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Feb 20, 2017

Will population growth ruin a city's liveability?

Population growth brings risks and will change the character of a city like Melbourne if it continues, but it's more likely to make it a better place for most residents


Corner King and Collins St, Melbourne, 1916

The Age’s state politics editor, Josh Gordon, reckons Melbourne is growing at an unsustainable rate (Five reasons Melbourne is no longer the world’s most liveable city). It’s “by and large a decent place”, he says, but nevertheless:

Melbourne has become badly complacent, coasting on a tired major events schedule, an ageing, overburdened public transport network, and misleading labels such as ‘the world’s most liveable city’.

He offers five reasons why Melbourne “no longer deserves the title” of the world’s most liveable city:

  1. (Traffic congestion) is growing at an unsustainable pace.
  2. Crime is rising rapidly.
  3. Housing affordability has plummeted.
  4. Many state schools are struggling to cope with demand.
  5. Victoria’s environment has deteriorated.

But in the writer’s view these are essentially symptoms; the key issue he identifies is population growth. He finishes by saying:

(Melbourne) is also just another big city that is rapidly getting bigger, more expensive, more troubled. Underpinning many of these problems are unsustainable rates of population growth. Unless we wake up to this, our problems will only continue to grow.


Mr Gordon doesn’t provide much evidence or analysis to support his claims; nevertheless, I accept they’re all important and relevant issues, although some of them – like plummeting housing affordability – are in large part due to factors that affect all of Australia’s capital cities (e.g. federal taxation policy and failure to fund public housing) and many international peer cities.

A key problem with the article is the set-up; the “world’s most liveable city” gong is a straw man. While the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) ranking has many relevant metrics, they’re combined purpose isn’t to measure liveability for permanent residents. As the writer and The Age well know, it describes liveability for expatriate business executives on temporary assignments. Politicians and the media love it of course, but the city’s paper of record should be actively correcting the “world’s most liveable city” myth, not perpetuating it. Melbourne’s a great place to settle permanently in my view, but I haven’t seen any convincing evidence it’s the best of the best (see Is the EIU’s Worlds’s Most Liveable City gong rubbish?).

Another problem is the five “reasons” aren’t put in any context. Given the set-up is to show Melbourne is slipping compared to its peer cities, it’s not very useful to say “crime is rising rapidly” without showing how Melbourne fares against comparable cities. We can be confident that housing affordability is low by international standards (although considerably better than in some other high-ranking EIU cities), but is over-crowding in state schools significantly worse? Do Melburnians spend a lot more time on the road? Are they desecrating their environment more wilfully than Sydneysiders, Vancouverites, or Aucklanders? Interestingly, Melbourne scores very highly on education and the environment in the EIU’s metrics.

The nub of Mr Gordon’s complaint though is unsustainable population growth. The term “unsustainable” is potent, but it’s misused in this context. Melbourne can easily keep growing; there are around 100 cities in the world with a larger population than Melbourne and about 40 with double its population. Sure, immigration-fuelled growth brings short-terms problems and makes some residents worse off; but the evidence seems to be that in the longer run the average resident is better off. The challenges are largely political e.g. investing in infrastructure, but mostly using what we’ve already got more efficiently.

The implicit assumption that rapid growth means a significant loss of liveability overlooks the reality that cities adapt to the forces driving growth e.g. residents change the location of their job and/or dwelling, or they change how they travel (see Will Sydney and Melbourne implode as they get bigger and bigger?). For example, Mr Gordon complains it currently takes more than an hour to drive from outer suburban Epping to the city centre in peak hour; and he estimates by 2037 it will take an extra 45 minutes! But residents will adapt by taking the train to the city centre rather than driving; in fact they already can and mostly do! Improvements made over the last 20 years and initiatives currently underway mean train travel from Epping in the future should be more reliable, more frequent, more connected and possibly even faster than it is at present (see What’s government done to make public transport better?).


