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Jul 3, 2017

Is immigration ruining our cities?

The Age ran a set of stories on the weekend geared around the idea that immigration-fuelled population growth is seriously damaging Melbourne’s “celebrated liveability”

Estimated Resident Population, Victoria and major regions 1971 to 2051 (source: Victoria In Future 2016)

Following the Sun Herald’s Future Melbourne series last month, Fairfax journalists Royce Millar and Ben Schneiders looked at population growth on Saturday and asked if Melburnians are “sacrificing the very things that made Melbourne a destination for so many in the first place?” (see How big is too big for liveable Melbourne?):

Beyond Spring Street a consensus is developing that we need something transformative in planning and transport to cope. The alternative is to ease the pressure, and that means slowing immigration. It’s a no go subject for many in the political class. But not for many Melburnians who are beginning to ask: how real are the benefits of this level of growth and how sustainable is it?

It’s a long and well written article that if anything tries to cover too much, but the key propositions seem to be:

  • Melbourne is losing its liveability under the pressure of population growth
  • property-related activity fuelled by immigration is the State’s de facto economic strategy
  • It’s time to turn down the immigration tap.

It’s good to see The Age engaging directly in a debate about the appropriate level of immigration. It’s obviously an important public policy issue but too often sensible discussion is derailed by knee-jerk accusations of xenophobia or racism. That element will inevitably be present, but it shouldn’t be a reason to avoid debate.

But there are more than a few propositions in the article – some of them attributed to interviewees – that range from the doubtful to the arguable. For example:

  • The idea that Melbourne Metro is a lot of money for “not a lot of track”. Wrong; Metro is about increasing capacity and reliability of the entire system. It’s like building the foundations of a building; not visible, but essential. A similar point could be made about the removal of level crossings and upgrading signalling; no extra track, but a big improvement in the performance of all existing track.
  • The idea that the ‘World’s most liveable city’ gong is a proper benchmark. Again, wrong. The ranking measures cities in terms of their liveability for well-paid overseas executives on assignment; it’s not relevant to the average permanent resident, existing or new. That’s well known now and journalists should cease quoting it willy nilly.
  • The idea that Melbourne’s economy is primarily driven by immigration-fuelled property prices.  It’s harder to pin down the drivers of Melbourne’s economy because it’s now broad-based; it’s been a long time since it was manufacturing-based. Property is certainly important, especially in the short-term, but there’s much more to it. For example, Melbourne ranks 21st on the Global Financial Centres Index, ahead of places like Frankfurt, Dublin, Paris, Munich and Amsterdam. It ranks third on Forbes’ ranking of most popular cities for international students and second in the QS Best Student Cities ranking for 2016.
  • The idea that Melbourne could realistically retro-fit a “metro network like those in Berlin and Paris”. That’s unrealistic. Paris Metro covers an area of just 5 km radius. It’s virtually all subway, it has 303 stations, and it services 2.2 million residents plus a huge number of visitors. Driving is hard because of narrow streets and very limited parking. That compares to Melbourne’s 28 stations and 0.43 million residents in much the same area. Melbourne can’t justify building a network that’s anywhere near as elaborate as the Paris Metro, but anything less dense and frequent will have a hard time competing with driving. Melbourne needs a transport system suitable to local circumstances.

Here are some broader issues I think should be taken into account when considering the issue of population growth in Melbourne:

  1. Melbourne can grow to 8 million residents in 2050 without collapsing into a dystopia. There are currently around 100 cities in the world with a larger population than Melbourne and about 40 with double its population. Some of the world’s most desirable and successful cities are already much larger than 8 million e.g. New York (21.4 million), London (10.5 million), Paris (10.9 million). Melbourne will necessarily be different at almost double its current size and there’ll be new challenges, but it’s wrong to assume it must be a disaster.
  2. 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. Bigger cities are more productive, more innovative and pay better. They offer more opportunity for both economic and social specialisation e.g. meeting people “just like you” (e.g. see here and here).
  3. The implicit assumption that rapid growth inevitably means a significant loss of liveability overlooks the fact 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, so that average trip times remain relatively stable (see Will Sydney and Melbourne implode as they get bigger and bigger?). It’s invariably belated, but governments invest in infrastructure, improve services, and release land (see What’s government done to make public transport better?). Is Brisbane, with a current population of circa two million, significantly more liveable than Melbourne?
  4. It’s not inevitable or even likely that the “population boom” will play out in line with the current projection. Australia’s had plenty of localised population booms before. The resource booms in the Hunter Valley, Central Qld and Western Australia all came with dramatic housing price escalation and glaring inadequacies in infrastructure. But they passed. It’s probable the same will happen with Melbourne’s boom before we get anywhere near 2050. Population projections at the level of cities over long time frames are uncertain because they’re largely based on recent trends. Melbourne might well hit 8 million one day, but the timing matters; if it’s a long way in the future (Millar and Schneiders say government should be looking out to 2100) then unforeseen social and technological changes are likely to render current projections meaningless.
  5. The challenge of growth in all Australian cities is largely political. It requires investing in infrastructure on a massive scale over a short time frame; that necessarily competes with other important uses and means we can’t simply “build” our way out as politicians and many advocates like to claim. The biggest political challenge is to use existing assets more efficiently e.g. roads repurposed for more space-efficient modes than cars; existing suburbs redeveloped at higher densities. It will also be necessary to do what all cities have done historically; continue to accommodate some growth at the fringe and/or in “overspill” regional centres.
  6. It’s important to consider if immigrants would live more sustainably if they stayed in their homeland compared to settling in Melbourne or in another Australian city or town. It’s also relevant to ask if their standard of living and life chances would be lower if they didn’t migrate.
  7. The Commonwealth has a huge role in determining how well cities like Melbourne deal with growth. It manages the level of immigration of course, but just as importantly, it controls the purse strings for infrastructure spending, and through taxation policy it shapes the demand – and hence to a large extent the affordability – of housing.

