WHEN Cara Horner moved to a new housing estate in Epping North, she was drawn by its environmental credentials, the lower land prices and the chance to build an affordable family home.
Yes, her family would be moving away from a well-established suburb but Horner was reassured by VicUrban, the government's development agency now named Places Victoria, that the estate would soon have the transport links and community services needed to ensure a good quality of life.
Five years later, she is stunned by how many of those promises turned out to be hollow. "We have bus stops here that don't have buses running to them because the Victorian government won't put any funding into the route extension," she says.
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Every home on the estate was meant to be within 400 metres of a bus stop. Residents were also promised a train, an "Epping North spur line" that would peel off from Lalor station, and an interchange on the nearby Hume highway.
"When we were buying our land we were told the train line would be five or 10 years, then it was 20 and now we're hearing it won't happen," says Horner, who is a member of the Aurora Community Association.
Like Horner, many Melburnians will soon be living on former farmland on the city's fringes that was recently rezoned residential.
By 2050, Melbourne's population is forecast to hit up to 6.4 million — an additional 2.3 million people in less than four decades.
This influx is sobering when you consider the amount of infrastructure required to support that many new residents.
The population trigger used by planners to figure out when to build a new primary school, kindergarten or childcare centre is 9000 residents. A new police station is 40,000 residents and a new hospital is 50,000.
And this does not factor in train stations, which are determined by the government, as Horner has discovered.
Delivering the new schools and hospitals will not be easy for the cash-strapped state government. Perhaps it's not surprising so many people want to move to Melbourne – it holds the much-vaunted title of the "world's most liveable city", as rated by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
But a recent United Nations report, which lists Melbourne as one of the world's top 10 most prosperous cities, found its weakest performance was in "equity and social inclusion". As Melbourne's phenomenal growth continues, both in population and geographic size, one thing seems clear: some people are more equal than others when it comes to access to taxpayer-funded services and infrastructure.
Last month Planning Minister Matthew Guy released a discussion paper on planning for Melbourne's development for the next 40 years. It was the first insight into the government's metropolitan strategy, which will replace Labor's Melbourne 2030 plan.
At the same time as this strategy is being developed, Guy is changing zoning rules that determine what can be built and where and, in his words, transforming planning from an academic into an "economic" portfolio.
Some big questions remain unanswered. Will the eventual strategy match what is being proposed in the discussion paper?
And why change the fundamentals of the system before you know in which direction you are heading?
When he approved towering apartment blocks in the CBD recently, Guy said the government would continue to "provide confidence to the development industry" and there would be "continuing reform of our planning system to increase opportunity and productivity".
But in the rush to create construction jobs, has planning a liveable, enjoyable city with decent transport services and infrastructure taken a back seat to economic activity? Many on Melbourne's fringes and in existing infill suburbs say new housing might have mushroomed but there is little in the way of new services.
Guy recently highlighted the challenge of maintaining Melbourne's "liveability" as a city of 6 million, with only two of the top 10 cities in the Economist's liveability survey having more residents than Melbourne: Sydney and Toronto (the greater Toronto area).
Indeed, he said "the larger the city becomes, the harder it is to maintain an international standard of liveability".
"How we plan for that growth is the key to ensuring our city remains one of the most diverse, distinctive and liveable cities in world."
One of the ideas that emerges from the government's planning discussion paper is a "20-minute city", where people "live local" and work, eat and play close to home.
But not everyone in Melbourne will be equal in the 20-minute city, the report notes. For some it will be a 20-minute walk, others will need to drive.
"Whether the 20-minute travel distance is by walking, cycling, bus or car will depend on the area and the habits of its residents," the report says.
But the "habits" of many in Melbourne are determined by their access to quality public transport, walking and cycling paths and nearby services. David Turnbull, chief executive of the City of Whittlesea, has been working in growth areas for decades and cannot remember a time when there was more pressure to deliver new services.
"I would describe the situation at the moment as the most perilous it has been in 34 years," he says.
