Urbanization Photo Essays

Governments in Australia are increasingly becoming concerned with the centralized nature of Australia’s growth. Australia is already one of the world’s most highly urbanized countries, with around 9 million of the country’s 24 million people living in two cities alone (Melbourne and Sydney). However, a report by the Melbourne-based think tank the Grattan Institute highlights that the trends towards urbanization in Australia are only increasing.

According to the research, half of all jobs growth in the country is being concentrated within a 2 kilometer radius of the city centers of Sydney and Melbourne. This is due to the significant growth in service-based industries in the post-industrial economy. Such businesses achieve greater gains when positioned in close proximity to other service providers in densely populated areas. As more growth is created in these sectors, the phenomenon is compounded.

This is creating a sharp divide in the country between a highly enfranchised urban centers, and the declining opportunities of the regions. Australia’s treasurer, Scott Morrison, highlighted this phenomenon when he told The Australian newspaper, “In a large economy like Sydney and Melbourne or southeast Queensland, you can have quite disruptive changes that are occurring, but [the size of] those economies means that people can get to other opportunities.” He added, “But if you go to some parts of the country — and you see what is happening at Hazelwood and Whyalla and Portland and Townsville and so on — the ability to immediately go and do something else is just not there.”

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The reality of this opportunity deficit in Australia’s regional towns is not just an economic concern, but is rapidly becoming a political problem for the government and the other major political parties as well. A distinct cultural division has arisen between the comfortable cosmopolitan urban centers and the more parochial and disaffected regions, which are increasingly expressing their discontent through the ballot box.

This is reflected by data in the Grattan Institute report. According to the report, in the most recent Federal election, around 20 percent of people who live within a 10 km radius of their state’s capital city center gave their vote in the Senate to a party other than the governing Coalition, the Labor Party, or the Greens. This phenomenon rose to 30 percent for those more than 100 km away, and 37 percent for those 1,000 km away. This trend also correlates to education and incomes levels that slide the further away from a city center an individual is.

Yet this regional discontentment is not stemming from a lack of government interest in regional Australia. The report highlights that the economic output of Sydney represents around 22 percent of Australia’s total GDP, yet the city was only allocated around 5 percent of federal infrastructure spending in the decade up to 2015. Yet in the same time frame the rest of the state of New South Wales received 27 percent of federal infrastructure funding, despite only accounting for 8 percent of the country’s GDP.

This allocation of infrastructure spending still reflects a country strangely uncomfortable with its urban nature. The public discourse maintains some prominent fretting about its cities becoming “too big,” with the opposition leader in the state of Victoria beginning to actively campaign against Melbourne’s population growth.

There remains a strong sentiment clinging to the country’s national myths, which see “the bush” as the soul of Australia, despite the statistics that prove otherwise. As a young, modern state with an advanced economy (albeit with significant resource and agricultural sectors) Australia hasn’t existed in an era that lent itself to developing strong regional centers with vibrant industries of their own. The gains from proximity that fuel urbanization have been an increasing aspect of human organization since European colonization. That is why Australia has been, and continues to be, one of the most urbanized countries in the world, with almost 90 percent of its population living in cities.

Yet despite being a highly urbanized country, Australia’s cities remain low-density in comparison to other wealthy cities in Europe and to a lesser extent North America. Most new homes are still being built on the urban fringes of the country’s major cities, with strong hostility from the privileged classes to construction in well-serviced areas. Countering this attitude in order to expand access to city centers should be the government’s primary focus, instead of endorsing further sprawl and decentralization.

The concentration of jobs around the city centers of Sydney and Melbourne isn’t a trend that the government can reverse in the private sector, and attempts to move government departments to regional areas also undermines the essential knowledge these departments gain by being close to the action. Furthermore, policies that attempt to push against human demand tend to fail or cause greater problems.

While the romanticism of regional Australia remains strong, in the urban century the trend toward urbanization is only going to increase. A desire to create a more widespread access to opportunity, and to increase the country’s political stability, should lead governments to embrace Australia’s urban nature.

It's easy to believe that humankind's earliest cities existed sustainably within the natural ecosystem, unlike modern megalopolises, fed and sustained by vast tracts of farm land and a global economy. But, as a team of researchers studying the ancient city of Akko found out, human cities have been radically transforming the environment since at least 6,000 years ago.

Writing for Nature's Scientific Reports, a team led by David Kaniewski showed that the development of Akko, a port city along what is now Israel's northern shores, coincided with a collapse of the local ecosystem, with dense coastal forests transforming into a dry, shrubby grassland. In their paper, the scientists describe how the growth of Akko, one of the world's oldest cities, reshaped the local environment:

The city rapidly developed with ramparts, buildings and industrial areas. The anchorage, in connection with the Na’aman River fluvial system, was the focus of the economy and trade, and the main driver behind urban population growth. The spatial concentration of agricultural, industrial and commercial activities led to increased demands on local ecosystems, and to an encroachment on and a loss of natural biotopes in and around the tell. Fragmented proto-urban ecosystems only persisted as small patches within a matrix of urban and agricultural expansion, or even disappeared.

… Accelerated population growth since 4000 [before present] and unsustainable development generated by socio-economic demands dramatically increased water needs. Higher water uptake from watercourses and water tables, associated with the intentional or unintentional anthropogenic pressures on the fertile alluvial plains of the Na’aman River, the main source of freshwater at Akko, may further explain the expansion of an urban-adapted shrub-steppe.

Ancient peoples' overuse of the local water supply made the local plant life less able to withstand shocks, like dry years, and not long after humans' arrival at Akko the coastal forest disappeared, permanently, in favor of a grassland.

On top of those changes, the construction of the city itself caused shifts in the local climate. Through what's known as the “urban heat island” effect, the city became slightly warmer than the neighboring countryside—a climate dynamic that affects cities today, though on a much larger scale. The changes in temperature, coupled with the changes in water availability, further spurred the collapse of the coastal forests.

Now, the extent of the changes to the local ecosystem because of early human cities like Akko pales in comparison to the global effects of modern civilizations. But, when viewed in the proper context, says Liviu Giosan, a scientist who edited a recent book on the subject of ancient climate change, the differences seem less stark:

I think “the world” was defined very differently for ancient civilizations. The world, if we look at the ancient Greeks, ended in the Mediterranean. For the Egyptians, it was largely around the Nile. If we look at their definition and adopt their point of view, their world was as affected as ours by what they did.

Kaniewski and his team's work at Akko isn't the first evidence of ancient humans' effect on the ecosystem, or on the climate. But as evidence on the subject grows, say Kaniewski and his colleagues, it forces us to rethink our idyllic understanding of ancient peoples, and of what we can expect from our cities:

This questions the long-held belief of a ‘‘golden age’’ of sustainable early urban development. The same mechanisms that degrade or overexploit the ecosystems nowadays were already at work, even if technologies and agroinnovations were markedly different during the pre-industrial era. Accepting large urban concentrations might need to concede an intrinsic impossibility to produce locally sustainable development.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Dying of the Dead Sea
Was the Ancient Incan Empire Fueled by Warm Climate?

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About Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

Read more from this author | Follow @_ColinS_

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