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In 2018, a report by Infrastructure Australia predicted that Perth, within 30 years, would grow to be the same size Melbourne and Sydney were in that year and surpass Brisbane as Australia’s third largest city. Perth’s fast-paced growth continues to have great implications for urban planners, the State Government and all those actively involved in planning for the future of our region.

While 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown one of the biggest curveballs in terms of any future planning, making sure we have the necessary infrastructure to cater for such a rapidly growing population will remain a major consideration for the WA Government and planners. Being able to cope with a fast rate of growth means that all infrastructure – from transport, energy and water to education, health, arts, public safety and affordable housing – will have to keep pace to help prepare for the future.

Over the past decade, it has been impossible to miss the seemingly endless works around the city and greater Perth region. We’ve seen rail and road extensions, new hospitals and schools, and entertainment precincts popping up everywhere. Only recently the WA Government has announced that Edith Cowan University and the WA Academy of Performing Arts will become our neighbours in the Perth CBD in a move that will see some 9,000 students and staff relocate to Yagan Square by 2025. And of course, anyone commuting during peak hour would know the sheer number of cars causing congestion on our roads.

As Perth continues to grow, even with new infrastructure in place, it could be likely that we will face significant changes to our daily behaviours and ways of life. For example, with improved public transport, would you be willing to leave the car at home and take the bus or train to work each day? Will we be willing to compromise on the dream of owning a house with a large backyard within reach of the city as this becomes an increasingly unattainable reality for many? Are we ready to embrace higher-density living in boutique apartments in established suburbs?

Perth’s population growth

Back in 2018, the prediction was the greater Perth region would grow to be home to approximately four million people by 2043. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data, the population of the greater Perth region has now surpassed two million.  

Between 2008 and 2012, Perth saw a staggering rate of growth as the resources boom attracted people from across the nation and overseas. Since then there has been a slowdown in the rate of growth, although Perth maintains a strong long-term growth trend with a rate between 1.29% and 1.69% per year since 2017. To put this into perspective, the population growth in the UK is approximately 0.6% per year.

Migration is one of the most important factors contributing toward Perth’s population growth. In fact, of our current 2.5 million population* more than 35% are born overseas. Beyond the mining boom era, it’s easy to see why Perth continues to attract migrants – not only does the city have one of the lowest population densities in the world, we also enjoy more hours of sunshine than any other capital city in the country.  

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent fall-off in migration, the Centre for Population now predicts that, Australia-wide, population growth is set to reach its lowest rate in more than a century. It’s still unclear how long the pandemic will continue to impact migration, and therefore slow population growth, but there will no doubt be impacts felt around the country for years to come.

What could Perth look like in the future?

The Committee for Perth, a group committed to researching and helping to reshape Perth’s future, reported in March 2020 that the greater Perth region is a place where the ‘Australian Dream’ of the big backyard is still very much alive. However, as our population continues to create an urban sprawl as well as infill in established suburbs, our backyards have been shrinking.  

A rapidly growing population brings with it a raft of changes – from longer commute times, potentially higher house prices and the need for more people to live further than 20 kilometres from the city centre. A significant cultural shift to how and where we live and work could form part of the coming 30 years in Perth.

Perhaps the social distancing restrictions in place during the COVID-19 pandemic have also served as a catalyst for this shift? A report by the ABC argues that COVID-19 could significantly change the way we interact with our local neighbourhoods forever. As we all saw during the restrictions, people across Perth embraced technology, worked remotely and spent more time within their local area for their day-to-day needs. Bike sales skyrocketed as people took to cycling, and traffic congestion dropped dramatically.

As Perth’s restrictions eased in June, many began to return to normal in some respects - returning to work, schools, shopping centres, activities and events. But perhaps some of the changes we saw during lockdown will have a lasting effect on how we work and live and we will begin to experience a new normal.

P&N Group General Manager Strategy and Corporate Development, Kim Radalj said the changes being experienced within Western Australia, and more broadly, mean we must look at what the future may bring when making decisions today.

“For many Australians, housing and living costs add to the pressure households are under. That is why looking for ways to sustainably increase the stock of affordable and accessible housing is so important,” said Kim. 

“Perth has historically solved affordability constraints by expanding geographically; however, this approach has put additional strain on infrastructure, making the development of alternative housing options more important than ever. Key workers, less able to afford housing close to work, have been forced to endure increasingly long commute times. 

“We are starting to see our city changing shape, leading to higher density housing in established suburbs. Physical infrastructure is of course only one component of vibrant flourishing communities; the space and activation of these is equally critical for the social connection and feeling of belonging it provides. 

“Whatever lies ahead, having a more diverse and adaptive housing stock is key to building a sustainable and enriching city as our population grows.”

While we can’t predict the future of Perth in a post-COVID-19 world, or the long-term behavioural changes that may be required of many of us living here, what we do know is that the challenge still remains for infrastructure to continue to keep pace with our population’s ever growing and changing needs.