How will COVID-19 impact future population growth in suburban areas?

How will COVID-19 impact future population growth in suburban areas?

Today’s blog is a masterclass in storytelling with data. In this latest installment of our series unpacking the likely impact of COVID-19 on different types of places in Australia, Richard Thornton turns his focus to our suburban areas.

Home to a significant portion of the 17 million Australians living in our capital cities, our suburbs are highly varied in their demographic and economic makeup. And, as Richard demonstrates, their exposure to the impacts of the pandemic are equally varied. Where migration has been the big story elsewhere, using recently released data from our partners at National Economics, Richard compares Sydney’s Northern Beaches with the more disadvantaged area of Fairfield to demonstrate how socio-economic vulnerability will be a critical determinant of the resilience of our suburban areas in the years ahead.

This blog is packed full of detailed insights. Grab a cuppa and settle in, or skip ahead to

Just over 17 million people now live in Australia’s capital cities and, although the fastest-growing areas are in the growth areas (tomorrow’s suburbs), the greatest proportion of these people live in the suburbs.

What is a suburb?

For the purposes of understanding the impact of COVID-19 on these areas, we have designated suburbs as the residential areas of capital cities. They can be further classified by their distance from the CBD.

Inner suburbs are

  • closest to the CBD and tend to have older housing, developed pre-war, and consequently more heritage value
  • home to high amenity and transport connectivity
  • likely to have gentrified and undergone significant increases in land values since the 1980s, as the industrial base of our cities has relocated.

Middle ring suburbs are

  • Generally, suburbs built to house the post-war population boom, driven by overseas migration.

Outer-suburbs are

  • areas developed post-1970s or are recently completed growth areas where the initial development phase has been completed, and the resident population is starting to age in place.

We have addressed the impact on the suburbs of regional cities already, as they are subject to different impacts. Today’s analysis of suburbs also links nicely to the blog in this series about growth areas, as today’s growth areas are tomorrow’s suburbs.

Demographic patterns of the suburbs

Typically, middle and outer-ring suburbs have a relatively homogeneous housing stock dominated by detached housing and with a high level of homeownership or mortgaged properties.

These areas attract families, whilst losing young adults, and experience greater resident diversity as people age in place. The exceptions would be suburbs close to major activity centres or universities which are more likely to see some diversification of housing stock attracting younger adults.

The development opportunities in middle and outer ring suburbs are generally more constrained and are limited to infill with duplex or triplet villa-type developments. Consequently, population change is not directly driven by migration and housing demand; the demographic changes within suburbs are instead more affected by ageing in place, the cost of housing and housing markets.

Even in the higher density housing markets that exist in inner suburbs and in areas around universities (which are in part driven by overseas migration), there is a strong appeal to a home-grown market predominantly made up of young adults and families willing to trade space for relative affordability, convenience and location.

Will all suburban areas be impacted equally?

As a ‘type’ of place, ‘The suburbs‘ is a diverse category and we debated the merits of assessing the likely impacts of COVID-19 on suburbs as a generic ‘type’ of place. Can we expect any commonalities in how these areas will be impacted?

We concluded that while the effects of COVID-19 will vary across suburban areas (as they will to some degree between any two places), these variances will be caused by factors such as proximity to employment, transport connections and the relative wealth or disadvantage or residents. In this way, we have a good framework to understand the likely impacts.

The impact on your suburban LGA

To see this analysis for your suburban area (or one that you’re interested in), the table below lists all the suburban Local Government Areas in Australia. The LGAs highlighted orange subscribe to our population forecasts. Click the orange link in the table to see the new Covid-19 impact assessment page for that area.

