Here's how Australia's cities have grown over the last 30 years

More than any other Australian city, Melbourne has led a 30-year turnaround in inner-city density (red indicates increases and blue decreases in density as persons per square kilometre). Image: author provided.

Since settlement, Australian cities have been shaped and reshaped by history, infrastructure, natural landscapes and – importantly – policy.

So, have our cities changed much in the last 30 years? Have consolidation policies had any effect? Have we contained sprawl? Yes, probably and maybe, according to our newly published research.

Reviving the centre

The great Australian baby boomer dream of home ownership caused our cities to spread out during the second half of the 20th century. Urban fringes expanded with affordable land releases, large residential blocks and cheap private transport.

By the 1980s, across Australia’s cities, the urban fringes were ever-expanding. Inner areas had become sparsely populated “doughnut cities”.

By the end of that decade urban researchers, planners, geographers and economists began to warn of looming environmental, social and housing affordability problems due to unrestrained sprawling growth.


Governments responded swiftly, focusing policy attention on urban consolidation through programs such as Greenstreet and Building Better Cities. Concerned individuals formed groups such as Smart Growth and New Urbanism to promote inner-city development and increased urban density.

Since this time, large- and small-scale policy interventions have attempted to repopulate the inner- and middle-urban areas. The common policy goal has been to encourage more compact, less sprawling cities. Subdivision, dual occupancy, infill development, smaller block sizes, inner-city apartments and the repurposing of non-residential buildings have all been used.

Mapping the changes

In a newly published paper, we map the changing shape of Australia’s five largest mainland cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide) from 1981 to 2011.

Across each of these cities, which together are home to 60 per cent of Australians, there has been substantial, suburbanisation and re-urbanisation. In the last 20 years this has resulted in a repopulation of inner cities.

In Melbourne’s case, the return to the inner city has been particularly pronounced in the last decade. Here, the population jumped from around 3,000 to 4,000 people per km². The extent of this change is visualised in the chart below.

Melbourne may well be the exemplar for inner-city rebirth. More than any other Australian city it demonstrates the 30-year turnaround from inner-city decline to densification.

Between 1981 and 1991 Melbourne became a classic “doughnut city”: population declining in inner areas, density increasing in the middle-ring suburbs, and growth steady in the outer suburbs. For example, in the inner 5km ring there was a decrease during this time of almost 200 people per km².

From 1991 to 2001, even though growth was still focused on the middle and outer areas, the inner area began to be repopulated. Overall, between 1981 and 2011 there were approximately 1,500 more people per square kilometre living in the inner 5km ring.

Over the last decade, greenfield development, infill and urban regeneration have increased urban density throughout Melbourne – as shown in the five-yearly map animation below.

Changes in Melbourne population density (persons/km² over the 30 years to 2011: red is increasing, blue is decreasing). Image: author provided.

While the turnarounds in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth have been less marked than in Melbourne, they are all no longer “doughnut cities”. This means that where people live in these cities has changed.

Australia’s cities are now more densely populated – and we are much more likely to live in inner areas than we were 30 years ago.

A result of government policy?

We can probably attribute the changes in where urban Australians live to government consolidation policies.

The policy focus throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s was based on incentives to repopulate inner and middle areas.

Policies were changed from 2000 to increase population density across whole metropolitan areas. State and territory strategic plans aimed to promote urban consolidation, with a focus on the inner city.

State and territory plans now focus much more on specific zones throughout the whole of the city, including former industrial areas and surplus government land. New housing development occurs within these defined zones, particularly around transport and areas with urban-renewal potential.

South Australia’s 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide targets growth in “current urban lands”, along major transport corridors and hubs. Similarly, the Plan Melbourne – Metropolitan Planning Strategy plans to establish the “20-minute neighbourhood”, contain new housing within existing urban boundaries, and focus development in new urban renewal precincts.

The map visualisations reinforce the scale of this absolute growth across each of the five major Australian cities over the last 30 years.

Have we contained sprawl?

Our research would suggest urban-consolidation policies have slowed but not prevented sprawl, especially in the faster-growing cities like Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Sydney.

So, have we reached the point at which our cities are full? How can we accommodate future population growth? And do we need to focus our attention on new urban areas?

Containing and, more importantly, controlling sprawl may present the next big challenge.

Neil Coffee is a senior research fellow in health geography at the University of South AustraliaEmma Baker is associate professor at the School of Architecture and Built Environment, and Jarrod Lange a senior research consultant (GIS) in the Hugo Centre for Migration and Population Research, at the University of Adelaide.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Two of the graphics in this article were updated to clarify that population density changes were shown in persons per square kilometre, consistent with the measure used in the text.The Conversation

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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