I recently had a look at the spread of population density in New South Wales and Victoria from the period of 1911 through to today and I found it absolutely fascinating. In 1911, there were hundreds of small communities in the wheat/sheep belt from Moree and Inverell in the north of NSW down through Coonamble, Dubbo, West Wyalong and into VIC. Broken Hill was the major inland population centre in NSW with 31,000 residents – not far behind Newcastle’s population of 52,000. The top portion of VIC was littered with small communities with major populations at Bendigo and Ballarat where the discovery of gold in the 1850’s created instant regional centres. There were many similar sized communities through the centre of NSW such as Bathurst; Orange; Tamworth; Wagga Wagga and Mudgee with populations in the range of 8,600 down to 6,300 in descending order. Other smaller communities existed such as Armidale; Cobar; Wellington; Inverell; Dubbo (4,500); Parkes and Cowra with populations from 5,200 down to 3,200. Coastal living was not a popular option with Wollongong smaller than Dubbo and places like Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour only minor dots on the map. Most of the population centres were small towns with a similar function – support the local population. People lived where they worked with agriculture accounting for over 30 per cent of direct employment in these areas. There were also basic manufacturing and processing industries that existed to serve the local markets. In essence, you lived near where your job was and you had a very strong link with your local community. Your transport options were trains, horses or feet so you tended to stay around the one area.

In the mid-1920’s, a dramatic change started to occur. Transport flexibility. The adoption of the motor car gained momentum with almost half a million cars on the road in Australia by the early 1930’s and an explosion in vehicle ownership in the early fifties saw 2.5 million cars on our roads by the 1961 census. In parallel with vehicle ownership was the introduction of aircrafts to the Australian skies. Qantas was founded in 1920 and other airlines joined in to see 2.7 million passengers fly domestically in this country in the year 1961.

By the 1961 census, the dots of population density therefore started to take a different look. Instead of a large number of small towns, a trend started to emerge with the rise of larger regional centres. Some of the mining areas (Broken Hill, Bendigo, Cobar, etc.) started to contract in population even though their production levels were increasing. Dots along the coast started to grow in population size and more centres appeared to take advantage of the desire for coastal living. Flexibility in transport, the adoption of the telephone and the increase in the services sector meant that there was no longer such a direct link between where you worked and where you lived. People started choosing where they lived based on where they wanted to live more so than where they had to live to work.

Take another jump forward to the world we currently live in. Our employment industries have dramatically changed. Over 85 per cent of Aussies are now employed in the Services sector. Manufacturing employment is below 10 per cent with Agriculture and Mining both accounting for very small employment percentages – despite their high contribution to the Gross Domestic Product of this nation. We now have 17 million vehicles on the road and a sophisticated and efficient road network in addition to the fact that 57.5 million passengers travelled on domestic flights last year.

All of these changes have resulted in a dramatic impact on where we live and why we live where we live. Coastal living has exploded. Several hundred inland towns have ceased to exist over the past fifty years and we have seen the emergence of major regional centres (like Dubbo) with a wide range of goods and services. Not all goods and services are available in smaller towns as these can be easily accessed from larger regional centres. Most dramatically, there has been a substantial uncoupling between where people live and where they work. The most important aspect of why people choose to live in a certain area is the magic all-encompassing term – amenity.

There is no doubt that the major challenge facing Councils across NSW is how to improve their area’s amenity. If we want people to choose to live in Dubbo, the best way we can drive that population growth is to make Dubbo a nice place in which to live. The creation of jobs in an area is no longer the single greatest driver to population increase. Mining towns are proving that every day. The FIFO populations are choosing not to live where they work. They live somewhere nicer. The driver for the creation and growth of a town in the previous 100 years is not necessarily an indicator of future success.

At the 1956 Olympics, Australia’s greatest female athlete ever won the 100m freestyle in a world record time of 1.02.0. At the 2012 Olympics, Ranomi Kromowidjojo won the same event in an Olympic Record time of 53.00. Dawn Fraser’s time from 1956 would have been good enough to slip into 43rd spot – just ahead of Aina Fils Rabetsara from Madagascar.

The world moves on. We need to be an agent of change rather than a passenger on the bus.

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