Local Government Area (LGA) State Estimated Resident Population 2019 (Rounded)
Banyule (C) Victoria 131,630
Bassendean (T) Western Australia 15,820
Bayside (A) New South Wales 178,400
Bayside (C) Victoria 106,860
Bayswater (C) Western Australia 68,360
Belmont (C) Western Australia 42,080
Boroondara (C) Victoria 183,200
Brimbank (C) Victoria 209,520
Brisbane (C) Queesland 1,253,980
Burnside (C) South Australia 45,820
Burwood (A) New South Wales 40,610
Cambridge (T) Western Australia 28,870
Campbelltown (C) (SA) South Australia 52,190
Canada Bay (A) New South Wales 96,070
Canning (C) Western Australia 92,890
Canterbury-Bankstown (A) New South Wales 377,920
Charles Sturt (C) South Australia 118,940
Claremont (T) Western Australia 10,710
Clarence (C) Tasmania 57,810
Cottesloe (T) Western Australia 8,250
Cumberland (A) New South Wales 241,520
Darebin (C) Victoria 164,180
Darwin (C) Northern Territory 82,890
East Fremantle (T) Western Australia 7,840
Fairfield (C) New South Wales 211,700
Frankston (C) Victoria 142,640
Gawler (T) South Australia 24,420
Georges River (A) New South Wales 159,470
Glen Eira (C) Victoria 156,510
Glenorchy (C) Tasmania 47,970
Greater Dandenong (C) Victoria 168,200
Hobsons Bay (C) Victoria 97,750
Holdfast Bay (C) South Australia 37,440
Hornsby (A) New South Wales 152,060
Hunters Hill (A) New South Wales 14,980
Joondalup (C) Western Australia 159,810
Kingston (C) (Vic.) Victoria 165,780
Knox (C) Victoria 164,540
Ku-ring-gai (A) New South Wales 127,150
Lane Cove (A) New South Wales 40,160
Manningham (C) Victoria 127,570
Maribyrnong (C) Victoria 93,450
Marion (C) South Australia 93,450
Maroondah (C) Victoria 118,560
Melville (C) Western Australia 102,310
Mitcham (C) South Australia 67,470
Monash (C) Victoria 202,850
Moonee Valley (C) Victoria 130,290
Moreland (C) Victoria 185,770
Mosman (A) New South Wales 30,980
Mosman Park (T) Western Australia 9,110
Nedlands (C) Western Australia 22,600
Nillumbik (S) Victoria 65,090
Northern Beaches (A) New South Wales 273,500
Norwood Payneham St Peters (C) South Australia 37,060
Onkaparinga (C) South Australia 172,940
Peppermint Grove (S) Western Australia 1,730
Port Adelaide Enfield (C) South Australia 127,740
Prospect (C) South Australia 21,520
Randwick (C) New South Wales 155,650
Ryde (C) New South Wales 131,270
Salisbury (C) South Australia 143,560
South Perth (C) Western Australia 43,770
Stirling (C) Western Australia 221,040
Stonnington (C) Victoria 117,770
Strathfield (A) New South Wales 46,930
Sutherland Shire (A) New South Wales 230,610
Tea Tree Gully (C) South Australia 100,260
Unley (C) South Australia 39,210
Victoria Park (T) Western Australia 36,960
Walkerville (M) South Australia 8,000
Waverley (A) New South Wales 74,300
West Torrens (C) South Australia 60,840
Whitehorse (C) Victoria 178,740
Willoughby (C) New South Wales 81,190
Woollahra (A) New South Wales 59,390
Yarra Ranges (S) Victoria 159,460

How will COVID-19 impact the different drivers of population change in suburban areas?

As we mentioned above, the impacts will vary in different suburban LGAs, and indeed within those LGAs. To help us understand these differences, we’ve chosen two quite different LGAs in New South Wales – Northern Beaches Council Area and Fairfield Council area – to look at how the drivers of population change will be impacted in each.

These examples demonstrate that the most significant determinants of impact are the relative wealth of residents and their access to opportunities.

This can be illustrated by looking at the following key indicators:

A tale of two cities

Northern Beaches Council area

Northern Beaches Council is a large council area encompassing the northern area of Sydney from Manly in the south to Broken Bay in the north. It is an affluent area, being one of the most advantaged areas in NSW.

The housing stock is predominantly detached dwellings, but beachside areas such as Manly and Dee Why have seen densification and cater to a more diverse demographic, compared with the more northern suburbs.