Four years ago, following a rezoning, the number of residents moving to the council's area jumped from about 2500 a year to up to 9500. On Epping Road and Plenty Road, the main roads that link to the Epping North and Mernda growth corridors, it can take 40 minutes "just to leave your suburb", Turnbull says. There are about 60 births a week in the municipality and the Northern Hospital is struggling to cope with demand, he says.
But infrastructure funding in growth areas is slow in coming. In Caroline Springs, in Melbourne's outer west, a road to a paddock is the only sign of the site where a train station has been promised.
"The rural and regional areas have a dedicated growth fund of $1 billion in state funding – the growth areas have no such funding," Turnbull says.
He believes it is time the government appointed a minister for growth areas, to take responsibility for the proper funding of Melbourne's newest communities.
Toronto ranks fourth in the liveability stakes and has reached a number of conclusions when it comes to planning: urban sprawl must end and building new freeways will not solve a city's transportation needs.
"We only have infill development in the city . . . the question is how do we do that infill?" says Toronto's chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat.
About 15 years ago, Toronto and the regional government realised urban sprawl was destroying natural habitat and threatening the city's water supply, so it was halted.
Ending sprawl involved significant negotiation with the development industry because a lot of developers had purchased farmland on the assumption they would be able to continue to develop ad nauseam, Keesmaat says.
Once the boundary was made clear it shifted the market and drove a significant amount of development into infill sites. Keesmaat says it was a "huge problem" if developers could lobby the government to move the urban boundary.
Melbourne's boundary has expanded almost 100,000 hectares in a decade, with developers and planning ministers interpreting the urban "boundary" as a point of negotiation.
Keesmaat says the fundamental issue all cities must address when planning for growth is having "a very clear structure of where growth won't go", and limiting urban sprawl is part of that.
"It's about identifying hubs where there is a very strong nexus of public transportation and an opportunity to accommodate mixed-use growth," she says.
Toronto has a population of 2.48 million people, or 5.5 million in the greater Toronto area, and much of its development had been directed to the heart of the city. "We have built 177,000 units over the past 10 years and most of them have been in the core of the city, within two kilometres of the centre of the city," Keesmaat says.
And while the Baillieu government pushes for a new freeway connecting the Eastern Freeway and City Link, Keesmaat says Toronto has moved beyond arguments about freeways and is instead debating whether to build more light rail or more expensive subways.
"That is the transportation of the future," she says. "Creating environments where people can live and work and play all within walking distance . . . the ticket here is ensuring people can live where they work and the most ideal scenario is a quick transit [public transport] ride, or they can walk, or they can cycle."
Walking to a childcare centre from her house in the government-planned and developed Aurora estate is not an option for Cara Horner, who is angered by a planning model that allows developers to walk away after carving up paddocks for housing.
"I have to drive to childcare in Epping because there's not a childcare centre here yet," she says.
"Those guys are coming out here, buying land at such a cheap rate, making such a profit off it, it seems like they're the only people who are winning out of this."
Developers are obliged to contribute only a fraction of the cost of delivering new infrastructure. Since a growth area infrastructure tax was introduced in 2010, Melbourne developers have contributed $33.4 million.
The 3.5-kilometre South Morang rail extension alone, which included new stations and line upgrades, cost $562 million.
The state government's 20-minute city proposal is "a complete pipedream", says Carolyn Whitzman, associate professor in urban planning at Melbourne University.
"Whether Melbourne has 4 million or 6 million people, we're not travelling in a particularly equitable direction," she says. "I don't necessarily see population growth as a bad thing, it just has to be managed properly. Currently, we live in a socially divided and environmentally unsustainable city."
Ruth Spielman, National Growth Areas Alliance executive officer, says growth areas across the country share common problems and the concept of a "tale of two cities" applies in terms of poorer outcomes in education, access to jobs, unemployment and housing stress.
Horner says there is a wider story to Melbourne's crown as the world's most liveable city.
"Melbourne is liveable for people who can afford it, or those who are lucky enough to grow up in an area that has all that transport," she says. "For people on the fringes who have taken out 95 per cent mortgages, plus paying for petrol, it's killing them.
"It shouldn't be a 'them and us' thing in our city. We should all have equitable access; we all pay taxes and there should be better planning for that to occur."
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