Australia survived the global financial crisis, due largely to China buying its resources, and while resource exports will continue to bolster its economy for decades, future prosperity may be threatened by a growing, ageing population, according to an Australian government report released in February.
Australia's post-World War Two sprawling suburbia is under strain due to inadequate transport and public facilities. "We're at risk of seeing increasingly dysfunctional cities ... we're starting to see sort of fragmentation and breakdown of the transport systems and increasing frustration for the residents of those cities trying to get around," said Jago Dodson, urban researcher at Griffth University.A number of problems loom on the horizon: Australia's urban planning uniformly follows the post-WW2 American model, with sprawling cities of quarter-acre blocks, large "McMansion"-style houses, near-universal car ownership and a neglected public transport system half-heartedly run as welfare for the carless poor (though, to its credit, without the sort of neo-Calvinist contempt America manages for its have-nots). Most of Australia's land mass is desert, and its arable land, being geologically older than other continents, is less fertile, needing more fertiliser (typically petrochemical-based). Fresh water supplies are scarce; farmers are affected by drought and cities hit with water restrictions. The bulk of Australia's population is located around the coasts, with the country's largest cities being coastal. If global warming results in rising sea levels, this could result in flooding of populated areas. Moving inland is, for obvious reasons, not an easy solution.
With the population set to rise, some key assumptions about life in the Lucky Country are being reconsidered, from the ideal of owning a huge house on a quarter-acre block in suburbia to the right to drive anywhere in your own car. However, as in the US, there is considerable resistance to a change in these values.
Demographer Salt questions whether Australians will give up the "Neighbours" dream, citing the worldwide TV hit about life in a suburban Australian street. "Neighbours...is absolutely integral to the Australian psyche," said Salt, a partner at KPMG.
"Despite concern about climate change, road use in our cities is predicted to grow significantly in the next 20 to 30 years," said Transurban in a 2009 sustainability report. "New road projects will increasingly be part of integrated transport solutions for entire cities or transport corridors."Despite this resistance, demographers are predicting Australia's cherished sprawl being replaced with higher-density urban planning (some are even talking about "Manhattanization"), and there are already proposals for European-style mass transit projects (such as an underground rail network for Sydney). Whether the kinds of multi-billion-dollar sums get spent on subways, high-speed trains and other infrastructure that routinely happen in Europe remains to be seen; until now, public transport has been the red-headed stepchild of state governments, with billions spent on freeways (which, after all, serve the outer-suburban motorists whose votes swing elections) and public transport getting mostly empty promises, with the occasional bus service being extended from 6:30pm to 7:00pm on weekdays. (In Melbourne, there doesn't seem to be enough money to keep the existing service, as patchy as it is, from falling apart.)