Australia circa 2050, population 35 million, climate change induced rising sea levels have flooded the Gold Coast resort region, apartment blocks are now used to grow food and people commute in monorail pods above the sea.
In another city, Australians live on floating island pods with apartments both below and above sea level, the population has shifted from land to the sea because of the sky-rocketing value of disappearing arable land.
Climate change has also forced many Australians to move inland and create new cities in the outback, relying on solar power to exist in the inhospitable interior.
These are just a few urban scenarios by some of Australia’s leading architects shortlisted for “Ideas for Australian Cities 2050+” to be staged at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale.
While these images may sound like science fiction, many architects and demographers say Australian cities must radically transform to cope with the pressures of population growth and climate change or face social unrest and urban decay.
“If we don’t get this right … all hell breaks loose, or our cities break down, there’s not enough water, there’s not enough power,” said one of Australia’s leading demographers Bernard Salt.
Australia survived the global financial crisis, due largely to China buying its resources, and while resource exports will continue to bolster its economy for decades, future prosperity may be threatened by a growing, ageing population, according to an Australian government report released in February.
The report said Australia’s population was set to rise by 60 per cent to 35 million by 2050, mainly through migration, yet cities are already groaning under the present population.
“One of the major frontier issues for Australia over the next decade will be the future of our cities,” said Heather Ridout, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, which is calling for major infrastructure investment in cities.
Among the beneficiaries of such development would be property firms like Lend Lease, Stockland and Mirvac Group, building material groups Boral Ltd and CSR, Australia’s top engineering contractor Leighton Holding Ltd, and the country’s biggest private hospital operator, Ramsay Health.
But demographers warn that Australian cities need to not only expand infrastructure, but ensure future residents have equal access to city facilities.
Racial riots at Sydney’s Cronulla beach in 2005 and a series of attacks against Indian students in the past year are signs of growing social tensions in Australian cities, say demographers.
“If we have a rising population, we need to make sure that we have appropriate infrastructure, so that we don’t lose the social cohesion that we take for granted,” said Larissa Brown from the Center for Sustainable Leadership. “We need affordable access to housing, to transport, to healthcare.”
While Australia is double the size of Europe, three-quarters of the country is sparsely populated countryside or harsh outback, leaving the bulk of the population to inhabit a thin strip down the southeast coast. In fact, around 50 per cent of the population live in the three largest cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – on a combined land area that is about the size of Brunei or Trinidad & Tobago.
TRANSPORT KEY TO FUTURE CITIES
Australia’s post-World War Two sprawling suburbia is under strain due to inadequate transport and public facilities.
“We’re at risk of seeing increasingly dysfunctional cities … we’re starting to see sort of fragmentation and breakdown of the transport systems and increasing frustration for the residents of those cities trying to get around,” said Jago Dodson, urban researcher at Griffth University.
A State of Cities 2010 report released in March said Australia’s major cities contribute nearly 80 per cent of GDP, but warned that worsening urban congestion would have a serious negative impact on economic growth if not addressed.
The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics estimates the cost of road congestion for the Australian cities was about A$9.4 billion for 2005. Left unchecked, this is projected to rise to A$20 billion by 2020.
“Urban congestion contributes to traffic delays, increased greenhouse gas emissions, higher vehicle running costs and more accidents,” said Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese.
“It is a tragedy that many parents spend more time traveling to and from work, than at home with their kids. Relieve urban congestion and we improve our quality of life as well as our productivity,” said Albanese.
In February, a 10-year, A$50 billion transport blueprint was announced for Sydney which will see a new heavy rail network, 1,000 new buses and possibly a fast train linking Sydney with the port city of Newcastle, to its north.
Sydney, Australia’s biggest city, is daily gridlocked, forcing a motorist who travels 22 km a day to spend three days stuck in traffic each year.
Private transport currently accounts for about 90 per cent of urban journeys in Australia and Transurban Group, which operates the nation’s major tollways, believes car usage will continue to rise, despite a move to public transport.
“Despite concern about climate change, road use in our cities is predicted to grow significantly in the next 20 to 30 years,” said Transurban in a 2009 sustainability report.
“New road projects will increasingly be part of integrated transport solutions for entire cities or transport corridors.”
But the company warned future road projects will cost more to build and develop due to climate change, with Australia’s government seeking to introduce a carbon emissions trading scheme and pre-approval analysis of climate impacts of new projects.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s government plans to invest A$36 billion in transport infrastructure in the next 5 years.
Improving efficiency in energy and transport infrastructure could increase GDP by nearly 2 percent, or the equivalent of A$75 billion, says Australia’s Productivity Commission.