Timothy F Smith, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems
Michael Doherty, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
Pressures on coastal Australia can be described in terms of population growth, tourism, climate change and variability, and governance arrangements.
Australia’s population has shifted and continues to shift. In terms of population movements to non-metropolitan high amenity environs—including ‘sea change’ areas—these shifts have been studied extensively over the past 30 years (see Burnley and Murphy (2004) for an overview of literature on Australia’s ‘population turnaround’). Salt (2001) suggests that there have been three Australian dominant demographic ‘cultures’ since European settlement: (i) the culture of the bush at the time of Federation; (ii) the culture of suburbia from Federation until the end of the twentieth century; and (iii) an emerging culture of the coast. While there are numerous reasons for the emerging population shift, including ‘push’ (such as reduced work opportunities) and ‘pull’ (such as lifestyle aspirations) factors (ABS 2004a; Stimson and Minnery 1998), the dominant demographic cultures reflect mental models that each Australian has of this nation. These mental models have dominated various aspects of popular culture throughout Australia’s history, from the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ to the ABC television sitcom ‘SeaChange’.
Long-term demographic trends support Salt’s demographic ‘cultures’, where at the time of Federation, 15 per cent of Australian’s lived in suburbia, compared to 58 per cent by 2001 (Salt 2003). Similarly, people living in non-metropolitan coastal regions increased from eight per cent to 20 per cent over the same period (Salt 2003; Salt 2005). If peri-urban coastal communities are also included in these assessments, of Australia’s recent total population count (about 20 million), 12.6 million resided in capital cities, and of the remaining 7.4 million, 75 per cent resided in coastal communities (Stokes 2005).
While recent population growth rates in coastal areas in actual numbers may not seem significant when compared to actual growth in the capital cities (for example, while the local government area of Casey in Melbourne increased by 32,600 people over the period 1996 to 2001, Victoria’s Surf Coast Shire increased by 3,000 people), the percentage growth rates experienced by coastal areas are significant when compared with their respective state and national averages (for example, the population of Surf Coast increased by 3.2 per cent per year between 1996 and 2001, while the national average increased by 1.2 per cent per year over the same period) (ABS 2004a; ABS 2004b), particularly as many of those coastal areas are already under many natural pressures, and are less resilient to local economic boom and bust cycles.
Population projections by ABS (2001) to 2022 also show continued high growth in many current ‘sea change’ communities. For example, Douglas Shire in Far North Queensland is expected to have an overall population increase of 65 per cent (to 17 365 people) for 2002–22. Also in Queensland, Maroochy’s population is expected to grow by 58 per cent (to 225 848 people). Similarly, in Victoria, Surf Coast’s population is expected to grow by 71 per cent (to 30 572 people), and in Western Australia, Augusta-Margaret River is expected to grow by 64 per cent (to 16 513 people). The issues of coastal suburbanisation are not short-term.
Not all coastal municipalities are growing, and some areas are even experiencing a decline in population (for example, Port Pirie and Port Augusta in South Australia). Similarly, while there is a general trend of declining inland populations, there are some high-growth ‘tree change’ exceptions such as Bendigo and Dubbo. Furthermore, while many coastal regions are experiencing high rates of population growth, the relative share of population growth between coastal regions and other areas remains dominated by capital cities. For example, the estimated share of population growth in New South Wales between 2001 and 2031 will be dominated by Sydney (71.7 per cent of total growth), compared to 17.6 per cent of total growth occurring in coastal New South Wales (DIPNR 2004).
What makes some areas desirable is complex and again relates to many ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors such as employment opportunities and quality of life issues. Building on previous classifications developed and documented by Burnley and Murphy (2004), a recent study by Gurran et al. (2005) identified five profiles of coastal communities that may help to understand some of the significant ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. These five profiles include:
- coastal commuters—suburbanised peri-urban communities within easy daily commuting distance of a capital city (for example, Wollongong in New South Wales)
- coastal getaways—within three hours drive of a capital city and easy weekend access to a holiday home (for example, Lorne in Victoria)
- coastal cities—regional urban centres (for example, Albany in Western Australia)
- coastal lifestyle destinations—tourism-dominated communities (for example, Byron Bay in New South Wales)
- coastal hamlets—small and remote coastal communities (for example, Agnes Waters in Queensland).
Of course, some areas fulfil multiple functions as they either evolve through different waves of immigration and use, or because of the particular circumstances of their geographical location. For example, the Central Coast of New South Wales was once a holiday getaway location; but through improved transport links the region is now ‘closer’ to Sydney and could be classified as now having a coastal commuter profile.
Contrary to popular belief, the population migration is not dominated by retirees. During the year prior to the 2001 census, 79 per cent of people who moved to ‘sea change’ areas were younger than 50 years of age (ABS 2004a). However, the spending patterns of retirees moving to the coast, combined with tourism spending, determines many of the job and business opportunities that attract workforce age migration (Burnley and Murphy 2004). This is particularly significant as the demographic and social diversity of ‘sea change’ communities (for example, age and occupation) is a critical consideration as to the long-term viability of those communities. For example, the ability to withstand external impacts on a local economy, or to maintain and build social capital, requires a resilient community mix that is adaptive and sustaining.
Also contrary to popular belief, the majority of new coastal residents moved from either a regional population centre (42 per cent) or from a country area (27 per cent), rather than from a capital city, although the contribution from non-metropolitan areas increases with distance from a metropolis (Burnley and Murphy 2002). In addition, the vast majority (78 per cent) of new residents moved from within the same state or territory (ABS 2004a). Even so, forty-four per cent of recent retirees did move from capital cities, potentially showing signs of future city to coastal migration as the baby-boomer generation enters retirement. Some of the city to coastal community migration may also have been partly driven by urban-Australian economic prosperity during the last few decades, where coastal homes in some regions are considerably less expensive than in some capital cities, although this has been recently re-aligning. The real estate booms of the capital cities have allowed some people to ‘cash-in’ and relocate or use their newfound equity to purchase a second home or investment property.
