourne was a tent township for immigrants, but a formal township was surveyed in 1852. It was almost contiguous to Melbourne, and hence almost a metropolitan appendage, but the first true metropolitan settlements were North and West Melbourne, known as Parkside (1852) and Collingwood, which included Fitzroy. When a railway between Flinders Street, Melbourne, and Port Melbourne was opened in 1854 the latter arguably became linked in a metropolitan sense, but the railway was meant for freight more than commuters.

Various outlying village sites had been reserved in the late 1830s, such as Braybrook, Pentridge (Coburg), Templestone, Warrigal and at locations on the Moonee Ponds Creek at what are now Pascoe Vale and Westmeadows. Many more examples of villages were surveyed in the 1850s, including Northcote, Hawthorn, Templestowe, Braybrook and Oakleigh (all 1852-53). Most of them lay beyond metropolitan Melbourne, some staying in that state for over 100 years in the cases of Westmeadows and Templestowe.

Infant metropolis

Metropolitan Melbourne in the 1850s-60s was mainly confined to West and North Melbourne, Carlton, Collingwood, East Melbourne, South Melbourne and Port Melbourne. Mechanised transport links began with the Port Melbourne railway; and railway lines to Bendigo and Geelong (1859) included suburban lines to Footscray and Williamstown. Suburban lines to St Kilda, Hawthorn, Essendon and Brighton were opened during 1857-61. During the 1870s a suburban line was opened from South Yarra to Oakleigh, but it was during the next decade that lines to Coburg, Preston, Heidelberg and Box Hill were opened. That decade also coincided with the building of the cable tram network. During 1885-91 sixteen cable tram lines were opened, with a particular density in the inner northern suburbs; seven routes ran through Fitzroy and Collingwood.

'Greater Melbourne'

In 1878 the notion of Greater Melbourne was recorded in the annual Victorian Year Book. Greater Melbourne had 256,477 people, 29.51% of Victoria's population. The population figure is an exageration because Greater Melbourne was defined by a circle with a radius of ten miles from the city centre. Its area of 256 square miles was probably three-quarters rural.

The following table summarises 'metropolitan Melbourne' over the last 30 years of the nineteenth century. Areas are defined by the names of local councils, and their dates of incorporation approximate their inclusion in Melbourne's urban growth. The data was obtained from contemporary Year Books and the Statistical Register (1901).

metropolitan melbourne's population
Town, Shire, etc Date Incorp1 1871 1881 1891 1901
Melbourne 1842 54,993 65,859 73,514 68,374
North Melbourne 1859 13,491 17,839 20,985 18,120
Fitzroy 1858* 15,547 23,118 32,455 31,687
Collingwood 1855* 18,598 23,829 35,066 32,749
Richmond 1855* 16,889 23,405 38,770 37,824
Brunswick 1857 4388 6222 21,955 24,141
Northcote 18712   1584 7741 9677
Prahran 1856 14,096 21,168 39,699 40,441
South Melbourne 1855* 17,101 25,374 41,730 40,619
Port Melbourne 1860* 6388 8771 13,058 12,176
St Kilda 1855* 9085 11,654 19,885 20,542
Brighton 1859 3059 4755 9887 10,047
Essendon 18613 2456 5061 24,369 28,372
Flemington, Kensington, Hawthorn 1860 3329 6019 19,623 21,430
Kew 1860 2430 4288 8476 9469
Footscray 1859 2473 5993 19,149 18,318
Williamstown 1856 7126 9034 15,936 14,052
Caulfield 1871**   2488 7992 9541
Oakleigh 1891       1273
Malvern 1871**   1797 8142 10,619
Camberwell 1871**   1525 6206 8602
Preston 18712   1410 3563 4059
Coburg 1871**   2659 5754 6772
Heidelberg 1871**   2775 4413 5008
Remainder   13,295 4664 9804 N/S
Total   204,744 282,947 489,407 500,000 approx

 1 Date area was constituted as a town, shire etc

 2 Preston and Northcote first in Jika Shire (1871)

 3 Split into Essendon borough and Flemington and Kensington borough in 1882, but populations of combined boroughs shown throughout this table.

