Australia must radically rethink its infrastructure planning over the next 15 years to boost the livability of its regional centres, which have welcomed a tidal wave of tree-changers and remote workers through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those are some of the key findings put forward by Infrastructure Australia’s latest report, published Friday, which says governments, businesses, and communities must prepare for the unexpected.
The coronavirus crisis, plus the bushfires, droughts, floods, and cyber-attacks which have recently plagued Australia, show Australian communities are bracing against “new shocks and stresses,” Infrastructure Australia chair Julieanne Alroe said.
“Tomorrow’s infrastructure is likely to look very different to today’s, and the way infrastructure is planned needs to embrace this uncertainty,” she added.
All levels of government must pursue infrastructure developments which will help communities “resist, absorb, accommodate, recover, transform and thrive” in response to those shocks, the report says.
One key recommendation is the meeting the “unrealised growth potential” of smaller cities and regional centres, through boosted digital and economic ties to fast-growing state capitals.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen migration to regional centres reach levels not seen in years, with Infrastructure Australia stating there has been a 200% increase in net regional migration through the crisis.
Capital city residents have turned to regional centres to avoid the most stringent lockdown restrictions. At the same time, white-collar Australia has embraced remote work — and the newfound ability to do their work outside of a traditional office environment.
“The recent increase in net population growth in regional Australia presents an opportunity to lock in accelerating regionalisation,” the report states.
“With the future likely to include more remote working, the regionalisation that was already taking place before the pandemic will continue and accelerate.”
This could be achieved by investigating new rail links and regional airport infrastructure, boosting the connection of those centres to capital cities.
Focusing on high-quality internet access for those in regional communities will help embed those productivity gains, the report says.
“In addition to attracting people from fast-growing cities who wish to work remotely, digital connectivity supports residents to remain in the community and have choice in their infrastructure access via digital delivery models,” the report states.
Providing easier access to major cities and bolstering internet connectivity is only part of the picture, with Infrastructure Australia saying government and business must focus on the climate impacts of any new developments.
Stakeholders must continually assess what changes are needed to make the most of Australia’s regions, the report states.
All future infrastructure projects must also “consider a net zero future, including investing in technology that
enables it,” the report says, while making sustainability an “inter-generational commitment”.
Communities should focus on “integrating sustainability into planning and decision-making will allow Australia to meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.”
In keeping with this focus on sustainability, future developments should consider water usage and sourcing along with waste lifecycles, the report found.
Minimum infrastructure standards should be applied in regional centres and rural towns, leveling the playing field for many communities outside of city centres.
Future projects must engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the report states, while addressing a lack of physical and digital infrastructure access in remote areas.