It has considerable amenity in terms of coastal access and national parks and most of the area’s residential stock was developed post-1950s. It is a very car-based area, there being no rail-links to the Northern Beaches and, except for Manly which has ferry-links, there are limited alternatives.

Fairfield Council area

Fairfield Council encompasses an area in south-western Sydney about 32 kilometres south west of the Sydney CBD. In contrast to Northern Beaches, it is one of the more disadvantaged Council areas in NSW. The City features a large residential population as well as significant employment areas based around large-scale industrial estates at Wetherill Park and Smithfield and has major commercial centres in Fairfield and Cabramatta.

The area saw considerable residential development in the immediate post-war era and the City’s population increased rapidly from about 27,000 in 1948 to 120,000 in 1979. This was driven by large-scale housing commission development in the 1950s, continuing with larger greenfield developments commencing in the 1960’s. The earlier period of development was concentrated in the east of the City, around Fairfield, Canley Vale and Cabramatta. Development subsequently spread westward, away from the rail lines and the western suburbs, developed through to the 1990s, are predominantly car-based, with buses being the only form of public transport.

The migration impact

One of the main challenges in understanding how the pandemic will impact small area populations is its effect on how many people will move into or leave an area. Net migration is dynamic, and a significant driver of population change for any area.

It includes people moving to/from

  • overseas (overseas migration)
  • another State or Territory (interstate migration)
  • or another area within the same State (intrastate migration).

Overseas migration

As in most areas, prior to Covid-19, overseas migration has been a significant contributor to population growth within suburban areas. The makeup of overseas arrivals into different suburbs, however, varies depending on the house prices of those suburbs and the cultural needs and resources of migrant groups. Accordingly, Northern Beaches and Fairfield City provide very different narratives.

The impact of changing overseas migration on the Northern Beaches

The table below is an extract from our COVID-19 Impact Assessment page which summarises the contribution each component makes towards total net-migration.  This historical data gives us context for assessing how each of these migration components will be impacted by the border closures and the wider economic uncertainty COVID-19 has created.


A significant proportion of residents from Northern Beaches were born overseas, with 32% of residents born overseas from the UK, followed by New Zealand (6%), and China (5%). Most of the more recent arrivals in Northern Beaches will have arrived on skilled migrant visas or gained permanent residence after studying in Australia on student visas.

The number of overseas migrants over the last 5-years (16,254 persons) is far higher than the net gain through migration (743 persons) meaning that although overseas migration forms an important component, a proportion of arrivals leave for elsewhere in NSW and Australia, or return back overseas.

In total, overseas migration is not the main driver of growth within Northern Beaches. Nonetheless, given the likely inclusion of a large proportion of temporary residents from overseas (whether as backpackers or people who subsequently settle elsewhere in the Greater Sydney area), the loss of this group following international border closures will have a large impact over the next few years, resulting in an overall decline in population, most noticeably in coastal suburbs and areas such as Manly.

The impact of changing overseas migration on Fairfield CityCovid-19-impact-assessment-migration-indicators-fairfield-city

On the other side of town, overseas migration is the major component of Fairfield City’s population growth, with about 54% of the population born overseas.

Of those residents who are overseas-born, the greatest number are from Vietnam (29%), followed by Iraq  (17%) and Cambodia (7%) many of whom have arrived as refugees or with more limited resources. The area provides affordable housing to new arrivals and has a significantly greater degree of diversity than the Northern Beaches.

2,544% of net migration?

Here, the number of overseas migrants is far higher than the overall net rate of migration.

Between 2011 and 2016, Fairfield City gained 14,951 overseas migrants, but in total 27,280 persons migrated out of the LGA, with a total net loss of 12,562 persons.  As people become established, or children grow up, they tend to move on accessing housing opportunities elsewhere.

Given the closure of international borders, it is likely that Fairfield will see a decline in population. Most overseas migrants are younger adults within the age groups most likely to form families. A lower rate of overseas arrivals would mean fewer younger families and children within the City, with potential ramifications for the viability of services.