 *  Settlement already formed when severed from Melbourne Town Council

 ** Originally incorporated as a shire.

The depression of the 1890s caused a population decline in some places, and the figures had not fully recovered by 1901.

Metropolitan transport

During 1901-11 metropolitan Melbourne's population grew by nearly 100,000. The map below shows the local council areas, their populations and their population densities. Fitzroy's was the densest. Melbourne's is shown as less dense, but in reality North Melbourne (by then part of Melbourne council) had the densest population; Melbourne council's population density was diluted by public parks, industry, public buildings and the West Melbourne swamp. Port Melbourne's population was of middling density, but its housing was as crowded as Collingwood's; its western Fisherman's Bend area was almost uninhabited. The railway network was almost complete – a condition existing since the 1890s – although the outer circle through Camberwell is erroneously shown as a complete line. Electric trams were opened by local trusts in Kew, Hawthorn, Camberwell, Prahran, Caulfield and Malvern (1910-16), positioning those suburbs as middle class residential areas.

The provision of good public transport to the eastern and south-eastern suburbs confirmed a trend that had been evident for 50 years as better-off Melburnites chose to reside there. The topography was undulating rather than flat, it was well away from miasmic West Melbourne swamps, separated by the Yarra River from the unhealthy although densely populated Collingwood and Richmond flats, and the rainfall bestowed better conditions for exotic gardens. Although industry stayed concentrated in Richmond and Collingwood, noxious industries expanded westwards to the Maribyrnong River in the 1880s. There were also sandier beaches along Port Phillip Bay's eastern shores which, combined with sea breezes, provided a salubrious coastal strip. The Yarra Valley stream system was also more pleasant than the western plains, and its alluvial pockets and stream valleys were relatively fertile and well watered.

Importance of transport

By 1947 the census showed that metropolitan Melbourne's population had, in 35 years, more than doubled to 1.23 million. The inner suburban population densities had little changed, Brunswick and St Kilda being the exceptions. The population densities of the next ring of suburbs had all grown. Camberwell's grew the most, and Coburg, Kew, Caulfield and Brighton also grew sharply. There was also a clear sign of the south-eastern reach of metropolitan Melbourne, following the railway lines to Frankston (1882) and Oakleigh-Gippsland (1879-88), and the south-eastern electric tram lines to Brighton and Carnegie (1925-37). There were also signs of growth along the Maroondah Road corridor through Box Hill to Ringwood.

The great gap in metropolitan growth was in the north-east beyond Heidelberg. There were railway lines through Preston and Heidelberg, but Templestowe, encircled on the west and the south by watercourses and without any rail transport was to be an unurbanised space until the 1960s. Much the same applied in the south-east through to Mulgrave (Waverley), despite a railway to Glen Waverley having been opened in 1930.

Importance of motor cars

The key to the postwar suburbs was motor vehicle ownership. In Victoria it was:


motor vehicles

per 1000 people

1947 141
1955 244
1960 286
1970 390

Although residential proximity to trains and trams continued to be important, motor car ownership enabled the settling of 'infill' suburbs like Doncaster, Vermont, Wheelers Hill and Dingley. The decision to place Victoria's second university at Clayton North in the late 1950s implicitly acknowledged the era of mass car ownership and the south-eastern spread of metropolitan Melbourne. Chadstone shopping centre (1960) did the same.


The 1929 and 1954 metroplitan plans foresaw the need for freeways, and the West Gate Freeway and Western Ring Road follow lines drawn on maps in 1929. The 1954 plan presented an ambitious freeway blueprint and the 1969 Melbourne Transport Plan totted up a proposed 510 km of freeways. It partly reflected the 'great freeway building age' in California. It also threatened to strangle many inner suburbs, and in 1973 the State Government cut back the program in the face of the 'great freeway protest age'.

Melbourne's first freeways were a short South Eastern freeway near Burnley and the Malty bypass at Werribee (1961). Bigger projects were the Tullamarine, West Gate, Mulgrave and Eastern Freeways (1970-77). Attention later turned to outlying ring roads (1990s) and tunnels. Costly tunnel works resulted in freeway tolls.

