Who lives in the city centre?

Key demographics, 2006 Census, Melbourne's Core and Inner City

There’s so much misinformation being put about lately regarding apartments and city centre living that I thought it would be timely to put some basic facts on the table. Fortuitously, I recently came across a paper by two academics from the School of Geography and Environmental Science at Monash University, Maryann Wullf and Michele Lobo, published in the journal Urban Policy and Research in 2009. It’s gated, but the tables I’ve assembled summarise most of the salient findings.

The authors examine the demographic profile of residents of Melbourne’s Core and Inner City in 2001 and 2006 and compare it against Melbourne as a whole i.e. the Melbourne Statistical Division (MSD). They characterise the Core as “new build” (60.6% of dwellings are apartments three storeys or higher) and the Inner City as “revitalised”.

The Core is defined as the CBD, Southbank, Docklands and the western portion of Port Phillip municipality i.e. Port Melbourne, South Melbourne and Middle Park. They define the Inner City as the rest of Port Phillip and Melbourne municipalities, plus Yarra and the Prahran part of Stonnington municipality. So what did they find? (but let me say from the outset that the implications and emphasis in what follows is my interpretation of the data, rather then necessarily theirs).

A key statistic is that the share of Melbourne’s total population who live in the Core is extremely small – just 1.7%. So however interesting the demography of the Core might be, it represents just a fraction of the bigger picture and accordingly we need to be very careful, I think, about assuming what goes on there reflects what the other 98.3% of Melburnians think, want or are doing. And the same goes for the Inner City, which has just 5.9% of the MSD population.

When the authors looked at the age profile of the Core they found it is astonishingly young. The proportion comprised of Young Singles and Young Childless Couples is an extraordinary 44.0%. The corresponding figure for Melbourne as a whole (i.e. the MSD) is 15.1%, or about a third the size. And just to emphasise the point of the previous para, note the Core has 26,486 persons in these two categories, whereas the MSD has 542,481.

Households in the Core also tend to be small with only 21.6% having children. In comparison, the MSD might as well be another country – the corresponding figure is 53.3%. Unfortunately the researchers don’t break down the large Young Singles group by household size, but given the predominance of apartments in the Core, it’s a fair bet they tend to live in one and two person households.

I expect it will surprise many to see that Mid-life Empty Nesters make up much the same proportion of the population in the Core (and Inner City) as they do in the MSD. They’re also a small group – they account for just 8.3% of the population of the Core and hence their impact on the demography of the city centre is really quite modest. Read the rest of this entry »

– Is the new Population Strategy…. strategic?

Hmmmm......so, this is the sort of useful guidance a real strategy provides?

There are two things the new population strategy the Federal Government released on Friday gets right. First, it dismisses the concept of a specific population target and instead focusses on making Australia more resilient to change (I’ve discussed this before). Second, it points out that population size is not the sole cause of problems like traffic congestion or lack of skilled labour.

But overall Sustainable Australia: Sustainable Communities is underwhelming. In fact whatever else this document might be, it’s not a strategy. ‘Strategy’ was originally a military term and refers to a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. Whereas tactics are concerned with the conduct of an engagement – how a battle should be fought – strategy is concerned with the terms and conditions that it is fought on and, crucially, whether it should be fought at all.

I expect a population strategy for Australia should be looking at the range of possibilities for where the country could go in the future; the warrant for different choices; the costs and the benefits; and the various implications and knock-on effects. It should assess whether we want to embark on any of them and, if we do, what is the best way forward.

Given how fundamental this issue is to the future of Australia I’d expect to see some pretty sophisticated analysis. There might even be some data, some numbers, some theory and even some analysis. I’d expect to see the economic issues laid out and analysed with rigour – maybe something like this. I’d expect to see immigration discussed in a meaningful way given that for practical purposes that’s the only aspect of population growth that we have much choice about. And I’d expect it to start with the strong likelihood that Australia will reach a population of 35 million around 2050 despite what governments do (I set out my expectations of the strategy 12 months ago).

What is offered up to us with this document is none of those things. It’s a lot of very high-level and inoffensive motherhood statements and ‘principles’, combined with a lengthy description of a vast range of existing Government programs, from health to skills development to the NBN. If I were uncharitable I’d describe it as vacuous. This quote typifies the tone:

A sustainable Australia is made up of sustainable communities: communities that are vibrant, liveable places that have a mix of affordable housing, employment opportunities, access to services, transport and natural amenity.

That’s fair enough as far as it goes but the trouble is it doesn’t even take us to the front gate. Population growth is a serious business for Australia – we need a discussion that is couched in concrete terms and a strategy like this should provide direction and leadership. Population policy is essentially about immigration because that’s the only variable that can practically be affected by government action. Most of the concern with growth is around the impact on the functioning of our cities. Yet the strategy devotes considerably more attention to talking up regional development than it does to examining immigration. Read the rest of this entry »

Can our cities get bigger (and remain liveable)?

The issue of decentralisation could be back on the table given the elevated significance of the three regionally-based independents*. I’ve previously argued (here and here) that there are big questions about the viability of decentralisation on a large scale, so today I want to look at whether or not our major cities can cope with more growth.

