Population growth and urban development



For further information, see Chapter 10: Built environment.

2.7.1 Population growth

Concern about changes in the size and composition of the population along Australia’s coasts has been growing for several decades.15-16 In 2004, coastal councils from around Australia established the National Sea Change Taskforce to document and promote their concerns. This led to two major pieces of research on demographic change and ways to address it.17-18 Smith & Doherty15 review a number of other contributions to this dialogue.

Australia’s population has grown by about 18.1 million since federation and is currently around 22 million.19 The most recent intergenerational report projected a population of around 36 million by 2050.20 About 81% of the population lives within 50 kilometres of the coast.21

Population growth in Australia is expected to occur mainly around:

  • the big cities (through natural increase, internal migration, international migration and tourism)
  • high-amenity coastal regions (especially those located within, or close to, the metropolitan areas of the capital cities)
  • the larger regional centres (both coastal and inland).22

2.7.2 Coastal population growth

Australia’s coastal population has been growing faster than the population of the rest of the country for some time (Figures 11.5 and 11.6) and is expected to increase by another one million people over the next 15 years.23

Increasingly, coastal councils around Australia are expressing concern about population growth in small settlements outside large centres. This growth is occurring faster than many local councils can manage and is associated with expectations for the provision of services that often cannot be supported by the rates base.23-24

Gurran et al.17 made the following observations about the types of people who are moving to coastal communities (although this report is six years old, the main points still apply):

  • Although retirees contribute to the sea-change phenomenon, they are no longer the major drivers of coastal population growth.
  • New residents of high-growth coastal regions are of a younger age profile than Australia as a whole and significantly younger than the existing profile of communities affected by sea change. However, this is not likely to affect the high median age of sea-change areas in the immediate future because the newcomers represent only a small proportion of the total population.
  • As the ‘baby-boomer’ generation has started to retire, the number of retirees moving to the coast, including ‘hill-change’ areas immediately inland (such as the hinterland to the Gold Coast and northern New South Wales coasts, which also offer high amenity and access to coastal population centres) is likely to rise again, contributing to an overall increase in the rate of population growth in these places.

The challenges associated with the sea-change phenomenon are not the same everywhere, since different coastal communities are growing for different reasons and in different ways. The drivers for nonmetropolitan coastal development include:17

  • the attractions of high environmental amenity and space associated with beach and bush—the attraction for some is being able to live near the coast as well as having access to cities for work and visiting relatives, while for others the attraction is getting away from population centres
  • employment—many people move to the coast with the hope of finding employment (but unemployment rates in coastal areas are generally much higher than the national average)
  • housing choices and affordability—housing affordability has been a major factor drawing people to nonmetropolitan coastal areas, although the difference is decreasing for the most desirable coastal destinations, which might slow migration to these places; changing lifestyle choices are also leading to demand for types of housing that are not available or affordable in metropolitan areas.

2.7.3 Environmental impacts

Urbanisation has been identified as a major pressure on biodiversity, water resources, cultural and natural heritage, marine environments and atmosphere in other chapters of this report. Growing coastal populations require houses, wastewater treatment, roads and other facilities. Environmental controls on urban development and the need for onsite containment of wastes are of vital concern in coastal areas, and adequate development and implementation of these can be a major challenge for resource-limited coastal councils.16 As noted in Chapter 8: Biodiversity, the impacts of urbanisation are not just direct (e.g. removal or modification of ecosystems) but also indirect (e.g. the consumption of natural resources as an indirect result of consumption of goods by people living in urban areas).

Differences in motivation for moving to coastal areas affect the ways in which people interact with the environment. For example, recent studies of the impacts of peri-urban development suggest that many people who move to coastal and hinterland areas for lifestyle reasons have little understanding of environmental management, especially how to control weeds and other pests.10 Furthermore, when high-income, second-home owners become part-time residents in peri-urban areas, especially coastal ones, they tend to drive prices up and force those who provide labour locally to move further away, increasing their travel costs and impacts. Part-time residents also reduce per-household inputs to local economies and to the development of community ethics about environmental management.

2.7.4 Tourism and recreation

Two other major impacts of population increase on coastal areas are tourism and recreation. Nature-based tourism is the reason for more than 3 million international tourist visits to Australia, nearly 13 million domestic overnight trips and more than 12 million domestic day trips annually (Table 11.1). Marine tourism and recreation, including recreational fishing, were estimated to contribute $18.7 billion to the Australian economy in 2007–08, and recreational fishing is now considered to be the nation’s largest participatory recreational activity (see Chapter 6: Marine environment for further details). As well, many of the most attractive bushwalking opportunities and national parks occur in the coastal zone.

Interactions between coastal development and tourism can be complex. For example, tourism has the potential to support good management of coastal areas if incentives and regulations are adequate to encourage reinvestment of some revenue in the environment.26 On the other hand, there can be conflict between tourism development and residential development in coastal areas—residential and retirement development sometimes undermine tourism appeal or values.27

Table 11.1 Proportion of visitors by type of nature activity, 2008
  Visitor (%)
Nature activity International Domestic overnight Domestic day
Bushwalking or rainforest walks 37 51 39
Visiting national parks or state parks 66 47 42
Visiting botanical or other public gardens 56 19 25
Visiting wildlife parks, zoos or aquariums 58 16 13
Whale or dolphin watching 13 4 2
Snorkelling 18 4 1
Scuba diving 8 1 0
Total nature visitors (million) 3.36 12.94 12.37

Source: Tourism Research Australia28

Addressing population pressures on coasts requires cooperation and strategic decision-making across several levels of government—this has been slow to emerge in Australia. One major factor holding back progress is that managing population pressure is not only an environmental issue. It also requires coordinated management of a range of social issues including health, transport, energy and housing infrastructure (see Section 3).

Cork S (2011). Coasts: Population growth and urban development. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/science/soe/2011-report/11-coasts/2-major-issues/2-7-population, DOI 10.4226/94/58b659bdc758b