According to the ABS, Melbourne has this one in the bag. It is expected to surpass Sydney’s population in the mid 2030’s, and become a megacity (over 10 million people) in the 2050’s. By this time Sydney’s population will be about 8.5 million.

This is simply mind boggling, given that our entire population has yet to reach 25 million.

For some, megacities conjure up pictures of sprawl, grey, traffic jams, pollution, noise, crime and slums, while others elicit pictures of booming business hubs, nightlife, world class public transport, shopping meccas and thriving outdoor spaces.

Several years ago, Sydney was declared ‘full’, yet it continues to grow. Melbourne is also struggling against the urban sprawl.

Perhaps the greatest challenge ahead for Melbourne and Sydney is the strong leadership required to keep up with the expected growth rate. Hailed by The Economist as the most liveable city on the planet, Melbourne is at risk of losing its podium place if growth continues without the support of good leadership. Its population grew to 4 million in 174 years, but is expected to double that in just 33 years.

Of immediate concern to both cities, is how to improve the infrastructure.

Armed with today’s technology, urban designers and engineers have the potential to radically change the way infrastructure is planned, and thus minimise the infrastructure footprint.

By asking such questions as, “Can people generate their own power? Can households deal with their own waste? Can water be harvested and recycled locally?”, they can radically change the management of cities in the future by the holistic integration of agriculture, technology and the built environment. For example, features such as green roofs can reduce water run-off by up to 75%, automation can monitor and manage building services, and whole apartment buildings and suburbs have the potential to be self-sufficient. In addition, careful development of the physical environment can help to mitigate environmental risk such as flood and pollution.

Public transport is already poorly lacking in Melbourne, its commuters rating their train system as the worst in the country, according to a survey in 2017. 65 new trains are being added to the system from 2019, but the challenge for Melbourne is that it doesn’t boast an underground rail network, something every major city in the world has, and these changes will not transform the public transport system enough to accommodate the population growth.

Sydney is currently undergoing the biggest transport infrastructure upgrade in decades, including a $20 billion (plus) dollar line under the CBD, the most expensive motorway in Australia, the $16.8b WestConnex, and a plethora of other projects. However, those doing the math say that even these upgrades will not cope with the needs of the population in the years to come.

The divide between the haves and the have nots is a feature of all large cities, and as cities get bigger, the rich keep getting richer. It’s true that large cities reward the poor with a higher income than they would get in regional areas, but they reward the rich much more. The divide between rich and poor manifests itself in a geographic divide between rich and poor, which in turn creates tracts of city with greater crime rates, social problems and lower quality housing. In addition, cities with a great social divide tend to be inhospitable to middle-class family life.

It’s not just the money that draws people into megacities, though. In large cities, social, civil, economic and personal connections are seemingly whipped up into an urban and social storm which produces results far greater than the sum of its members.

According to Luis Bettencourt, cities are a massive integration of collaborative learning, adaptation, and compounded output. This makes large cities a constantly changing, exciting, hopeful place to be. Opportunities are greater, culture is cosmopolitan, and world-class living is within a convenient train ride away. So, despite a higher cost of living, less personal time and space, and higher rates of crime and noise, people will keep flocking to Melbourne and Sydney in the hope of a better life.

And what of Geelong? Will it ever become part of Melbourne? Chances are, like many city clusters around the world, this agglomeration of cities may become a megalopolis, or super city.

But that’s a whole other topic.

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