Interstate and intrastate migration 

Sydney has historically lost population to other States, whilst gaining a larger proportion of overseas migrants. This loss will reduce over the near future, and, although it will return to a net loss of population interstate as the borders with the other states reopen, this is expected to be at a lower rate. This is because a longer-term recession is likely to mean that Capital Cities retain population owing to being centres of employment and job diversity.

The impact of changes to domestic migration on the Northern Beaches

Between 2011-16, Northern Beaches had a net gain in population from elsewhere in NSW. In the short-term, people are less likely to move (due to the continuing uncertainty about COVID-19 and because of potential travel restrictions), whilst in the longer-term, a recession is likely to mean that adult children will delay leaving home for longer and that people will behave more conservatively in investing in property.

Nonetheless, areas in the far south of the Council area, like Manly, are likely to continue to provide rental accommodation to younger adults, some of whom may be attracted by the accessibility to Sydney and lifestyle.

Note: The migration flows depicted below are historical between 2011 and 2016 and are based on answers to the census question “where did the person usually live 5-years ago” and .id estimates of international out-migration.


The impact of changes to domestic migration on the Fairfield City

As noted above, Fairfield City had a net loss of population due to out-migration. The largest loss was to other parts of NSW (24,660 persons).

Within NSW, most move within the Sydney metropolitan area, with the largest recipients being Liverpool and Camden Council areas. These are two significant greenfield areas in the metropolitan area (and all the Sydney growth areas are shown as destinations for out-migrants).

The onward implications, given the fall in overseas migrants, are that housing prices are at risk of falling. This may mean that some households may find it uneconomical to sell. If housing value were to fall below a household’s mortgage debt, then there may be issues with negative equity.  If restrictions on overseas migration continue beyond the short-term, then there is likely to be noticeable ageing of the population as householders age in place, with younger people moving away.



Economic opportunity

Our capital cities account for over 85% of national job growth, and while COVID-19 is impacting employment, many suburbs will continue to attract people owing to their proximity to job markets. Nonetheless, suburbs will undergo significant impacts, with hits to local retail jobs in terms of retail and hospitality, and differing outcomes for residents depending on the employment sectors accessed, education and skills and the relative wealth of residents.

Economic impacts of COVID-19 – The Northern Beaches

The table below is another extract from our COVID-19 Impact Assessment page summarising the estimated impact that COVID-19 has had on economic activity in Northern Beaches for 2020 and 2021.


The number of local jobs located in Northern Beaches has remained relatively unchanged with a 0.9% difference, whilst in comparison, the change in the Greater Sydney area is a decline of around -9.2%. In 2016, approximately 77% of local jobs were accessed by residents living within Northern Beaches (with 52% of employed residents working in the LGA).

The largest employment sectors in Northern Beaches are Health Care and Social Assistance (16.9% of employees), retail trade (14.2%) and professional, Scientific and Technical Services (9.2%). The strong health services presence (such as the new Northern Beaches Hospital) is a contributing reason for the fact that job numbers have remained relatively unaffected.

Much of the losses in the wider economy reflects the net overseas migration shock and the resulting slowdown in construction and housing turnover. In a longer-term recession, smaller local businesses, particularly in retail and hospitality, may be at greater threat, which means that there may be a more severe impact on the Council area

Roughly 43% of residents work elsewhere in greater Sydney. Of those, the greatest proportion work in the City of Sydney (18.6% of total residents). Northern Beaches attracts higher-income professionals, and this group is likely to have some degree of resilience during an ongoing recession. Currently, the impact of employed residents appears to be relatively minimal with only a -0.5% change to employed residents; however, if JobKeeper recipients is added to this, the impact is -4.2%. While this is not as great as the wider metropolitan area (which is -15.5%), an ongoing recession will see a rise in unemployment. Nonetheless, Northern Beaches is likely to be an area that is better placed to deal with the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

Economic impacts of COVID-19 – The Fairfield City


The change in the number of local jobs located in Fairfield City, whilst a loss, has remained relatively small (-3.7%) in comparison with the Greater Sydney area; even with the inclusion of JobKeeper recipients (which shows a 3.9% fall).

