Australia’s population has one of the most geographically distinctive distributions of any country, with 90 per cent of people living in just 0.22 per cent of the country’s land area (NSC 2013).
The geographical distribution of Australia’s population creates distinct regional pressures on the environment. Most of Australia’s population is in the east, south-east and south-west. A large proportion of the population is concentrated in urban areas, notably the capital cities.
At June 2015, 15.9 million people—around two-thirds of Australia’s population—lived in a greater capital city. These areas generally experienced faster population growth than the rest of the country. Many areas that experienced strong growth were located on the fringes of capital cities, where more land tends to be available for subdivision and housing development (ABS 2016a).
Between 30 June 2013 and 30 June 2014, Melbourne had the largest growth of all capital cities (up by 95,700 people), followed by Sydney (84,200), Perth (48,400) and Brisbane (38,500). Perth had the fastest growth (up by 2.5 per cent), ahead of Darwin and Melbourne (both 2.2 per cent) (ABS 2015b).
Inland rural population growth rates are generally lower than those in urban and coast areas, and rural populations have declined in some locations.
Generally, the most prominent growth outside of capital cities between 2011 and 2015 occurred along the coast of Australia, particularly in Queensland. The concentration of Australia’s population near the coast, mostly in urban areas, creates substantial pressure on coastal ecosystems and environments in the east, south-east and south-west of the country (ABS 2015b).
In the coming decades, Australia’s capital cities are expected to experience higher percentage growth than their respective state or territory populations, resulting in a further concentration of Australia’s population in metropolitan areas. Current projections suggest that 74 per cent of Australians will live in capital cities by 2061 (ABS 2015a).
Under a scenario of medium population growth, Melbourne and Sydney are expected to have 8.6 and 8.5 million people, respectively, by 2061 (ABS 2013). Under the same scenario, Perth will have the highest percentage growth of Australia’s capital cities (187 per cent), increasing from 1.9 to 5.5 million people by 2061. Current strategic planning for the Perth–Peel region is for 3.5 million people by 2031.
Urban growth is already driving land-use change in Australia, with expansion in peri-urban areas (on the outskirts of cities and large towns) having direct impacts on the natural environment and some of the most biologically productive lands currently used for agriculture. This trend is expected to continue and escalate.
Well-planned higher-density residential areas can reduce the need to expand into greenfield sites, and provide opportunities for more efficient energy use (a result of smaller dwellings) and more efficient transport. Poorly planned and executed urban growth can exacerbate environmental pressures and have direct impacts on biodiversity—for example, through land-use change and by changing the ability of ecosystems to mitigate floods.
The implications of the size, nature and distribution of Australia’s population for the natural environment, our heritage, and the built environment of our cities and regions are considered throughout the SoE 2016 thematic reports.