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.