Mr Gordon rightly identifies some of the issues that need to be addressed, especially by all levels of government, if Melbourne is to continue to grow at its current high rate (which is by no means certain) and remain an attractive place to live. Like every other city, there are good things and bad things about Melbourne and they vary considerably with who’s doing the residing. But Melbourne is growing because notwithstanding its imperfections, it’s nevertheless doing a lot of things right (also see What’s Melbourne good at?). If it continues, growth will undoubtedly change Melbourne in positive and negative ways but I expect there’ll be more winners than losers. The public will continue to have a key role in keeping the pressure on governments to manage change effectively.


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17 thoughts on “Will population growth ruin a city’s liveability?

  1. Woopwoop

    A story of development:
    1. Past: The school my children attended in inner Melbourne had huge grounds which children revelled in.
    2. Present: The same school now has new classrooms covering much of the playground.
    3. Future: A primary school I heard of in Hong Kong, where children sit at their desks all day, including all lunchtime, because of… population density.
    Is this what we want?

    1. Alan Davies

      Interestingly, many of those inner city schools have no more pupils now, or in some cases less, than they had in their heydey e.g. pre war. The big change is much smaller class sizes; but now it’s understood that within wide limits class size doesn’t have a big impact on pupil performance or welfare. Anyway, the problem is one of investment in appropriate facilities. Playground space probably will still be less than in the past or in the outer suburbs but the benefits of density come at a price; high cost of space and congestion.

  2. Madmeg

    They look like perfectly good reasons to me. Higher population does put pressure on the environment and services. You state that commuting will be quicker because people will take the train. Are anymore train lines being planned? How can you just shove more people on existing services and expect to be a faster commute? If the increase in Melbourne’s population were to be managed sustainably then land would be being purchased now to build the infrastructure required. I suspect it’s more likely a developer fuelled free for as to who can build the most units in the shortest amount of time and existing residents can suck it up.
    Your reasoning that you just expect there will be more winners than losers, what does that mean? How? Will they be Chinese investors? And why don’t existing residents get to have a say in how their city grows? Maybe they like it the way it is.

  3. Susan Bowes

    Melbourne’s population is increasing faster than any other developed city in the world. Who wants it? Not most of the residents, as they are all trying to protect what they love about their neighbourhood. The root cause of overdevelopment, housing unaffordability, overloaded schools / hospitals / roads / public transport, environmental degradation, etc is Melbourne’s rapid population growth, fed by high immigration of 200,000 per year.

    Just like politicians, media has been hijacked by vested interests in the property industry. Property industry spokespeople, such as Alan Davies never question growth.

    We need a better quality of life, not a bigger population.

    1. Alan Davies

      Susan, I’m not a “property industry spokesperson” and I have no financial connection with the industry.

      Contrary to your assertion, I do “question growth”; but I come to a different conclusion to yours, as indicated in the article.

      1. Madmeg

        So what does Pollard Davies Consulting consult on? Who do you work for?

        1. Alan Davies

          Nothing connected to what I’ve written here

      2. Susan Bowes

        Not a vested interest in the property industry Alan? The ‘Urbanist’ has a nice neutral name, but sounds perhaps like a population growth lobby group. I.e. property developers looking to profiteer from population growth, whilst ordinary citizens pick up the tab and state/federal governments go broke picking up the infrastructure costs.

        1. Guest

          So if the development was non-profit (i.e. mass housing commission etc) you would drop all opposition to expansion proposals, or was the mention of profit just included to put people off?

      3. Woopwoop

        Actually Alan, you don’t actually say what the positive side of population growth is, you just try to negate criticism.

        1. Alan Davies

          Mea culpa, but it’s the status quo position; there’s a mountain of research on the topic that comes down, on balance, on the side of growth generally and immigration particularly e.g. see:


  4. Mark Allen

    As a sustainable planner I am interested in how changes in population growth fit in with climate targets, biodiversity, infrastructure targets and the urgent need to create socially and environmentally resilient neighbourhoods that will adapt well to a low carbon economy. So how is Melbourne faring?