Many freeway routes follow high power electricity easements and waterways.

Metropolitan planning

The concept of Greater Melbourne had been given formal expression in 1878 and during the next decade the concept of 'Marvellous Melbourne' was allowed to mask an inadequate metropolitan infrastructure, particularly in the area of public health. The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) was established in 1890, with particular responsibility for water supply and sewerage.

In 1929 a Metropolitan Town Planning Commission brought down its report on Melbourne's recommended metropolitan form, but economic depression and the 1939-45 war stopped metropolitan improvements, other than a few ventures into slum abolition. In 1949 the MMBW was made the metropolitan town planning authority in an area encircled in a 15 mile radius from the GPO, but extended to Ringwood, Dandenong and Frankston. In 1954 the MMBW published its report and planning scheme for metropolitan Melbourne, foreseeing district centres at Footscray, Preston, Box Hill, Moorabbin and Dandenong. It also foresaw a system of arterial roads that was a template for future freeways.

The Country Roads Board became the urban freeway construction authority. An early project was the Tullamarine Freeway (1970), which stimulated urban growth in Keilor and Sunbury. The Mulgrave and Eastern Freeways were opened during 1973-76. The Railways triplicated and quadruplicated tracks on the Waverley, Blackburn, Moorabbin and Footscray lines, enabling the running of express trains between the outer suburbs and the city. (The railway fare structures had been altered in 1958, stopping the railways and tramways competing against each other for inner-urban passengers and obliging the railways to cater more for outer-urban travellers.)

In its planning policies for metropolitan Melbourne in 1971 the MMBW proposed urban corridors in the directions of Werribee, Melton, Sunbury, Craigieburn and Whittlesea (Plenty corridor). It also sketched in the Berwick/Cranbourne corridor, which became probably the most vigorous of the late twentieth century growth areas. The following table shows population growth areas by local council areas during 1961-91. Councils created during 1961-91 have their dates of proclamation in parentheses.

metropolitan melbourne's growth areas: populations
  1961 1971 1981 1991
Altona (1957) 16,167 30,589 30,794 34,492
Berwick (1973) n/a 20,474 35,888 69,144
Broadmeadows 66,306 101,100 102,745 102,996
Bulla (Sunbury, Craigieburn) 4824 8243 17,021 39,301
Cranbourne 10,908 16,266 34,285 70,821
Croydon (1960) 15,694 28,708 36,651 45,807
Dandenong 27,748 40,883 53,832 57,275
Diamond Valley (1964) n/a 36,245 49.483 60,738
Doncaster and Templestowe 19,061 64,286 90,290 102,898
Eltham n/a 23,712 34,210 42,670
Flinders n/a 15,481 24,675 36,516
Frankston and Hastings* 35,605 68,337 93,633 113,728
Healesville n/a 6410 8785 11,755
Keilor 29,519 55,616 81,593 106,076
Knox (1963) n/a 56,876 88,245 121,982
Lillydale 18,284 36,162 61,238 78,475
Melton 1804 5974 20,349 34,736
Moorabbin** 95,669 109,588 96,439 94,161
Nunawading** 53,246 90,702 95,523 91,468
Pakenham (1973) n/a 12,636 17,621 27,619
Ringwood 24,247 34,751 38,259 40,308
Sherbrooke (1964) n/a 20,484 29,639 36,554
Springvale (1955) 28,526 58,374 77,817 89,478
Sunshine** 62,321 76,427 92,424 94,020
Waverley 44,987 97,033 121,767 118,265
Werribee 13,689 25,116 39,233 72,230
Whittlesea 11,490 30,327 64,946 95,672

 *  Frankston and Hastings Shire made into two municipalities in 1960

 ** Early postwar suburbs: 1954 census figures were Moorabbin, 65,332; Nunawading, 23,855; Sunshine, 41,332.

There was a noticeable population decline in early/middle postwar areas such as Moorabbin and Waverley in the 1980-90s. The outer suburban councils continued growing into the twenty-first century, although they were amalgamated, mostly with new names, in 1993-94. They are printed in bold font in the above table.