In terms of self-containment, the area contrasts strongly with Northern Beaches, with only 38% of local jobs were accessed by residents living within Fairfield City. Of this retail being the largest local employer, with residents accessing 47% of retail jobs (2,882 jobs). The local economy is dominated by service type jobs aimed at supporting the local community (except for manufacturing) and it is therefore not too surprising that, to date, it has been only slightly impacted.

In terms of employment accessed by residents, roughly 65% of residents work elsewhere in greater Sydney, of which the greatest proportion work in Liverpool city (9.5%), with a large range of other metropolitan areas being represented. A high proportion of resident workers have no qualifications (48%) compared with the metropolitan area (29%), 34% are employed part-time, and 64% of the workforce receives under $1,030 per week, with 31% less than $638 per week.

The domination of construction, retail and manufacturing as employers means that the City may face higher rates of unemployment in a longer-term recession. Construction will inevitably face a hit over the next couple of years, with jobs in this sector being more vulnerable. It is also likely that a portion of those facing redundancy and job losses will face challenges in requalifying or accessing alternative employment given the high proportion of people without qualifications.

Demographic vulnerability of residents

So, how does this shock, particularly the impacts on employment, affect the current and forecast population? One other consideration is how it relates to resident vulnerability.

Resident vulnerability identifies communities with a high proportion of people who have unmet social and economic needs, which due to COVID-19 could experience a greater change in how or where residents live (for example, younger residents moving back home with their parents, formation of group households to share costs or leaving the area in search of employment opportunities elsewhere). We have published a series of interactive tools to help you identify indicators of vulnerability in your community.

Demographic vulnerability in the Northern Beaches


For Northern Beaches, the relative affluence of many residents means that the Council area has much lower risk factors than those experienced by many other areas. The median house price (at 2020) in the area is $1,730,000, and much of this is driven by the desirability of the area for families and for retirees, thus the area attracts households with economic resources. With 54% of residents having attained a degree or a diploma, many residents are well-positioned to access alternative employment if faced with the loss of a job.

Nonetheless, even though most residents are likely to prove resilient to the social and economic impacts of the pandemic, there are still identifiable groups of residents who are at risk of hardship, for example, retirees and those who were in pre-existing housing stress before the pandemic. The fact that 34% of total households have mortgage debt coupled and with rising unemployment, JobKeeper winding down, mortgage freeze periods coming to an end, and stagnant property prices, may mean more households become at risk of mortgage stress.

Approximately 1,700 households in private rental accommodation are low-income households, representing 16% of total low-income households. All these households are defined as being in rental stress. These households are scattered across the municipality, but the greatest concentration is around Dee Why. These households are more likely to be employed locally, and consequently more dependent on the health of the local service-based economy. These households will have a greater likelihood of relocating elsewhere in Sydney due to COVID-19 impacts, to access more affordable accommodation and better to the wider jobs market.

Demographic vulnerability in Fairfield City


Fairfield City, in strong contrast to Northern beaches, is one of the more disadvantaged areas in NSW, with a SEIFA index score of 834 (based on indicators of disadvantage such as unemployment, low incomes or education levels and lack of internet access). This signals that the area will have much greater vulnerability from the negative impacts of the pandemic.

The vulnerability of a significant proportion of residents to unemployment and job insecurity has been highlighted, but another major factor is housing stress.

In total, 22% of households with a mortgage and 44% of households renting are defined as in housing stress (where housing payments exceed one-third of household income). This number is likely to rise – both immediately with fewer construction jobs in the short term, but also in the longer-term in the face of a recession. A larger proportion of family groups are renting with 34% of children living in privately rented housing, and these households are particularly at risk if their economic circumstances change.

Overall, 6,100 low-income households are in private rental accommodation representing 31% of total low-income households. All these households are defined as being in rental stress. Given the comparatively low rental values in Fairfield City (which are 15% lower for houses and 33.3% lower for units than in greater Sydney), many of these households will be at significant risk if their economic circumstances change since they will have limited ability to access alternative housing elsewhere and to access the wider job market.

