Who cares about Australian urban research?
That was a key question posed at a plenary session at the recent State of Australian Cities (SOAC) conference in Sydney. My first thought was “I am!” and secondly “my colleagues are!” In fact, .id’s interest in cities is one of the reasons why we’ve attended the last two conferences, and why we decided to submit a paper for the 2013 version. As an organisation .id is part of the urban research community. The nature of our work means we need to maintain and extend our knowledge about current urban research, and in my case, how it relates to population forecasting. So what were the highlights of the 2013 SOAC Conference?
The SOAC conference has been held every two years since 2003. Papers fall into a number of themes – city economy, city social, city environment, city structure, city governance and city movement. It is primarily an academic conference so all presenters had to submit a paper. I presented a paper on the final day (last speaker last session – but hey, someone has to do it!) titled A tale of two cities – patterns of population growth and change in Sydney and Melbourne. It was essentially a combination of a few blogs I’ve written this year, basically explaining the different way that Sydney and Melbourne are growing from a spatial perspective, linking this to housing construction, and then discussing the potential reasons for these differences. My paper was the only one that dealt specifically with population and it has since been published on the SOAC conference website – you can download the pdf here.
While there were some great papers presented on topics such as housing density and planning governance, I found a session on ageing populations (part of the city social theme) the most interesting and relevant, particularly the papers presented by Bruce Judd et al and Lois Towart (respectively). Bruce Judd’s paper looked at reasons for downsizing by elderly Australians. This is a timely paper given the increasing number and proportion of elderly people in Australian cities, yet in terms of their housing outcomes it appears that many assumptions are made by policy makers with regards to the inevitability of leaving the family home for more suitable accommodation, not to mention the implication that older Australians are over-utilising housing space. As I’ve said many times, Census data provides a good evidence base with respect to numbers of people moving and the direction of the migration flows, but it does not give us the reasons. As a population forecaster, research that goes beyond the numbers is critical to understanding population and urban change and then placing this in the context of my own work.
Judd et al attempt to quantify the extent of downsizing by analysing Census migration data and suggest that around 9% of persons aged 50 years or over in 2001 had downsized, as measured by a move in the previous five years that involved a reduction in the number of bedrooms in the dwelling. There was a substantial decline in the proportion of dwellings with four or more bedrooms, and a corresponding increase in the proportion with two bedrooms after the move. This is related to the fact that a substantial proportion of migration by the downsizers had been to a retirement village, where typically dwellings have one or two bedrooms. Their survey and interview results also confirm a reduction in the floor space of the new dwelling compared to the previous residence – smaller but not too small – at least two bedrooms was preferable. However, while downsizing can be quantified by various dwelling attributes, the actual concept can mean different things to different people and rarely involves one facet. While a reduction in the number of bedrooms is important, it can be viewed in the context of a general “reduction” ie smaller garden, “de-cluttering” in terms of belongings. This was evident in the main response to the survey question on the motivations for downsizing – “lifestyle preference” – which can involve a number of things. Overall however it was evident that some of the main reasons for downsizing are associated with other life events eg children leaving home, retirement, relationship breakdown and death of a partner. This is consistent with previous research on the migration intentions of elderly people.
Lois Towart’s paper on retirement villages was also relevant because it broke down some of the myths associated with the types of people who live in them. Retirement villages are often perceived as being enclaves of wealthy retirees – possibly a legacy of the marketing for some of these places which depict happy, healthy older people living in a gated (read secure) community. Towart has analysed 2011 Census data to determine the demographic composition of retirement villages and whether they differ from older people in the general community. In terms of age structure, she found that the average age of retirement village residents across Australia was 78.7 years, with minimal variation between the States. Interestingly, there was a positive relationship between the age of the retirement village ie date of establishment, and average age of residents, ie older retirement villages had older residents. In other words, retirement villages mature over time in a similar way to new greenfield estates on the urban fringe. She also found that retirement villages on the whole were not wealthy enclaves, with a significant proportion of people receiving full or part pensions. In fact, the income profile of retirement villages tended to mirror that of elderly people in the surrounding community – a finding that largely goes against the marketing material associated with these villages.
The next SOAC will be held on the Gold Coast in 2015, but keep an eye on our blog for any announcements about .id staff making appearances at conferences in the meantime.