The metropolitan growth areas during 1991-2011 were:

metropolitan melbourne's growth areas: populations
local government area 1991 (est)









Brimbank (most of Keilor & Sunshine) 144,277 148,973 162,931 168,215 182,735
Cardinia (Pakenham, east Cranbourne) 38,704 40,533 45,305 57,115 74,176
Casey (Berwick, west Cranbourne) 117,001 148,957 175,505 214,960 252,382
Hume (Bulla, parts Broadmeadows and Keilor) 106,570 115,729 131,182 147,781 167,562
Knox 130,378 130,401 141,108 146,740 149,300
Melton (plus small parts Bulla & Werribee) 36,170 39,109 51,685 78,912 109,259
Mornington Peninsula (Flinders, Hastings, Mornington, part Frankston) 109,768 110,122 124,891 136,482 144,608
Nillumbik (most of Eltham, Diamond Valley, part Whittlesea) 53,071 54,276 57,932 59,792 60,342
Whittlesea (most of former Whittlesea) 97,361 101,691 113,784 124,647 154,880
Wyndham (most of former Werribee) 63,415 73,691 84,861 112,695 161,675

In the period 2006-11 there was a lot of growth in western suburban Melton and Wyndham.

Metropolitan planning, twenty-first century

The MMBW planning scheme (1954) foresaw that development should be concentrated around district centres such as Footscray, Box Hill and Dandenong, all based around public transport nodes. Urban sprawl was not particularly worrying at that time, and the interwar standard house block of 50 x 150 feet was the accepted norm. (Often described as the quarter acre block - it was actually one sixth - the dimensions could go up to 60 x 160 feet.) The standard applied whether in upmarket North Balwyn or in State housing estates in West Heidelberg or Broadmeadows.

By 1970 urban residential sprawl was well to the fore. Future growth could go out along public transport corridors or by infilling between the corridors and creating an even more car-dependent metropolis. Planning opted for keeping to the transport corridors and designating the potential infill areas as green wedges, ie keeping them as rural conservation, market garden or public open space areas. Already, however, there had been instances of development gobbling up potential open space. Classic early examples had been drive-in shopping centres: whilst developers preferred cheap land away from a commercial centre, usually land of sufficient acreage for a drive-in centre was not to be found in existing centres. Some car-dependent residential centres also got away from planners: Vermont South was developed in the 1970-80s in orchard country, with no railway and 7 km east of a tram terminus. The tram service was finally extended to it in 2005.

In 2002 the Melbourne 2030 plan was released. It repeated the 1954 concentration on existing activity centres, the 1971 preference for green wedges and the continuation of higher density housing ('the compact city policy'). Density was achieved by dual occupancy, eg putting a second house on the suburban back lawn, smaller house lots, row houses, apartments and recycling of industrial land for residential living. Activity centres were graded by several levels of size in Melbourne 2030. 'Principal activity centres' were divided between about two-thirds around rail transport, eg Box Hill, and one-third other, eg Chadstone.


Higher density housing came in for sustained public criticism, particularly in higher value tree-lined suburbs such as Balwyn and Camberwell. There was a trenchant campaign to stop a high-rise mixed development in Burke Road, Camberwell, overlooking the railway station. The proposed development stalemated. Shortly afterwards the Government called in a development for a multi-storey tower 1 km down Burke Road at the Camberwell junction. Soon called the 'green latrine', the tower nevertheless went ahead while the railway station land stood idle. It was one in the eye for eastern suburbs better-planning advocates.

The demand for detached houses was unabated, as couples had children and moved out to Point Cook or Pakenham. Green wedges came under increasing pressure for land subdivision, notably in Heatherton where market gardens are the hole in a doughnut of south-eastern housing.

Since about 2002 when Melbourne 2030 was launched, a standard dwelling-and-land package became increasingly unaffordable for aspiring homeowners. The solutions to housing costs were migration to peri-urban sites, outside the plan's urban growth boundary, small-house packages, or apartments. However, most apartments were 70 sq metres or less, and small houses on a block half the size of the once standard 50 x 150 feet fell short of many families' expectations. Most small-house packages were on the urban fringes. In 2010 the Government approved extra land releases totalling 41,600 hectares on the urban fringe, a supply-side initiative that might stabilise or lower prices for house lots.

