Study outlines challenges, opportunities for a ‘bigger Australia’

Published 03 August 2011

argentA new analysis of the implications of Australia’s projected population growth over the next four decades emphasises the urgent need for strategic investment in economic and social infrastructure – in the context of climate change – to ensure that a “bigger Australia” is also sustainable.

“While projected growth rates [for the major cities] are no greater than in the 1960s and 1970s,” the study says, “the context has profoundly shifted to one of global economic uncertainty, climate change, and intense resources constraints.”

Published this week in the international journal Geographical Research, the study – “Population growth and change: Implications for Australia’s cities and regions” – is by the geographers Professor Pauline McGuirk from the University of Newcastle and Associate Professor Neil Argent from the University of New England.

“Environmental and resource constraint is interwoven into all other aspects of urban population growth,” the authors say, pointing out that “all Australia’s major cities are located in areas of climate change-induced rainfall declines, with further reductions of uncertain magnitude predicted in coming decades”.

They report that 72 per cent of Australia’s predicted population growth (which will bring the total population to more than 35 million by 2050) is expected to be captured by the capital cities,

Without significant technological and behavioural adaptation, they say, cities’ growth will not be sustainable. “Water-efficient appliances and water-sensitive design can simultaneously reduce demand and enable rainwater catchment such that per capita consumption in the capital cities is expected to remain stable or marginally decline,” they report, adding that higher-density urban development could reduce water consumption “optimistically by 30-50 percent”.

“One of the key messages of our paper is that rapid population growth presents opportunities as well as challenges,” said Dr Argent (pictured here), an Associate Professor in the Division of Geography and Planning at UNE. “There will be real opportunities to harness research strengths – including those at UNE – to develop a more sustainable approach to population and economic growth.”

Dr Argent pointed out that improved transport and communication infrastructure were helping to break down a long-standing “metropolitan/rural dichotomy” in Australia. “Some of the fastest-growing centres are based in the regions – while having strong connections to major cities,” he said.

The study examines such new trends in population distribution, including “the emergence of peri-urban zones of mixed urban and rural land uses, reaching 100 km from the major cities’ centres”. “Four such mega-metro regions are in formation and have been adding population at well above the national average,” it says. These regions are centred on Sydney (Newcastle – Sydney – Wollongong), Melbourne (Geelong – Melbourne – Mornington Peninsula), Perth (Wanneroo – Perth – Mandurah) and Brisbane (Sunshine Coast – Brisbane – Gold Coast).

In discussing the Federal/NSW Government-funded “EVOcities” program, aimed at attracting Sydney residents to relocate to Albury, Armidale, Bathurst, Dubbo, Orange, Tamworth and Wagga Wagga, the study emphasises the importance of providing key infrastructure – including broadband connection – to meet demands. “Population growth is critical in this regard,” Dr Argent said. “Additional resources are more likely to be provided if more people are using the available services.”