It’s pleasing to see some journalists from The Age make the effort to contact some new and well-informed observers on urban affairs, rather than resort to the same old wind-up reliables. It’s a pity though that the writers didn’t make the effort to explain the positive case for growth and immigration.

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6 thoughts on “Is immigration ruining our cities?

  1. asdfhhjgjs

    Universities are just backdoor immigration scams selling worthless education as a cover story to let candidates buy visas and citizenship. This is why universities scream and bawl when its proposed to cut immigration pathways for students – they know the product they sell is useless without a visa/PR attached.
    University funding in this country should be reduced to zero with them all shut down. They are just waste factories that produce worthless graduates nobody wants to employ.

  2. asdfhhjgjs

    There is no positive case for immigration. Victoria is clearly being propped up by high immigration (nb ‘overseas students’ == selling citizenship). There are no real jobs in Victoria apart from (a) selling citizenship (2) selling houses to the new citizens.

    It’s all crap.

  3. Cantbeeffed

    I think the article leans too much on the upside of growth. One inherent factor in population growth is increased density, which axiomatically reduces quality of life with smaller dwellings, less open and green space, more neighbourly conflict. The other issue in Australia is the aridity and volatility of our climate. We have the world’s worst extinction rate for mammals, our supplies of fresh water are increasingly challenged, we’re losing some of the thinnest topsoil on the planet and we’re continuously turning agricultural land into housing. And as climate change continues (which it will for hundreds of years, we’re well past the point where we can stop it now) Australia is going to get more arid and hotter, which will continuously reduce the carrying capacity of the continent. Adding people in that context doesn’t end well. Just wait until we next experience a doubt like the Millennial Drought – Sydney or Melbourne without water is not something you want to see.

    1. Daniel

      There is one point you raised that I disagree with. It is not self-evident that increased density reduces quality of life. When I lived in a higher density suburb of Sydney, I’d say the quality of life based on where I lived was better than the next place I lived, a lower density inner suburb of Melbourne. I had more open space, and more shopping and services in walking distance to my home. About the only thing the Melbourne suburb had was I had two tram lines in walking distance to my house, where as the Sydney address had 4 bus lines (3 went to the nearest train station with varying levels of time and reliability).
      I now live in regional Victoria where I’m building a smaller home on a smaller lot. This will improve my quality of life, as it will free up my spare time and reduce living expenses (mortgage will be the same, but cleaning time and running costs will be substantially less). I have parents in their late 70’s who live in their 4br home with two living rooms on a traditional block. I’d love them to sell it and down-size.
      Sure, lower density living may be more appropriate for households with children, but that is a small proportion of our households (under 25%), but many households with children are also chosing higher density living. Not necessarily apartments but houses on much smaller lots (around 200m2) for the benefits that brings, mainly close location of services.
      Increased density doesn’t have to be apartments, and even then can be 3-4 story buildings. For many people a smaller home that is more suited to their needs can bring about an improvement in living standards. For the last three years I’ve visited London in their summer. The people I visit living in a terrace house on 80m2 in inner London have a great standard of living. They have a small courtyard, but are in under 400m walk to at least 6 parks/open spaces, all of which are full of people in summer.

  4. Teddy

    I find it funny that Fairfax editors and journos, are apparently completely oblivious to who and what is still (but only just) paying their wages. Don’t they read the financial pages of their own papers? Domain is all they have left keeping them afloat. And yet on their front page they churn out alarmist rhetoric about growth and the real estate industry…

    By chance I happened to read the Age on Saturday – it was in my public library (inner west of Sydney) and the front page headline (“Crammed in! We’ll all be rooned!”) caught my eye. It wasn’t quite as silly or frightening as the pessimistic tirades our own dear old Liz Farrelly – SMH’s star urban affairs columnist continues most weekends to pour out into the hearts and minds of the elderly dears who haven’t cancelled their subscriptions yet… And SMH do still sell some copies in the “villages” of our own wealthy inner ring burbs and north shore, at least on the weekends. In the rest of Sydney – the multicultural bits, the ones where migrants actually go to live, with cranes on their skylines, tradies with too much work and main streets and shopping centres pumping with life, Fairfax’s doomsaying nonsense has almost no readers at all.

    Well, ok the editors of The Age still think bad news sells., so they manufacture some. And maybe it does stoke the “I told you we’re all stuffed!” emotions of grumpy old men (and women) everywhere. But no one interested in economics, cities and urbanism takes it seriously, do they?

  5. Woopwoop

    The Age article mentions that Victoria (which is mainly Melbourne) with 25% of Australia’s population, gets only 8% of infrastructure spending.
    Would this have anything to do with declining “livability”?