Canberra’s population is on the rise from 432,000 to 700,000 people within 40 years. But experts disagree on whether it is a good or bad thing for the growing national capital.
- Some experts warn that the city is already too big and population growth will make Canberra more inefficient
- But others say Canberra suffers from “NIMBYism” and the city is lacking because of its small size
- There are also warnings that Canberrans should change their lifestyle to offset the environmental impact a growing population would have
The ACT government is expected to soon release the latest population projections for the year 2061 based on research from the ANU School of Demography.
The figures will update the latest projections published in 2018, which predict a 270,000 jump in population in 2058, built mainly on the background of overseas migration.
But forecasts have worried some Canberrans, who say a city of this size would put too much strain on ACT’s environment, road infrastructure, green spaces and water supply.
They are worried that a large Canberra could kill the “bush capital” image that initially attracted so many people.
Others say Canberra “cannot be quiet” and that in order to be competitive and strengthen ACT’s economy, the city must – literally – grow.
According to Geocon CEO Nick Georgalis, a bigger Canberra is inevitable because official forecasts are always “wrong”.
“Population growth is going to be far more than that. The reality is that it is going to happen at a much faster pace than you are aware of.”
Concerns about sustainability are constantly growing
Environmental groups have long sounded the alarm about Canberra’s scattered growth, especially for “greenfield” goods on the outskirts.
And their concerns are supported by reports from ACT Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment Sophie Lewis.
“From an environmental perspective, the people of Canberra are currently unsustainable in terms of our impact on the environment,” said Dr. Lewis.
“The latest environmental status report (2019) showed that our ecological footprint – a measure of our environmental impact – is nine times as large as ACT.
Dr. Lewis said some of these “lifestyle factors” included Canberran’s dietary choices, consumption and waste management. And she said changing those habits would only become more important with a growing population.
“The way we live may be more important to the environment than the number of us in Canberra,” she said.
“If we plan to almost double our population, we must now work to ensure that we lock in good decisions for our infrastructure and city to ensure this happens.”
Border closures due to COVID may change the way we view immigration
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, about half of ACT’s annual population growth was driven by natural increase (births minus deaths) —with 46 percent of total growth driven by immigration, including skilled migration and family reunification.
But with global borders currently closed, some commentators argue that the time has come to rethink Australia’s migration programs.
Economist with the Australia Institute, Richard Denniss, said it meant wading into a rather controversial debate.
“NIMBY [not in my backyard], xenophobia, racist – I do not think I’m one of those things, “Mr Denniss said.
“Maybe 700,000 is not enough, maybe we should be a million. [But] who made this decision and where do we get to participate in it? “
But Denniss said a debate on qualified migration should not be confused with Australia’s humanitarian intake.
“Australia’s immigration is what drives our population growth, and if Australia wants a large immigration program, we want a large population,” he said.
Calls for a population strategy
While Denniss described himself as an “agnostic” about population growth, others said the city was already too large and inefficient.
Sustainable population Australia’s Colin Lyons said the burgeoning greenfield development in Canberra’s Molonglo Valley showed the growing challenges for urban planners.
“With an urban planning background, it makes me think about how difficult it will be to service these scattered suburbs.”
Sir. Lyons said it was “not selfish” to want to curb population growth and protect Canberra’s unique lifestyle.
“The only thing we’re arguing for is that population growth is controlled,” he said.
“Currently, the government is pursuing a policy of large-scale growth with large-scale immigration without being aware of the negative impacts on everyone’s quality of life.”
Build, not out
Over the last decade, the construction giant Geocon has come to dominate the skyline in Canberra’s city centers with major developments in the Civic, Woden, Belconnen and Gungahlin.
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, Geocon aimed to release between 1,000 and 1,500 new units to the Canberra market each year to take advantage of unprecedented housing demand.
And Mr Georgalis said he was proud of the impact his buildings had on the city.
“I have lived here all my life, 45 years,” he said,
“I’ve seen it come out of what some people like to refer to as a village and now it’s becoming a new town.”
He admitted high-rise housing “was not for everyone”, but said the demand for his development showed that Canberra was a city on the way.
Georgali’s approach is one supported by the ACT government, which has long pushed for more “urban filling” or the construction of medium to higher densities living around city centers and transport routes such as light rail.
The ACT’s planning strategy from 2018 stated that 70 percent of all new housing development should take place within the city’s existing footprint, while 30 percent would be on greenfield sites.
But the same document also pointed to new areas in Canberra that could be developed west of the city.
It included a massive “western edge survey area”, a 15-kilometer stretch of land stretching from Belconnen in the north to Tuggeranong in the south and west to the Murrumbidgee River.
The ACT government has already spent tens of thousands of dollars on buying rural areas in the area to meet future housing development in the coming decades.
But even with such a large area potentially open to development, Geocon’s Nick Georgalis said the ACT faced a looming land shortage.
“I think that’s not enough,” he said.
Are there too many ‘NIMBYs’ in Canberra?
ANU social researcher Dr. Liz Allen said Canberra missed out and was held back by NIMBYs – Not In My BackYarders – who did not want the city to change.
She said the city as a result could not attract workers with specialized skills or major infrastructure projects because the city was simply too small.
“We suffer from a lot of ‘NIMBYism’ in Canberra,” said Dr. Allen.
“I think the image of a quiet regional city is something that drew many people here, and many people do not want the place to change.
“Canberra is the size of a regional city, but we are a capital city.
“I certainly think a larger population can mean good things for Canberra.”