Housing and land affordability have altered profoundly since the 1960s. In 1967 a 700 square metre block of serviced land in Victoria cost $4250, including $550 profit. (A serviced block included drainage, roads, paths, channelling and connection of water and electricity). The cost was 1.22 years of the median adult wage. In 2011 the median land price for a block probably two thirds the size of the 1967 standard was $209,000, 3.02 years of the median adult wage. The disparity for buying an average house was more:


Median house cost


Median wage/year


No of years of wage
1967 9638 3474 2.77
2011 478,000 69,170 6.84

Sources: Study in land usage, Housing Industry Association, January 1968; Victorian Year Book, 1969; Housing Industry Association website (2012): Commonwealth Bank affordability report and HIA residential land report

Migration to peri-urban centres had been under way for several years, usually to places such as Wallan or Garfield on rural trunk railway lines. The trade-off for longer travel is that in those places an affordable house purchase comes with twice as much land as a house on the urban growth boundary.


Greater or Metropolitan Melbourne's census populations have been:





share of victorian population (%)
1851    23,143 23.7
1861   139,916 25.9
1871**   215,991 28.9
1881   288,169 33.0
1891   486,620 42.0
1901   501,580 41.5
1911   612,190 45.7
1921   800,520 51.6
1933   995,800 54.6
1947 1,228,300 59.5
1954 1,524,111 61.5
1961 1,984,936 67.2
1971 2,575,000 71.5
1981 2,803,600 71.0
1991 3,145,600 71.4
1996 3,283,278 72.0
2001 3,338,704 72.4
2006 3,592,591 72.8
2011 3,999,982 74.7

 * These figures obtained from Victorian Year Book 1973, and they differ from contemporary totals in the previous table for 1871-1901.

** Greater or metropolitan Melbourne was defined by a circle of 10 miles radius until 1920.

Further Reading

Bernard Barrett, The civic frontier: the origins of local communities and local government in Victoria, Carlton, 1979

Bernard Barrett, The inner suburbs, Melbourne, 1971

Clive Beed, Melbourne's development and planning, Parkville, 1981

Bob Birrell et al, Melbourne 2030: planning rhetoric versus urban reality, Clayton, 2005

Asa Briggs, Victorian cities, London, 1963

Graeme Davison et al, The cream brick frontier: histories of Australian suburbia, Clayton, 1995

Graeme Davison, The rise and fall of marvellous Melbourne, Carlton, 1978

Tony Dingle and Carole Rasmussen, Vital connections: Melbourne and its Board of Works, Carlton, 1991

Meyer Eidelson, The Melbourne dreaming: a guide to the Aboriginal places of Melbourne, Canberra, 1997

Renata Howe (ed), New houses for old: fifty years of public housing in Victoria, Melbourne, 1988

Maxwell Lay, Melbourne miles: the story of Melbourne's roads, Melbourne, 2003

Jenny Lee, Making modern Melbourne, Carlton, 2008

Toni Logan, Urban and regional planning in Victoria, South Yarra, 1981

K.L. Marriott, The Yarra Valley, Malvern, 1975

Metropolitan Town Planning Commission first report, Melbourne, 1925

Metropolitan Town Planning Commission plan for Melbourne, Melbourne, 1929

Melbourne metropolitan planning scheme 1954, Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, 1954

J. McCarty and C.B. Schedvin (eds), Australian capital cities: historical essays, Sydney, 1978

J. Brian McLoughlin, Shaping Melbourne's future?, Oakleigh, 1992

Gary Presland, The place for a village: how nature has shaped the city of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2008

Entries for all the local government areas in Tables plus Banyule, Bayside, Boroondara, Darebin, Glen Eira, Greater Dandenong, Hobsons Bay, Kingston, Manningham, Maribyrnong, Maroondah, Melbourne city, Monash, Moonee Valley, Moreland, Port Phillip, Stonnington, Whitehorse, Yarra and Yarra Ranges entries

The entry for Victoria has data on manufacturing and employment.