COVID-19 impacts both cities and regional population growth

The Australian Bureau of Statistics regional population data just released has provided the first insights into the impact of COVID-19 on where people live has changed during the pandemic. The estimated resident data is for 30 June 2020 and therefore reflects the first few months of the pandemic, but some clear trends are evident.

Population growth in Sydney and Melbourne plunged as:

  • International migration to Australia was effectively halted.
  • Lockdowns paused the long-term trend of people moving from the regions to the cities.
  • The ability to work remotely made a move to a regional area more attractive.

Sydney and Melbourne hardest hit

COVID-19 is having an impact on the size and distribution of the resident population across our cities. In 2019-20, both Sydney and Melbourne experienced their lowest population growth since 2010-11.

The reduction in net overseas migration has had the greatest impact in the inner city and outer growth corridors because this is where new migrants often decide to live. The inner suburbs appeal to international tertiary students and skilled workers, while affordable housing attracts young migrant families to growth suburbs.

A segment of inner-city residents, particularly younger people working in sectors such as hospitality, who either lost their jobs or were in a very uncertain employment market, may have also returned to their family homes. The loss of inner-city vibrancy as a result of social distancing and a desire for more space to accommodate remote working may have been factors in people’s decision to depart the CBD and inner suburbs.

City Population Growth

Brisbane and Perth hold onto their residents

The other major cities were not impacted as greatly as Sydney and Melbourne. Population growth in Brisbane remained resilient even with lower international migration. Perth bucked the trend and saw an increase in population growth. This is the result of Perth benefiting from the state border closure, which saw fewer people leaving the city during the pandemic.

Regional renaissance

Regional areas such as South Coast of New South Wales, Port Macquarie and Launceston experienced higher population growth during 2020.

Regional areas attracted more people during 2020 as a result of several factors:

  • high local amenity
  • fewer young people being drawn to the cities for employment & education
  • affordable housing
  • local employment opportunities
  • people making the sea-change / tree-change to take advantage of remote working.

New planning challenges

The impact of COVID-19 on people’s residential decisions will provide some benefits and create a range of opportunities. However, new growth patterns will mean the urban and regional planning and infrastructure provision challenges facing Australia will only become more complex.

The fall in population growth in Sydney and Melbourne is expected to be temporary and will largely reverse once international migration patterns return to normal. Some parts of the cities may even experience some immediate relief in terms of infrastructure provisioning, while also offering urban and infrastructure planners some much needed relief to get ahead of the immediate demand. Despite this, the medium to longer term infrastructure challenges for Sydney and Melbourne will likely remain and will need to be addressed.

Some regional areas may experience significant strategic land use and infrastructure planning challenges arising from increased population growth and changing age-profiles. Regional Australia has an overall older age-profile when compared with capital cities however with COVID-19 we are likely to experience a resurgence in the working age-population to regional cities. This has social planning implications in terms of the provision of schools, sports facilities, etc.

Housing affordability for ‘local residents’ and gentrification may also become an issue in some regional communities. A good case study in these types of issues is Hobart, which has seen an influx of new residents over the past five years.

There is a need for appropriate land use planning to ensure that housing, local services and infrastructure is sustainably provided to local communities. New residents are likely to have heightened expectations of service delivery and infrastructure in the regions. Town planners need to consider the requirements of local communities to retain new residents and take advantage of opportunities presented by COVID-19.


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