Withrop Professor Richard Weller, author of Boomtown 2050, was a keynote presenter at the 2010 Conference in Canberra.
Australia has always been growing rapidly. But whereas in the past this was associated with progress, now its being associated with crisis. Nothing can grow forever. While scientists have largely given up on finding a precise carrying capacity for this big brown land, CSIRO in 2002, concluded that Australia could sustain 50 million people; that is, 50 million leading what was referred to as a “moderate lifestyle”. I don’t know about you but my lifestyle doesn’t strike me as particularly moderate.
Australians have one of the highest ecological footprints on the planet. That means it takes 5 times as much stuff to sustain one Australian as it does the average world citizen. To put it another way, if everyone lived the way we do we’d need 5 earths to plunder. So who’s going to tell the Chinese, the Indians and the Africans that they can’t have what we take for granted? The biggest issue this century will be all about how to lift billions of people out of poverty and do so with just one planet.
The global population is predicted to stabilize mid century at around 9.5 billion people. In that context Australia’s predicted growth from 22 million to 35 or even 50 million people appears relatively trivial. But of course, it isn’t. For the population to double in just 4 decades means enormous development. Although the Rudd Government made a start, there remains no coordinated, national planning for this kind of growth. And while Australia feels like a big country remember that only 10 per-cent of it is arable. It’s also the driest place on earth so not exactly the best place to be as climate change kicks in. Australia can feed 50 million people, but only just.
The other limitation to growth is cultural, not environmental. Australians are used to a certain quality of life and a big part of this is a sense of spaciousness in our residential areas. And what makes population growth now different to any other time in our history is that for the first time our cities are evidently struggling to cope. In Sydney people are pushing each other off the pavements and services are collapsing. Brisbane’s laid back lifestyle is a fading memory as it morphs into 200 kilometers of suburbia that blurs the Gold Coast into the Sunshine Coast. Melbourne’s urban growth boundary has snapped and the flood gates for massive new tracts of suburbia have opened.
And here in Perth we can barely imagine what it would be like to become a city of 4 million by mid-century. Perth is already the most sprawled city on earth. How much further can it spread out and what form of transport will hold it all together? Alternatively, try as they might planners meet strong resistance to increased density. This will change over time but the prerequisite is that planners show us how increased density can make a better city, not just a more crowded city. My own view is that places like Perth have great opportunities for densification, if well designed. That said, its hard to imagine that all of Australia’s existing capital cities and regional centers can absorb an extra 20-30 million people and no politician in their right mind is going to say they should. So what do to?
I think that along with increasing the density of our existing urban areas we should also look for opportune places for entirely new settlements. A major new city in the north-west of Australia is a compelling idea, so too is a mosaic of new towns throughout the Swan coastal plain from Geraldton to Dunsborough. Similarly there is scope for new settlements along a corridor linking Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. And I don’t mean just bulldozing our way forward. Those days are over. I mean well designed urbanism based on innovative technologies that are adapted to our fragile landscape and the environmental limits of the 21st century.
Withrop Professor Richard Weller, author of Boomtown 2050, UWA Press.