We’re not full

Shrinking suburbs in growing cities

"Lunchtime midweek in Campbelltown’s main street in the heart of western Sydney is a slow-moving affair", writes the Australian’s Jennifer Hewett. "Cars drive in and out of the one-way street at a leisurely pace. Business is not exactly booming in most of the small, tired-looking shops. There’s plenty of room on the footpath for pedestrians."

And it’s not surprising there’s plenty of room in Campbelltown. Between 2001 and 2006 , the population of the Campbelltown LGA fell by 2.1% — a net loss of 3,019 people.

As the map below shows, many areas of Sydney experienced population decline between 2001 and 2006 (pdf). Some of the booming new suburbs of the 60s and 70s are slowly emptying out. While the children have grown up and moved on many of their parents have stayed behind. And when these empty nesters own their own home, there is little incentive to move. To pick just one example, between 2001 and 2006, Sutherland Shire added 2,494 new dwellings but failed to arrest the decline in population. With fewer people in each home, the number of residents fell by 1,015 (pdf).

A declining population can go hand in hand with rising house prices. But with fewer residents and more of them on aged pensions, local shops will struggle. Planners in areas like Fairfield and Sutherland worry about the future viability of smaller retailers. A 2008 strategy paper prepared for Sutherland Shire Council reported:

… the negative growth rate of 0.15% represents a population that is stagnant. The lack of growth will have long term adverse consequences for Sutherland Shire. This suggests a difficult future for retailers in the smaller centres of the Shire, particularly given that Westfield Miranda also has the capacity to expand by 25% and it is expected to pursue this potential. Without growth, the local business community will not be able to compete against the strength of the largest retailers (pdf).

Not everyone is worried. Some argue that renewal is just a matter of time. A report prepared by the Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development explains:

With household sizes diminishing as a result of this out-movement of young adults, such suburbs experience population decrease. Over time such suburbs will see an ageing and dying off of older populations and a renewal as new households move into the area (pdf).

With so much of our urban space devoted to low density housing, Australia’s population debate seems surreal. Even inner suburban LGAs like Leichhardt are less densly populated than they were at the end of the 1960s. Leichhardt’s population may have increased since 2001 but the population was higher in 1971 than it was in 2001 (pdf).

Columnists like Andrew Bolt say that our cities "bursting at the seams" but even he knows that the problem isn’t too many people in too little space. The real problem is that we don’t have the planning and infrastructure we need to make our cities work.

Simply releasing more land on the fringe will dump more traffic onto already congested roads. And allowing yesterday’s greenfield developments to decay into underpopulated greyfields will see local shopping centres giving way to larger more distant shopping malls and even more traffic. Free parking might not last too much longer.

In time, the new suburbs on the fringe will go into decline. But if travel to work times rise and petrol becomes more expensive, some may never undergo renewal. In the Atlantic Christopher Leinberger warned that America’s outer suburbs may become the new slums. There’s a risk that some of our new suburbs will too.

Update: Alan Davies at the Melbourne Urbanist explains what’s behind low population densities in ‘ageing donut’ suburbs. There’s very little to disagree with in Davies post.

Davies rightly insists that most older residents do not want to move: "They value their proximity to friends and family and they value familiarity with their home and neighbourhood." And while some policy makers might think that older people are ‘over-consuming’ housing, few older people worry about having too much space.

Of course it’s not impossible for people to stay in the same neighbourhoods and downsize if suitable higher density housing is available. But as as Davies points out, this option often isn’t available or is unaffordable.

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9 Responses to We’re not full

  1. conrad says:

    Another reason that your observations are important is that they highlight why just cutting immigration won’t work in terms of the housing market — because if you cut all the “non-skilled” groups, you are still left with skilled groups who I imagine are bringing a fair bit of the hot money in that is likely to push up prices in the places people actually want to live, and those are also the groups likely to be wealthy enough not to have to live with lots of other people (unlike the poorer non-skilled groups).

  2. derrida derider says:

    Of course population growth is Good for Business – and conversely lack of it is bad for business. Given the slowness of the adjustment, though, I don’t reckon we should be setting our population policy around business’ – even small business’ – needs though.

    The argument is never that Sydney is overcrowded in any absolute sense, just that it is overcrowded relative to the lifestyle and institutions that people want. Sydney has proved incapable of getting its planning and infrastructure shit together well enough to cope with the constraints geography puts on it. Unless and until it does then any population decline is a blessed relief.

  3. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thx Don,

    You’ve provided another reason it amazes me that the ALP in both the Fed and State level don’t work on a political project that would enable them to make urban infrastructure the issue. They should commission some worthy to define a responsible lending policy and advise them to establish some independent body to oversee the responsibility of their fiscal policy and their investments in infrastructure and roll out new infrastructure spending of $50-100 billion or so across the country.

    When the Opposition accused them of increasing debt they could point both to their operating surpluses, the reports of the independent agency and the value of their investments (many of which would be privatisable and have market values well above their cost) and to the fact that their debt was still very low by world standards.

    But that would just be the beginning. Then they could point to all the infrastructure, all the projects and say ‘so you wouldn’t build that train line, that bridge that overpass, those rolling stock and so on and on.

    It would be all over. But here we are clinging to the local (24 hour) optimum. Sad really.

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  5. Marilyn Shepherd says:

    Anyone with a brain knows the whole thing was only ever about legitimising kicking around a few thousand refugees.

  6. William Hinds says:

    Campbelltown………I left their in 1969 and havent been back, all you young people who wanto make a go of your life and have something to show for it……..i suggest you get out and move to WA, where you can have more jobs and a stable life and own a home
    Get out while you can and leave the Place to the dregs of society who have made it for what it is, “NOW”.

    Cheers for now………….William Hinds.

  7. Kim Linden says:

    I totally agree with Marilyn Shepherd. I must say having come from Campbelltown I would feel seriously sorry for any migrants suffering through living there, as indeed my parents did. It was and is a horrible place. It’s serious low density is part of the source of the problem. It lacks services public transport and, as others have said, infrastructure generally. It never had any industrial base (apart from crap industrial areas at Blaxland Road) and lacked the development of an old traditional working class base based in the town itself. Everyone commuted ages for any job they could get, if they hung around. Sensible people left and obviously continue to leave. It was a poor commuter suburb, the poor relation of Gosford to the north. The only thing improved there since I grew up there is the increased diveristy of the population. But how ripped off that population is!Yes if they totally replan Campbelltown maybe, just maybe, people would really want to live there….out of choice, not just because of affordable rents.

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