Population growth, urbanization, and the future of regional centers


On the weekend Australia’s freshly minted Prime Minister Julia Gillard said “I don’t believe in a big Australia,” in an about face from her predecessor Kevin Rudd’s vision of strong population growth for the country.

As a futurist I have been increasingly drawn into this discussion, given that immigration is one of the most fundamental levers shaping the future of countries. I have discussed the coming rise of gerontocracy, the uncertainties in Australia’s demographic future, and was interviewed on the social impact of population growth in ABC TV’s special series on Australia’s future.

I was interviewed this morning about Gillard’s comment on ABC Ballarat, a town which is the hub of one of the largest regional centers in Australia. Non-urban regions have a particularly interesting perspective on population growth.

On the one hand, in the face of the inexorable global trend of urbanization, regional areas are consistently losing their youth and talent to the allure of cities. Concerted efforts are being made to revitalize the economies and culture of regions.

In the case of Australia, much of the anticipated immigration is likely to end up in the already over-crowded cities of Sydney and Melbourne, with forecasts last year suggesting that Sydney could almost double in size to 8 million by 2050. It will be a struggle to get newcomers to move to regional centers instead of overburdened metropolises.

The development of regional centers is a topic I expect to spend a lot more time on – for now I’ll just touch on some of the issues.

One of the key issues is the rise of an intensely connected world. Just a few weeks ago I gave a keynote at a regional futures conference in South West Australia, looking at the implication and opportunities of connectivity for regional centers. As knowledge work is increasingly done from wherever people are, there is likely to be a shift in where people live, as they take the far greater quality of life available away from the prices and traffic of city living.

A related perspective is that of the emerging global talent economy. As talent becomes global, people will make new choices about where to live. There is great value in being located in physical range of people with related talents and interests, making the development of specialist centers of excellence a key focus for regional centers. These must be globally competitive, and given the right focus, should have the capability to draw some of the best talent in the world to live there.

More broadly, there are definitely many advantages for new immigrants to establish themselves in regional centers rather than cities. Evidence shows that immigrants feel more welcome and at home faster when they settle outside urban areas.

Yet given that there are compelling reasons for Australia and many other developed countries to grow their populations at a significant pace (more on this another time), there is still a real challenge in convincing people that they can live prosperous and fulfilling lives in regional areas, by building opportunities to supplement the real advantages of avoiding crowds. Succeeding at shifting the overwhelming trend of urbanization would have a massive positive impact on our future. Building strong regional futures is important for everyone.