The Demographic Dilemma: How Urban Planning is Deepening Australia’s Social Divide


For over two decades, urban planning’s preoccupation with urban form above all else, has diminished its ability to resolve the growing social and economic divide occurring across the nation.

A glaring consequence of the ‘contain and densify at all costs’ approach is the worsening demographic imbalance increasingly evident in the locational disadvantage within our cities and regions.

The disproportionate representation of certain age groups within a population worsens the social and economic divide that is otherwise mitigated by the presence of a wide range of different demographic groups. Demographic imbalance leads to disparities in housing conditions, access to amenities, and quality of life, ultimately resulting in the loss of economically and socially vital segments of the population.

A City with no Grandkids

A well-known example of the demographic imbalance phenomenon is the outward flow of young people from Sydney, where it now consistently loses twice as many people aged 30 to 40 than it gains. Responding to this trend, the NSW Productivity Commissioner was recently quoted as saying that Sydney is “at risk of becoming a city with no grandchildren”.1

Families Bearing the Brunt

In Victoria, it is families with children who find themselves in the crosshair of housing policies formulated to deliver the government’s archetypal model of the city.

For example, the State Government's population projections, "Victoria in Future," forecast that by 2036, Greater Melbourne can expect an increase of over 200,000 "Couple Families with Children" households. Forecast to increase in number more than any other household type, just how, where and in what, they are intended to be accommodated, is at best ambiguous.2

Despite the continued, disproportionate efforts promoting apartment living for families with children, there is simply a dearth of suitable, affordable stock to accommodate them. Notwithstanding limited demand, the 2021 Census showed that just 0.6% of Melbourne’s total dwelling stock was an apartment containing three bedrooms or more.

The declining fertility rate in high-density areas underscores the degree of social, cultural, and economic resistance to apartment living by families with children. Over the past decade, those areas of Melbourne undergoing the greatest volume of apartment development have simultaneously experienced a significant decline in fertility rates, having dropped below 1 in most instances. Previously limited to the CBD and inner suburbs, this trend— which has already led to these areas having the lowest fertility rate in the country - is alarmingly reaching its way into middle suburbia.

Elsewhere throughout Victoria, expensive lifestyle locations such as Lorne-Anglesea (SA2) and Daylesford (SA2), both with a median age well above 50, can continue to expect a long-term decline in their younger populations, including ‘Couple Families with Children’.

While strong demand continues to drive house price increases in both townships, particularly from the burgeoning older age cohort, each will continue to suffer chronic worker shortages, in turn threatening their economic viability.

So long as they each remain governed by a highly restrictive planning framework, the ability of each town to address their respective social and economic challenges will only further deteriorate.

Addressing the Demographic Imbalance

Despite best efforts, we will not design our way out of the housing crisis. Persisting with a policy founded on an idealised urban form as the overarching principle will not only fail to address the housing problem but accelerate it, the result being increasingly segmented demographic enclaves of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

Addressing emerging demographic imbalances requires comprehensive and forward-thinking policies that extend beyond an idealised future state. A starting point for the Victorian Government should be the development of a planning framework that at least aligns with its own forecasts.

Planning policy based on ‘aspirational’ targets and the perceived benefits of apartment living will only compound social inequality, including neglecting the needs of the single largest growing household type, families with children.

1. Sydney is at risk of becoming a city with no grandchildren – Productivity Commission report finds | Planning (

2. Victoria in Future (

Rob Burgess is a town planner with over 25 years of experience, having worked in both the public and private sectors. Applying evidence-based insights, Rob’s expertise lies at the intersection of population dynamics, town planning, and property markets. He is regularly engaged to undertake market research, provide strategic advice to clients, and sharing his thoughts on current and future trends. Rob is a Principal with Quantify Strategic Insights.