    Well the answer is not too good. Increasing densities to slow urban sprawl has been a complete failure. We are left with a legacy of mostly low quality one bedroomed apartments aimed at investors that has done nothing to ease sprawl and if anything has added to it by pricing people on low incomes out of the inner suburbs through the skyrocketing land values that occur when land is zoned for subdivision. Urban consolidation without affordable housing is greenwash, it is even more serious greenwash when the majority of these buildings are designed to only have a short shelf life. So naturally urban sprawl is increasing.

    Setting aside the huge carbon emissions involved in growing our population (which to be frank is mostly about maintaining GDP based around property speculation), urban sprawl is the worst thing that we can be doing from a climate perspective. Sure, a few developments on the fringe have some token medium density, public transport orientated development but the vast majority is car dependent, which ensures that not only do we lock future generations into high carbon living but we are also creating longer and longer food miles as Melbourne’s food bowl continues to dwindle. Then there is the biodiversity impact……

    So yes we have to change the planning system but we also have to lower our population growth because the two are intertwined. It is because of our ‘inevitable’ population growth that much of this substandard development is being justified. Even if we were to change the system to something that wouldn’t look out of place in somewhere like Scandinavia, our population would still have to slow because the kind of sustainable neighbourhoods we need to build (either on brown field sites in the existing metropolitan area or as green field sites on the fringe) take time. For example the proposed new suburb of Wollert (complete with five schools)on Melbourne’s fringe will accommodate less than six months worth of Melbourne’s population growth yet will take ten years to complete.

    Assuming that we could accommodate as many as 60,000 more people a year through well planned/well designed development within the existing metropolitan area (which is unlikely) then we would still need to build a new one of these suburbs (or the equivalent thereof) every year in perpetuity in order to keep up with Melbourne’s current rate of growth. It won’t happen. What will happen is that ALOT of car dependent housing estates will make up the shortfall as is happening now. Our population policy needs to be less about growing the population for GDP purposes and more about creating a compassionate multicultural society and this includes creating socially vibrant, walkable neighbourhoods. It should also be about doing the same abroad through proactive foreign aid (as that would ultimately benefit more people) rather than spending the billions required in infrastructure costs on a population ponzi scheme.

    1. Madmeg

      You said it so well Mark

    2. Guest

      It is not a surprise that suburbs are car dependant when established built-up areas all reject new development and get all NIMBY when more people want to move in.

  5. Guest

    “Unsustainable” well, what does that mean nowadays. Today it is used on anything and everything that one does not agree with. A byword for “I don’t like it.”

    Melbourne’s population growth is something like 2%, that is hardly “rapid”. The “Australia is full” argument anti-population growth proponents often make also does not hold – just go through a list of cities and towns asking if they are “full”. If Australia is full, is Bendigo full too? What about Broome? Armidale? Alice Springs? Not space for even 1 more person?

    One only has to look at a country like Germany, which has a population of 80 million – four times that of Australia – to see that the sky most certainly won’t fall down, either economically, socially or environmentally.

    Australian Cities are some of the least dense and the most land-wasting in the world. If Melbourne adopted densities similar to say Barcelona, you could easily triple or quadruple the population if you really wanted to. Melbourne in particular has much vacant land west for the city to sprawl further if need be.

    Indeed, the empty area enclosed by Geelong -Bacchus Marsh-Caroline Springs- Werribee is about 1000 km2. This is 100,000 hectares of land, and at 30 dwellings/ha that is potentially space for around 3 million additional homes. If we assume 2 people per home, around six million extra people could be housed in Melbourne. And that is before we have even considered high density infill.

    1. Madmeg

      The whole world is full. Every nation has to play their part in curbing population growth. Australia is mostly desert and our environment is already straining to cope with the current population. Most of our bird and marsupial species are struggling to survive.


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