The Decline of City Populations

The easiest thing in the world is to take a trend and project it forward. When it comes to planning, it’s also the most dangerous!

All trends are an outcome of certain drivers. The danger with planning is that we tend to make the assumption that existing trends will persist into the future without giving much thought to the drivers of the trend.

Consider existing population forecasts for Australia’s capital cities over the coming decades, which are all bullish.

One source, population expert Bob Birrell from Monash University projects Perth’s population to increase by over 40% between 2005 and 2021, whilst Melbourne is projected to grow by 25% and Sydney 18%.

But is a forecast of population decline in our major metropolitan areas equally plausible?

What’s required is a change in social perceptions about cities that could drive a trend that no current data is otherwise suggesting. However, such a shift in perception has already occurred in our cities in recent memory.

For 100 years, up until the early 1990’s, the population of inner city regions showed year-on-year decline. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to live close to the CBD. Underpinning this trend was Australia’s dominant traditional values of the time – couples were getting married in their early twenties, babies were being born in their threes & fours, and the outer suburbs with the lure of their ¼ acre blocks, were all the rage.

Seemingly overnight this long term trend was overturned.

All of a sudden the inner city lifestyle became aspirational and disused docklands were transformed by high-rise apartments. This shift in social perception came with no warning from historical data. Instead, the foresight for this movement came from understanding how human values develop.

The rise of Materialistic values, with its emphasis on individualism, which in turn led to the delaying of marital commitment and a generation of people spending their twenties and early thirties cashed up and single, meant that the suburbs were no longer the place to be.

So perhaps, understanding how values develop can also shed a different light on how city populations might change over the next couple of decades.

Materialistic values are essentially about the pursuit of visible economic achievement. And where have you historically had to go to pursue this goal? Why a city of course – with its abundance of employment, education, and entertainment options.

But what happens if many of us have now achieved our economic goals? Or if some of us are beginning to question the worth of pursuing these economic goals to the same degree that others have in the past?

These are the circumstances that lead to the rise of Post materialistic values. And it’s the rise of Post materialism, combined with technological advancements and availability, which provide two drivers likely to shape population movement in the future – two drivers which are unique to this point in time.

And the combination of these drivers suggests that an equally plausible scenario for city populations in the future is one of decline.

Post Materialism and technology, representing as they do, the pursuit of lifestyle goals and the means by which these goals can be achieved remotely, present implications for the future growth of cities, and opportunities for so-called lifestyle regions.

All social perceptions, and the behaviours that follow these perceptions, produce winners and losers. With the rise of Materialism, cities have been winners, to the detriment of rural populations; possessions have been winners, to the detriment of natural resources; and employers have been winners, to the detriment of employee’s personal time.

As each of these losers become scarce, our perception of their value changes, and consequently so does our behaviour.

So when projecting future populations for any region, whether it be city or rural, it’s important to consider the influence that Post Materialism might have on the future movement of people. Whereas the focus with Materialism has been on the accumulation of material possessions, a Post Materialistic age will place greater focus on time and space – two features that have become scarce in cities, yet exist in abundance in coastal and rural regions.

It’s this thinking which underpins a plausible scenario of population decline for Australia’s capital cities over the next 20 years.


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