Other impacts of COVID-19 on suburban areas


Northern Beaches baseline population forecasts assume a total of almost 15,500 births over the next five years, and natural increase (the amount by which births exceed deaths) accounts for almost 77% of total forecast population growth!

Due to COVID-19 these forecast births are likely to be fewer in the short-term for two main reasons:

  1. The fertility rate (number of births per woman) typically declines in times of economic and social uncertainty.
  2. Less migration (see above) and therefore fewer residents in the family forming age groups, which therefore means fewer babies!
  3. In the longer term, people may delay having children owing to job insecurity or, in the case of younger adults, because they are staying in the family home for longer and establishing themselves with a career before having a family.

International students > negligible impact 

While the impact on the number of new international students will be severe nationally, the impact will be negligible in most suburban areas which do not contain universities or attract large numbers of international students; however, some areas such as Manly, which has a larger proportion of younger adults and overseas backpackers, is likely to face some impact.

Mortality > some exposure

Deaths caused by COVID-19 are currently at low levels, however, the number of deaths could increase if outbreaks were seen in areas with relatively large numbers of vulnerable elderly resident.

This is especially the case in areas of Northern Beaches, where 22% of the population is 60 years and over (compared with 19% in wider metropolitan region), and in suburbs such as Narrabeen (with large retirement and aged care provision) this is as high as 33%.

There have been issues, both internationally and in Victoria, with outbreaks occurring within aged care facilities, and if this were to occur, then mortality rates in the elderly could be affected;  however, if COVID-19 continues to be well managed or in the community, it is unlikely that there will be long-term implications for mortality. If COVID-19 were to be recurrent and without effective treatment, then mortality rates, especially in at-risk groups, could increase.

Compare the pair – a summary

Although there will be some impacts on all suburbs, the comparison of Fairfield and Northern Beaches strongly suggests that the biggest determiner of effects and scale of impact is disadvantage and poverty.  Those accessing lower-paid and part-time work are likely to be more vulnerable than higher-income earners, especially since many of those lower-paid jobs are in areas of the economy more likely to be affected by the recession, such as retail and hospitality.

People with lower levels of education are likely to have fewer options in relation to accessing employment opportunities, and areas with a high degree of housing stress are likely to see greater numbers entering housing stress in the future. Equally, if households within the more affordable suburbs are in housing stress, then they are vulnerable in that there are fewer options for them to change their circumstances.

Finally, the immediate shock of border closures, whilst reducing the population lost to interstate migration, is also likely to see fewer migrants arriving into suburbs. Whilst this demand is likely to be replaced in wealthier areas with considerable amenity be attracting people from elsewhere in the metropolitan and regional areas, many of the more affordable suburbs which have housed a large number of new arrivals may see population decline.

Variances within these suburban areas

It should also be noted that suburbs themselves are a highly varied typology, and whilst the Northern Beaches can be characterised as an advantaged area, that does not apply equally to all the suburbs in Northern Beaches, and it has been pointed out there are pockets of disadvantage where households may experience significant challenges, exacerbated by the fact that they are in a minority. Equally, there are areas within Fairfield City which are relatively advantaged and may be highly resilient to any impacts. So too it is true that there is likely to be a greater range of services able to address the needs of more vulnerable households than available in otherwise more advantaged neighbourhoods.

What’s the impact of COVID-19 on other parts of Australia?

In this series, we are answering this question by breaking Australia’s Local Government Areas (LGAs) into place-based typologies, as there are common themes in how these groups of places will be impacted.

Following our previous pieces about Growth Areas, Major regional cities and Peri-urban areas, the next place typology we will be looking at is Rural Regions.

Subscribe to our blog for updates as we roll out this analysis, or to our product updates to be notified when new data and features are added to our online tools.


Richard has a background in urban planning, regeneration and social housing. He previously worked in the housing sector in the UK and for the Victorian Government. He produces population forecasts for local government areas in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Queensland, Regional Victoria and New Zealand. He regularly presents on the policy implications and challenges of demographic change for a variety of audiences on both sides of the Tasman. Richard enjoys spending time with his kids, camping and playing the piano.

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