There is a common perception that ‘sea change’ communities are inundated by tourists at particular times of the year. This is true for some regions (for example, more than twice the number of visitors to south west Australia—roughly from Bunbury to Albany—come during the month of January, compared to May) (Tourism Western Australia 2004). In contrast, tourism is more regular for many other ‘sea change’ areas (such as the Sunshine Coast) (Tourism Research Australia 2004). Tourist numbers are higher during weekends, and school and public holidays, and seasonal variation seems to be less pronounced the closer the region is to a capital city. In terms of small and remote ‘sea change’ communities, seasonality can represent significant changes to population composition. This creates onerous infrastructure demands for one or two months of the year, as well as the need to maintain under-utilised infrastructure during off-peak periods.
International tourism is more affected by seasonal variability (for example, during the period 1999 to 2003, the month of December accounted for 11.1 per cent of all arrivals, and May accounted for 6.5 per cent of arrivals) (Tourism Australia 2004). However, international tourism only accounts for about six per cent of total tourist numbers for Australia and, since the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis, has been more volatile and lower than global tourism growth (Department of Industry and Tourism Resources 2004). In south-west Australia for instance, international tourism only accounted for around five per cent of total visitors during 2002 and 2003 (Tourism Western Australia 2004).
Although sand mining along the eastern Australian coast was a major source of conflict between conservation and mining groups from the mid-1960s through to the mid-1990s, the main pressure on coastal locations in the twenty-first century is arising from both residential development, tourism pressure, and the synergistic interaction between these two pressures. Although there are many and varied levels of tourist pressure from simple self-organised trips to national parks to package tours including resort accommodation, it is the ‘discovery’ of a destination through tourism that may ultimately lead to pressures for greater development in the longer term. Ironically, tourists or individuals fleeing ‘overdevelopment’ can in fact lead to the next ‘discovery’ and initiate the next phase of development. The creation of national parks along the coastline has occurred through the influence of local groups and government. These reserves are often the battlegrounds between different user groups such as bushwalkers and four-wheel-drivers, or canoeists and jet-ski riders. Conflict over recreational uses of public national spaces is particularly prevalent in prominent tourist destinations and in national parks that are surrounded by urban or suburban areas. Urban or suburban encroachment also leads to greater prevalence of weeds that encroach on natural areas.
Climate change and variability may also create additional pressures on these dynamic coastal ecosystems, potentially having numerous impacts on many sectors, with the potential for major problems over the next few decades and beyond. For example, climate change might impact on coastal communities by affecting: (i) water resources , through less supply and greater demand; (ii) health, through more heat-related illness; (iii) fisheries, as warmer oceans could affect coastal biodiversity ; (iv) industry, through more energy demand (greater demands during summer for air conditioning as temperatures increase), tourism (affected by changes to the natural environment), and insurance (greater liability with extreme events); and (v) infrastructure, through greater exposure to severe storm events and associated impacts such as flooding and coastal erosion . Increasing coastal populations also exacerbate many of these problems (for example, through the creation of more impervious surfaces, which can exacerbate flooding).
Governance arrangements also create pressures on the way in which the ‘sea change’ phenomenon is managed. Until recently, any local coastal area in New South Wales might have been subject simultaneously to a coastal management plan, estuary management plan, floodplain management plan, and catchment management plan (Smith et al. 2001). In addition, it is possible for a range of statutory and non-statutory instruments relating to landuse and environmental planning to be administered independently by any of the three tiers of government. Adding to this complexity is the nature of many planning instruments that are specific to an issue or sector, thus creating conflicting goals within and between institutions.
Similarly, with the emergence of regional governance in Australia, there has been the creation of more institutional complexity and disconnects in some coastal areas. For example, the transition to the Natural Heritage Trust (phase 2) has seen the emergence of more formal regional governance for natural resource management in all states and territories (which in some areas has built upon previous catchment management initiatives). However, the evolution of regional governance has largely been disconnected from regional growth-management frameworks, and similarly disconnected from regional local government collectives—although the relationships between regional natural resource management and local government has recently improved in some jurisdictions (McDonald et al. 2005; Wild River 2006). Similarly, disconnects can also exist between coastal planning and broader regional natural resource management planning. These disconnects can lead to information duplication and conflicting priorities for natural resource management.
Other added pressures are the change in community expectations of the roles of local government in ‘sea change’ communities, combined with devolution of governance responsibilities. While local governments in some jurisdictions have increasing responsibilities for controlling and enforcing the environmental impacts of development and industry, local councils once had a clear community mandate to focus on roads, rates and rubbish. Similarly, the expectations of some ‘sea-change’ communities have evolved and now expect local councils to assume a de facto responsibility for a range of environmental and social services for which they have no statutory responsibility (Smith et al. 2001). In some areas, this has led to the raising of environmental levies and the like to allow more local government interventions. At the 2005 National Sea Change Summit, held in Coolum, some local councils expressed the desire to shift the planning paradigm to better meet community aspirations, whilst maintaining asset services.
As the suburbs of our capital cities change (for example, higher housing density , increasing rates of family breakdown, greater resident mobility, increased pollution , under or over employment , and greater fear of crime), perhaps the factors that motivated people to seek life in the suburb of a capital city are more difficult to find. Is the mindset that inspired migration to the suburbs 50 years ago the same mindset that is inspiring the ‘sea change’ phenomenon? If Australia’s modern experience of city living changed to reflect a better quality of life would the ‘sea change’ phenomenon be less pronounced, or will Australians always be a wandering nation searching for a temporary dream?
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