Chance to pave future path

4 May 2007

IT'S getting cold down here, so news that Premier Peter Beattie has invited skilled southerners to move north has created a stir.

From here in Sydney, it seems Queensland is getting selective about sea changers. Simple sunseekers aren't helping the economy, it seems.

This raises an interesting dilemma for planners like me. Can you turn lifestyle-driven growth into lasting economic growth, when people are moving for lifestyle, not jobs?

Overseas, Queensland-style seachange growth, or "amenity" migration as they call it, is just as big a problem along Spain's Costa Del Sol, in America's Florida and the Mountain West, and in many other places known for their natural beauty, warm climate, and leisure-oriented lifestyle.

Unlike traditional migration models, where people move for better employment, amenity migrants move for better lifestyle. But while lifestyle can attract skilled workers, most won't move without a specific job to go to.

Some jobs are created by growth itself, like jobs in construction, and these depend on the ongoing growth machine. Others, like jobs in retail, health and personal service industries, arise because of the increased population.

Given the leisure orientation of these places, there may also be jobs in tourism, unless or until suburbanisation smothers visitor appeal. But these jobs tend to be low-paid and low-skilled, and are often part-time or seasonal. They don't lead to long-term meaningful careers.

This doesn't matter to many sea changers, who aren't looking for jobs. The ageing baby boomers facing many years of active retirement are footloose and funded by "mail box incomes" – investments, superannuation and pensions.

When the natural amenity is the attraction, development focuses on the most sensitive environments – in Australia this typically means the coast – so the narrow and fragile coastal strip bears the brunt of amenity-driven sprawl.

Sprawling linear development is difficult and expensive to service, and many of the infrastructure requirements for urban developments in these contexts – especially water and water treatment systems – have their own environmental risks.

Most Australian states, including Queensland, have coastal policies that correctly seek to limit coastal sprawl and focus new urban expansion around existing settlements, while increasing density within existing ones.

Yet metropolitan-style urban consolidation policy doesn't always translate well in coastal towns. The environmental need to conserve land is eagerly interpreted by many developers as high-density, cookie-cutter suburban development everywhere – from Penrith to Port Macquarie – plus high-rise apartments for "housing mix". The sentiment is right, but often the design template is not.

There are also social consequences when population growth happens rapidly and relatively small existing populations feel overwhelmed by the new faces in their streets, schools and shopping centres. It takes time to connect with new people, but many sea changers actually move on within a year or two.

Hervey Bay and Noosa planners talk of the "churn factor" where up to 30 per cent of school enrolments could change within a single year. "Migration turbulence" also reflects poor job opportunities in some of these communities. But is it all bad news? Not necessarily. Capital cities can't keep growing either, at least not in the same way. So movement to regional Australia should be welcomed. How to manage it is the key.

Borrowing from the UK Government's new draft planning policy on climate change, Queensland could lead Australia in making new development work within existing environmental capacity.

New developments would source and treat water within the development area itself, support local renewable energy supply systems, minimise the need for cars and encourage walking and cycling.

The design and technological innovation required to limit contributions to carbon emissions, while actively adapting to possible climate change effects on coastal landforms, biodiversity, buildings and infrastructure, already exists – if at the cutting edge of a vital new industry.

Unless Queensland secedes from Australia, Beattie probably can't mandate a skilled migration program for southerners moving in.

But if development itself is the industry in many of Queensland's growth areas, make it the kind of development that defines sustainable construction, technology and innovation. I might come too, if you'll have me.

* Dr Nicole Gurran is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning and author of Australian Urban Land Use Planning (Sydney University Press)