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

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.