As an urban planner of more than 30 years’ experience, can I say to you that I am deeply troubled by growing disparities in the choices available to Melburnians by the fact of where they live. The amenity enjoyed by a resident of an established suburb like Hawthorn, six kilometres east of the CBD, or Clayton, some 19 kilometres southeast of the CBD, is quite different from that of a Melburnian putting up stumps in areas like Craigieburn, 26 kilometres north of the CBD, or Melton, 35 kilometres west of the CBD, or Cranbourne, 43 kilometres to the south-east.
If you can forgive a little nostalgia, let me wind back to my own childhood in a comfortable home in East Ivanhoe in the 1950s. I lived in a part of Melbourne that was green, suburban and safe. From the age of seven, I was encouraged by my parents to walk to the local state primary school with my brother and sister. The walk was over a kilometre; we passed churches, a kindergarten and a shopping centre. We had to negotiate a couple of crossings along the way. I developed a real sense of place and independence from an early age due to these trips, mirrored by other children in the neighbourhood. Later, when I went to secondary school in North Balwyn, it was a much longer journey involving a walk, a bus and tram – but again I was lucky; good public transport connections were available where I lived.
So, what might travelling to school be like for a child growing up today in a new suburb like Craigieburn – situated at the end of a train line, where public buses venture on the half hour of a weekday morning and where there is no prospect of a tram on the horizon? Unless she lived close to school, she's more likely to be dropped off and picked up by car. If she walked, she would negotiate unfinished footpaths, greenfield sites and barbed wire situated near finished housing. There would be boards promising yet-to-be-built shops and signage boasting housing with “unbelievable prices”.
In contrast, a child living in East Ivanhoe, even accounting for 21st-century parental anxiety about walking to school, is still likely to have my freer experience of walking or catching public transport in a suburb full of amenities.
An increasing geographical divide in the mode of travel to school, to work, to local shops and community facilities between suburbs also extends to educational options, ranging from childcare and preschool to primary, secondary and tertiary education. You can even see a gulf in the different flavour of lifestyles offered by real estate advertisements – be it so-called “downtown” city living or suburban living.
Disparities of place are also reflected in availability of jobs within a reasonable travel distance from homes located between suburbs and even the type of dwellings offered to match different needs and budgets. Long travel times from home to work are hurting productivity levels, the city’s environmental health and disrupting work and life balance.
There is less time to spend with children, family and friends and long commutes – overwhelmingly by car in the urban growth-corridor suburbs – are contributing to problems of mortgage stress. There is disconnection in our city between where jobs are located and where many people on the lower economic rungs can (sometimes barely) afford to live. The inevitability of rising petrol prices and the rising cost of living in comparison to salaries for paid work are all factors that have a knock-on effect on our social connectedness and economic future.