The development of high-speed rail along the eastern coast of Australia could be the key to maintaining the liveability of urban centres in the face of breakneck population growth.

As Australia's political helmsmen push for immigration-driven population gains in order to maintain economic growth, the country's major cities will struggle to accommodate the ongoing influx of new residents while simultaneously maintaining their much-touted liveability levels.

High speed rail advocate and former Reserve Bank economist Peter Knight notes that while Australia's cities are currently ranked amongst the most liveable in the world, it will be a major challenge for them to maintain this position given the pressures that population growth will place upon urban environments.

"Melbourne’s currently ranked as the most liveable city in the world, while Sydney’s not far behind it. But it also happens to be the largest of the top 10 most liveable cities in the world by a long chalk at four million," he said. "These cities are going to double their population over the next 50 years, going from roughly four million to eight million. This will make Melbourne, for example, the size of greater London, whose liveability rank is 53.

"We will face some real challenges when it comes to maintaining urban liveability given this population growth."

While increasing urban densification levels and foregoing the construction of detached houses on larger land plots are most frequently touted as the necessary remedy for urban population gains, Knight believes another highly viable solution could lie in the creation of high-speed rail along the country's eastern coast.

"High-speed rail isn't just about transit - it’s about how you want to address the issues of liveability and where populations will reside. The high speed rail is simply a means to an end, and the end is protecting and enhancing liveability and prosperity," he said.

Knight argues that by making commuting a more viable proposition for residents living at a greater remove from downtown areas where employment opportunities are clustered, high-speed rail could completely transform the development configuration of urban Australia along the country's eastern coast.

Access to convenient transportation alongside a dramatic reduction in commuting times will create a conjoined pair of benefits for both major cities and regional population centres.

On the one hand, it will relieve the stresses of ongoing population growth for established cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, by permitting the more diffuse distribution of urban workers to surrounding areas.

"If we build high speed rail then we can redistribute population growth for major cities such as Melbourne," said Knight. "Instead of growing from four to eight million by mid-century, the population of Melbourne might only increase to five million, with another three million allocated to areas not too far from the city where high-speed rail makes commuting to downtown areas viable.

"They could be living up to two or three hundred kilometres  from Melbourne, and get to Melbourne’s CBD in less than an hour via high speed rail. This is something you can’t achieve via road or air travel.

"It means that you can safeguard the liveability of cities such as Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane."

By relieving population pressure in the major cities and distributing it to nearby areas, high-speed rail will also serve to spur the growth of regional Australia, providing a plethora of opportunities to urban planners and property developers while also increasing the scale and amenities of smaller towns and communities.

"While preserving the liveability of the major cities, high-speed rail would also drive major development across regional parts of the country," said Knight.

"We’re going to have the opportunity build new cities and big towns on the railway - you could potentially have a million people north of Brisbane, a million people south, a million and a half north of Sydney, and million and a half south of Sydney, a million a half east of Melbourne and a million and a half west of Melbourne.

"This is going to bring remarkable opportunities throughout all of the eastern states."

By creating space and opportunity to preserve the liveability of major cities and spur development in regional centres, high-speed rail could make Australians far more amenable to the large-scale population growth many believe is needed to keep the national economy on a even keel.

"Bigger population is a good thing, as long as we deal with it properly," said Knight. "Australia is still an isolated nation which is on a sub-economic scale. If the population were 50 million, the story would be completely different, and the country's economy would be far more self-sustaining.

"There’s a lot of people I speak to who hate the idea of the population increase, and the reason why they hate it is that the know their liveability is going to down hill.

"If you can say liveability’s going to be terrific, well there’s no reason they should object to population increase."

  • What has rarely if ever happened in Australia is development of socially focused centres. Instead developments are driven by and designed to maximise development company profits first and foremost with civic needs, social needs severely constrained. Most suburbs in Australia's major cities do not have a functional civic focus with a huge shopping complex drawing most activity and the civic centre near devoid of people. This situation is hard to reverse although it should be a huge lesson in what not to do in future. Put people needs first and fit developer's needs into that picture – for sure they still need to profit.
    Designing a high speed rail network around economic needs only will fall into the same trap so it must be thought of first as meeting people needs.
    Around Melbourne for example, high speed links to Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton and Morwell encouraging people to choose to settle in these civic centres would make the most of existing infrastructure while stimulating development away from Melbourne itself. Then there are Bairnsdale and Port Campbell to add as well as other regions that could absorb a doubling of the population that may otherwise try to squeeze into an already oversized city.
    Just clearing land, jamming as many houses in as possible and attaching a shopping centre with a few other amenities is NOT social people focussed development. Building cities with a people focus is a little more challenging but way more rewarding in the long run. It has NOT been house building or shopping centre construction that has made Melbourne a desirable place to live. It is the growth of social amenities that have drawn people to revitalised regions across the city that have become social or civic centres.

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