Over the last 30 to 40 years, an inexorable process has been in train in Melbourne.
A city that once boasted houses with gardens for the majority has given way to the cannibalisation of our gardens in the interests of accommodating an ever-increasing population. Thus, we have seen increasing medium and high density living in our suburbs, with significant and ongoing loss of trees, other vegetation, and space per person. At the same time we have seen encroachments on public land for ever more residential development. To name only two of many examples, there was the Commonwealth Games Village in Royal Park and the Eastern Golf Course in Doncaster, which were both turned into housing developments. The State Government in Victoria now plans to facilitate development on golf courses, according to their definition by a committee of developers as redundant green amenity.
As a result of Melbourne’s increase in population density, our public transport and roads have been struggling to cope for some years. Passengers now only just fit onto trams and trains, level crossings have had to be turned into overpasses and underpasses, in a disruptive and expensive exercise, all over Melbourne. But still the machine which is Melbourne manages to tick along and somehow function. But, to what end? we may ask, as our quality of life steadily diminishes. If Melbourne's inhabitants are just cogs in a big complex machine, built for wealthy international investors in property and finance, then I suppose we have to say it has been a success …until now.
In the last several days a huge number of the "cogs" have had to be de-activated for an indefinite period . The machine can no longer operate as it has been. But the non-essential " cogs" cannot be simply put away in a drawer. This is because they are not actually cogs. They are humans with lives and with needs. The even larger machine of the Australian government is obliged to sustain them all over the country. There is no other way.
The health crisis due to coronavirus must make those in authority and with power question what we have been doing over the last few decades. What has been the aim of the direction that the new economy adopted in the last years of last century? What I have seen is an erosion of our quality of life in many ways, but the loss of land and space per person is the most stark indicator. Now, in the current health crisis that we are virtually locked down in, our living environment, the amenity or lack of it, in our surroundings, is highlighted. How does a person living in a small apartment take care of his or her mental and physical health? This person no longer uses the small apartment simply as somewhere to sleep after returning from work and an evening get together with friends in a public place. This is now "home". Does it pass the test to qualify as such, or is it more like a prison cell?
The corona virus illustrates the great importance of the availability of public space for the population. Yet the public space we now need to practice safe distance in has been greatly reduced by overdevelopment in Melbourne.
Moreover, we cannot always exist as a crowd. We must separate and have our own space. We are individual beings. For those who still have them, private gardens are of huge importance. Their growing rarity is of great significance in Melbourne’s ability to cope with health and social problems. Had the corona virus struck 30 years ago, a far larger proportion of the population would have had such a refuge. Tragically, these gardens have been taken from us, with the push to live more densely. I use the word "push" deliberately" as we have been pushed into it. Planning in Australia’s big cities has amounted to coercion since the 1990s, with loss of formal rights of objection to the massive changes forced upon us.
Many philosophers, cartoonists and commentators have questioned the purpose of our lives - the "rat race", the overcrowding. I am doing the same as this crisis shrieks out for a serious re-evaluation of where we are going. We are barely coping now so how will we cope with 8 million in Melbourne if we have another pandemic?