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Regional population growth – are we ready?

The economics of alternative Australian settlement patterns
Cities and towns Regional planning Regional economics Population density Population forecasting Australia

Regional Australia is changing, and with this transformation comes boundless opportunities to rethink what regional Australia will look like in the future and how we want to shape our country as a whole.

This report addresses key issues fundamental to our future settlement patterns that challenge decision-makers to prioritise regional Australia and divert future growth to connected regional cities. Policies which seek to encourage population movement to regional centres would be instrumental in the transformation of regional Australia.

Australia is on track for substantial population growth in the coming decades, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) forecasting growth of up to 19 million additional people by 2056 – a 75 per cent increase.

If we continue with current geographic patterns of settlement, most of our future population will reside in our major capital cities, while regional areas will experience only modest levels of growth. These patterns reflect global trends towards increasing urbanisation and employment growth in city-based service industries. As a result, Sydney and Melbourne will approach global megacity status, with populations of 9.3 million and 10.2 million, respectively. Brisbane and Perth are projected to grow to the scale of Sydney and Melbourne today.

While we celebrate the wealth and success of our globally connected inner cities, current urban planning will see most future population growth in the outer suburbs. In Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, the outer suburban population is projected to more than double. In Brisbane, the outer suburban population is projected to nearly triple.

Rapid urban population growth creates challenges that are already clear to residents in the outer suburbs of our major cities. High house prices paid by average wages and rising congestion have already emerged as key points of debate as we consider the population growth to come.

Australia’s megacity future will emerge if we follow this business as usual scenario, but in reality, our future settlement patterns and population growth are far from fixed. Australia has alternatives. However, public debate and planning have paid limited attention to the role regional Australia can play. The Regional Australia Institute’s (RAI’s) National Population Plan for Regional Australia was developed to highlight the role of regional Australia.

This report looks at the economic consequences of alternative future population scenarios to better inform the conversation about our future growth. The research, conducted in conjunction with the University of South Australia, included investigating a set of regionally distributed population growth scenarios for Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, along with analysis of the scale of agglomeration economies available to Australian cities. The scenarios test the effectiveness of alternative settlement patterns for relieving commuting and house price pressures, and whether this relief would come at a big cost to future incomes and employment opportunities.

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