There was quite a bit of interest in the 60s and 70s around the idea of an efficient city size. The assumption that a point was reached where diseconomies of scale set in was part of the rationale for the failed decentralisation push of the Whitlam era.

There’s a better appreciation today that cities make structural adjustments in response to growth and may generate new economic advantages. There’s wide acceptance of the idea that productivity increases (modestly) as city size/density increases.

Australia’s major cities are certainly not bursting at the seams, notwithstanding residents’ concerns about issues like traffic congestion and housing affordability. Sydney is actually only the 80th largest city by population in the world and Melbourne the 87th. Many of the larger cities dwarf ours – Tokyo, for example, has more than nine times as many residents as Sydney. Read the rest of this entry »

Are Australia’s 1960s suburbs really “emptying out”?

This article at Club Troppo, We’re not full, has generated lots of interest on the net (e.g. here) because the writer argues that, contrary to what population growth opponents contend, Sydney is far from “bursting at the seams”.

The key evidence he offers is that many older suburbs that were settled in the 1960s and 70s, like Campbelltown, are losing population. This is largely because the children of those early settlers have grown up and left home, leaving mum and dad getting older and rattling around in a home with three or more bedrooms.

I completely agree that Sydney is not bursting at the seams, but regular readers of The Melbourne Urbanist will know instinctively that there’s more to this issue than meets the eye. These suburbs are not really “emptying out”. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Melbourne better today than it was in the sixties?

Little Collins St traffic 1960 (by FailingMemory)

I’ve previously discussed the argument advanced by the CEO of the Committee for Melbourne, Andrew Mcleod, that Melbourne can get better as it gets bigger.

Mr Mcleod has another interesting contention – he argues that Melbourne is unambiguously better and more liveable today than it was in 1960. Back then Melbourne had a population of around two million but now it has four million.

I have my doubts about the political wisdom of running that line but that’s neither here nor there – my primary interest is whether or not Mr Mcleod’s proposition makes sense.

I’ve no doubt the response of many people would be that housing in Melbourne is now less affordable than it was forty years ago and the roads and public transport are more congested. Some people also think it’s less safe, less equal and has a much larger per capita ecological footprint. For others, the footy lost something really important when the AFL was created.

On the other hand, many would argue that Melbourne is now more tolerant, more diverse and more exciting than it ever was. It’s now a city with a global profile, a better educated population and a vastly more sophisticated lifestyle. You can drive from the west to the south east fringe today entirely on freeway in under an hour in the off peak and you can take a train around the CBD. Read the rest of this entry »

Minister for Sustainable Population: What’s in a name?

The new Prime Minister’s minor renaming of the Population portfolio to Sustainable Population suggests there’s a political agenda in play and a new way of thinking about “big Australia”. The terms sustainability and population have been conflated so the Government can walk a new path through the “big Australia” and “boat people” minefields.

But what it’s also saying is that you can’t have one without the other – population growth and environmental sustainability have to be traded off. The two concepts are necessarily in conflict, always and forever.

Population distribution, Australia (www.worldmapper.org)

While that’s perhaps true in a narrow sense, it doesn’t follow that Geelong is necessarily more environmentally sustainable than Melbourne (according to the ACF it isn’t!) or that both have a lower environmental “footprint” than New York.

In fact despite its considerably larger size, New York is substantially more environmentally sustainable than Melbourne. Large concentrations of people provide economies of scale in, for example, the consumption of energy by favouring travel by public transport and smaller, attached dwellings. Bigger is often more environmentally sustainable.

Of course bigger cities also tend to produce larger negative externalities. But the main reason that size is often accompanied by problems like traffic congestion and unaffordable housing is the failure of political and policy systems. Read the rest of this entry »

Is a bigger Melbourne a better Melbourne?

The CEO of the Committee for Melbourne, Andrew Mcleod, advanced an interesting argument about the importance of growth when launching the Committee’s new report, Melbourne Beyond 5 Million, earlier this month.

He contended that Melbourne can get better as it gets bigger. His main argument is that Melbourne in 2010, with 4 million people, is double the size it was in 1960 and is, he says, unambiguously more liveable.

Big city - East Village, Manhattan

So is bigger better? I don’t think I have a definitive answer and I’m not even sure there is one, but I think it’s useful in light of the high population growth projected for Melbourne to canvass some of the issues.

The fear many people have is that a bigger Melbourne will mean housing is less affordable and roads and public transport more congested. Some people also think it would be less safe, less equal and have a much larger per capita ecological footprint.

But there are advantages in getting bigger. Larger cities are usually denser and have a lower ecological footprint than smaller cities. There is also an extensive literature showing that the productivity of cities increases with population.

There are different opinions on the underlying reasons but many observers, like Harvard’s Professor Edward Glaeser, think that big cities enable people to connect and learn from one another. They tend to be more diverse and offer greater specialisation in work, consumption, socialising and ideas.

There are more than thirty cities in the OECD countries alone that have a larger population than Melbourne. They must be doing something right if people want to live in them. For all the complaints made about Los Angeles, many more people seem to want to live there than in Melbourne. Many talented Australians aspire to move to LA to work in specialised industries like entertainment, higher education and technology. Read the rest of this entry »