With Australia already facing serious difficulty in addressing concerns relating to infrastructure deficits and housing affordability, there are fears things will become more challenging yet over the coming decades as the population continues to grow.

Already, signs of stress are showing. Between 1992 and 2014, weighted average median house prices across capital cities (not inflation adjusted) increased more than fourfold – outstripping the general rate of inflation by more than twofold.

In 1981, more than 45 per cent of all homes were considered to be affordable across almost the entire metropolitan region in Melbourne, except for the CBD and a few of the pricier suburbs in the inner-east, according to a 2010 book by researchers from the University of Western Sydney. By 2006, that could be said of hardly any suburbs within 30 kilometres of the CBD.

Across both Sydney and Melbourne, Grattan Institute research in 2013 found that residents in many fringe suburbs were being forced to drive more than 45 minutes to reach more than nine in 10 of all employment opportunities available throughout their respective metropolitan areas.

In infrastructure, too, congestion on the Sydney-Newcastle-Wollongong road network alone costs more than $5.5 billion, according to a recent Infrastructure Australia audit. Thanks to a doubling in road traffic, overall demand on transport infrastructure throughout the country has tripled since 1970. In Melbourne, any accidents or breakdowns on the West Gate Freeway which happen during peak hour bring probably one-fifth of the city’s inbound traffic to a standstill.

Going forward, there are no signs of pressures abating. Between 2012 and 2061, median range projections of the ABS suggest that the overall population will almost double from 22.722 million to 41.514 million (reaching 53.6 million by 2101). Over that time frame, the population of Perth will more than triple, while that of Brisbane and Melbourne will more than double, the ABS says.

Australia population_

Furthermore, as employment in manufacturing declines and that in services increases, reliance upon the CBD for business or job opportunities is growing, creating more strain yet on existing infrastructure as the number of those undertaking daily commutes into town grows.

How can this be managed? Peter Seamer, CEO of the Metropolitan Planning Authority in Melbourne, says a multi-pronged approach necessary.

First, he says, there is the need for greater density in inner-urban areas. Seamer says it was encouraging to see significant multi-residential housing potential having been unlocked in major precincts at Docklands and South Melbourne, while substantial levels of further opportunity existed in areas such as Fisherman’s Bend and Arden near North Melbourne. Other cities, too, are unlocking major inner-urban precincts for mixed-use and multi-residential development, such as Barangaroo and Darling Square in Sydney the Brisbane Showgrounds in Brisbane.

Even more important are the middle suburbs, where potential exists to unlock low and medium rise multi-residential development which offers reasonable compromises between the need for family friendly living and that for proximity to transport links and employment opportunities. In Melbourne’s case, Seamer says there are opportunities for more medium density dwellings in places like Box Hill, Glen Waverley, Springvale and Sunshine.

Beyond housing, Seamer says we need to provide opportunities for people to work within these suburbs and not be forced into the CBD. In Sydney, the growth of ‘satellite CBDs’ such as Chatswood, Hurstville and Macquarie Park are providing alternatives opportunities for professional employment in localised precincts. In Melbourne, plans are in place for a significant new employment centre at East Werribee.

For that to happen, transport within and between middle suburban areas needs to be improved. In Sydney, for example, almost three quarters of those who work in Parramatta in the west are forced to do so by private vehicle – a situation which not only effectively clogs localised roads but also makes accessing employment difficult for those unable to travel by car. Better train connections as well as much better and more frequent bus services are a large part of the answer here, Seamer says. Also, programs such as the removal of major level crossings in Victoria are helpful in terms of freeing up inter-suburban road capacity, he adds.

Finally, there are satellite cities, which Seamer says Australia needs to fire up. He says Australia should learn from the United States in that not everything has to be centralised. Those jobs which do not necessarily have to be in the CBD should ideally be encouraged to shift outward toward the suburbs and regional centres, he said.

“Simply, we have to do lots of different things,” Seamer said. “There is no one solution to what we have to do.

“We need to activate all the different areas: inner, middle, growth area suburbs and regional centres. We need the whole lot. We can’t afford to have some parts missing out of that equation.”

Seamer’s comments come as cities around the world look at strategies to deal with growing levels of urbanisation and thus greater population pressures on cities. In the US, for example, the Obama Administration recently announced its intention to spend $US160 million of federal money on research to help reduce traffic congestion and crime, foster economic growth, respond to climate change and improve the delivery of services. The UK, meanwhile, established a model for city deals in 2012 which focuses on building strong regional growth through better planning.

In Australia, too, we have started to move in this space. Several states – especially New South Wales – have beefed up investment in major infrastructure projects. At a federal level, the appointment of a Minister for Cities has been been widely seen throughout the property sector as a ‘game changer.’

Beyond the issue of where we build, Seamer says we need smarter ways of using infrastructure. Looking forward, technology such as self-driving cars could allow for vehicles to travel closer together, allowing for better use of existing road space, he says. More immediately, differential pricing could be used with toll roads so as to encourage non-essential travel to take place outside of peak times. Provision for cyclists and pedestrians cannot be forgotten.

“We really encourage people to look at things as innovatively as they can and not necessarily get stuck with what they read in a book somewhere but to go out and find real solutions and think outside the square,” Seamer said.

“(It’s about) thinking differently about things like how we charge our fees on freeways, where people work and really putting some emphasis on getting regional cities moving better.

“It’s not going to just happen, it has to be pushed and encouraged.”