Australia is one of the least densely populated nations in the world and yet, according to the Australia Talks National Survey 2021, 35 per cent of Australians say the population is getting too big for the country to handle.

Those living outside inner-metro areas, including regional and rural residents, are most likely to agree.

Some of their concerns about a booming population, particularly in cities, centre on the environmental impact of population density.

But that’s the wrong way to look at it, according to Tim Soutphommasane, sociology and political theory professor at the University of Sydney.

“Some of the greenest cities in the world are much denser than what our cities at the moment are,” he tells ABC RN’s Life Matters. 

He points out that low-density cities like Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane are less sustainable as a consequence of urban sprawl.

Professor Tim Soutphommasane, wearing a suit, poses for a photo in what looks like the hall of a sandstone university
Professor Tim Soutphommasane says having denser populations in cities can actually make a positive contribution to some environmental problems.(

ABC News: Stephanie Dalzell

)

“Right now, we have cities that are not fit … for purpose when we’re talking about adjusting to things like climate change,” Professor Soutphommasane says.

“Having denser populations, which compress people into a smaller space, can actually make a positive contribution to some of the environmental problems.”

With ABS forecasts suggesting the Australian population could double by 2066, denser cities are inevitable. So how can we make sure we get them right?

How dense should our cities be?

Experts say Australia is more than capable of shouldering this population boom — if we get the planning right.

“Australian cities have an average density of 15 dwellings per hectare of land,” Professor Billie Giles-Corti, from RMIT University’s Centre for Urban Research, says.

“By international standards, that’s extraordinarily low. We have some of the lowest densities globally and some of the biggest houses. This is not sustainable,” she says.

A suburban neighbourhood butts on to the coast, with lush green highlands in the background
Suburban sprawl is bad news for the environment because of increased car emissions.(

ABC News: Gian De Poloni

)

Thami Croeser, also from the Centre for Urban Research, agrees. He calls for a “consistently medium” approach to urban planning.

“Many people feel that we are already too big because of their experience of cities: congestion, crowded footpaths, unattractive high-rise developments and expensive property,” he says.

“They are right to be upset but the problem is not crowding or growth — it’s that we’re managing it really poorly in our cities. The challenge is to manage the [population] better.”

Mr Croeser says we still have a way to go.

Melbourne, for example, “has put massive amounts of high-rise density in the middle of the city and almost none elsewhere. Our suburbs are very spread out and often heavily car-dependent”, he says.

Towers dotted with windows and balconies rise into the sky.
The centre of Melbourne is full of high-density apartments, while the suburbs are spread out and often car-dependent.(

ABC News: Michael Barnett

)

Suburban sprawl is bad news for the environment because of increased car emissions.

“When land use is this spread out, services are sparse and public transport isn’t often in easy walking distance,” Mr Croeser says.

He says vehicle transport is one of Australia’s biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The challenge is to get it much more evenly spread because even just three or four-storey developments, when spread consistently across large parts of a city, can provide impressive amounts of accommodation and make it much easier to support public transport,” he says.

What is the ‘right’ density?

A view of the grid of Barcelona in Spain taken at sunset
Barcelona is around four times as dense as Melbourne, yet careful planning has made it a liveable city.(

Unsplash: Logan Armstrong

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“The good news is that denser cities can be very pleasant,” Mr Croeser says.

He points to some European cities as good examples.

“Many of the places Australians go for holidays are much denser than Melbourne. Paris is about five times as dense and Barcelona is nearly four.”

“We need to put the right density in the right places,” Professor Giles-Corti adds. 

These communal areas, including playgrounds, outdoor dining and sports facilities, are also important to combat another consequence of “bad density” – loneliness, says Professor Giles-Corti.

“Developers also need to think about opportunities for selective interaction.”

Mr Croeser agrees.

“If we have buzzing public spaces that are inviting for people to spend time in, we give people a chance to have encounters with their fellow citizens,” he says.

“This doesn’t mean that we should all live in apartments,” says Professor Giles-Corti, “but rather [in] a mix of concentrated well-designed housing, what I like to call delightful, liveable density.”

The Australia Talks National Survey asked 60,000 Australians about their lives and what keeps them up at night. Use our interactive tool to see the results and how your answers compare.

Then tune in at 8:00pm on Monday June 21 to watch hosts Annabel Crabb and Nazeem Hussain take you through the key findings and explore the survey with some of Australia’s best-loved celebrities.

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