The population bomb
Over the last two months, surfers got a taste of the future thanks to COVID-19.
Through the combined effects of loss of employment, flexible work hours, cessation of international travel, repatriation of citizens, plus the cancellation of organised sport which left surfing as one of the few allowable activities, meant the surf was more crowded than ever.
It was more crowded than Boxing Day or the Easter long weekend, and from all reports the same pressures were felt around every surfable coastline in the country.
While COVID-19 is, hopefully, just a temporary blip and crowds will drop as normality slowly returns - not to mention cooling water temperatures over winter - it gave surfers a sense of the years to come. It also motivated us at Swellnet to examine population trends around the country.
While the hordes have been out surfing, we've been using publicly available data to assess population growth over the short and long-term at all the main surfing regions. There are more than a few surprises.
In general, Australia's population is increasing between 1.5-1.8% per year. Or, 15-18% per decade. With an average increase in 16% per decade we'll see Australia's population hitting approximately 28 million by 2026, this is up 10 million from 1996.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics provide population data from census' dating back to 1996 and that's what we've chosen to use. Upon analysing these stats, trends become apparent.
Firstly, looking at all the data on a macro scale, it becomes clear that regional centres, particularly coastal regional centres, are seeing a greater rate of population increase compared to the national average. The only regions bucking this trend are those that are already nearly at capacity due to geographical and/or policy restrictions. They might be bound by mountains or waterways, and they've already reached an allotted density.
The Gold Coast local government area takes the badge for the most populated surfing region in Australia. The decadal increase in population from 1996 through 2016 being an impressive 28% for 1996 to 2006, and 18% from 2006 to 2016.
The Gold Coast is forecast to accelerate north again, to be around 25% through the period 2016 to 2026 pushing the population to 713,000.
The Sunshine Coast has just under half the population of its southern neighbour, however, it's forecast to increase 25% from 2016 to 2026. The one difference between these two regions is the population density. The Sunshine Coast regional area spreads over 3,124km², whereas the Gold Coast is less than half of that, measuring 1,334km². That puts the population density of the Gold Coast at 535 ppl/square kilometre, significantly more than the Sunny Coast's 96 ppl/square kilometre.
Just south of the border, the Tweed Coast saw a big push into the region through 1996 to 2006 with an increase in population of 24% but this has since eased back to below the national average at 13% for 2006 to 2016 and then forecast to be just 10% in the current decade.
Ballina has been on a slow but steady increase, mostly around 10% per decade and below the national average, with the Byron Shire lesser again.
The highest concentration of people per region is in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, where 278,000 people reside in an area of only 57km². This puts the population density at 5181 ppl/square kilometre, with the Northern Beaches coming in second with 1,125 ppl/square kilometre.
Surprisngly, the third highest population density in Australia goes to Mandurah, south of Perth, at 992 ppl/square kilometre. This number arrives on the back of a near doubling of the population in the twenty years between 1996 and 2016, with increases of 47% and 48% per decade. The actual numbers were 37,295 people in 1996, up to 83,099 in 2016.
This trend is expected to slow back slightly to 27% for the period 2016 to 2026, but that's still well ahead of the national average, and will put the population over 105,000 within six years time.
The Mandurah region only covers a relatively small area of 106km², so it stands out as one of the fastest growing regions, and also one of the most crowded.
The Augusta Shire and Busselton area aren't too far behind regarding population growth, increasing 40%, 42% and 34% decade on decade from 1996 to 2026, however the region is 34 times larger meaning the population density is an order of magnitude lower at only 18 ppl/square kilometre. This is mostly restricted to the Busselton area, but with the premier breaks of Margaret River located less than hours drive away, the extra pressure of over 40,000 extra people since 1996 is being felt across the regions surf breaks.
Victoria is an interesting case in itself.
The Mornington Peninsula has seen the population increasing at a rate faster than the national average through 1996 to 2016, that being 24% and 18% per decade respectively but it's slowing considerably to just 7% in the period from 2016 to 2026.
The reasons for this slow down is in the Mornington Peninsula Planning Scheme. The plan aims to prevent urban sprawl and the subdivision of rural land across the peninsula as to maintain the rural landscape and coastal sea scapes. This means growth will be restricted to the already populated bay towns.
The overflow from the restrictions on population growth across the peninsula look to be seen on the Bass Coast with the region, which includes Phillip Island, constantly increasing above the national average. It peaked at a 30% increase between 1996 to 2006, went down to 25% from 2006 to 2016, and is forecast to further reduce to 17% up to 2026, staying just above the 16% national average.
Moving across the bay to the very topical Surf Coast Shire. From a modest 16,714 in 1996, the population is forecast to more than double by 2026 with 38,000. There was a 30% increase in population to 2006, topped then by a 40% increase up to 2016 and this is expected to drop a touch to 25% running out to 2026 - which is still 10% above the national average.
Critically, the Surf Coast breaks not only service local residents, but those from waveless Melbourne, and also Geelong which itself is forecast to house 300,000 people in the next six years. Counting 38,000 locally, 300,000 at Geelong and even more at Melbourne, the strain will be felt across the Surf Coast's premier breaks as it inches towards being an outer suburb of Melbourne.
Down the road at Warrnambool, the increase in population has been below the national average for the last two decades, but this is forecast to almost double through the current decade, jumping to 17% through until 2026 and long range predictions expect it to continue through the following decade again.
In South Australia, the Onkaparinga Council, which takes in the Mid Coast reef breaks, is now increasing in population ahead of the national average putting stress on those waves. It's not only the townies that the locals at Seaford and Christies have to worry about, with the population nearing 190,000 by 2026. This is a 17% increase on 2016's population of 163,396 and 36% above 1996's population.
To finish off we look to the City of Clarence on Tasmania's South Arm. Here the population increase is below the national average, recording between 6-9% over the last two decades and due to slow to 5% in the current decade. So it looks like the cold and lack of significant population increase will keep the crowds at bay for the meantime in the Apple Isle.
So what to make of all these trends and statistics?
Firstly, areas within an easy drive of capital cities are growing the fastest nationally, particularly those south of Perth, and there doesn't look to be any let up in the next couple of decades. The Surf Coast and other premier Victorian surf regions will continue to see stress on their breaks due to continued development, while over east, the Gold and Sunshine Coasts continue on their rapid expansion.
It's also worth pointing out that the data we used was created prior to COVID-19. We expect that those numbers - that is the forecasts up to 2026 - will be higher than current predictions, and for three reasons.
Firstly, during the pandemic more people than ever worked from home. New technologies were created, new protocols established. This pattern will continue, meaning work arrangements will decreasingly tie people to the city.
Secondly, many of those who lost work will view it as an opportunity to change their circumstances. Forced out of their comfort zone, many will take a chance on new starts.
Thirdly, humans have relied on the metropolis for safety, yet COVID-19 turned that thinking on its head. Talk of second and third waves, or further pandemics, will see an exodus of people towards the regional centres, elevating the numbers shown above.
With mortalities in Australia far lower than expected, the idea that COVID-19 will change us receeds in significance, yet population distribution will be one way Australia changes in the post-pandemic world. Though as we've seen above, in most cases it will only be speeding up a process that's been occuring for over twenty years.
What results from an increasing number of surfers accessing a finite number of waves won't be unexpected - we can assume classic primate behaviour will be more prevalent. That is, unless the number of 'resources' can be increased, and it's one reason Swellnet has shown a renewed interest in artifical reefs.
However, that's another story for another day.