This is the sixth in a series of essays by journalist Bradley Perrett on long-term planning ideas to provide for a better future for the people of Greater Newcastle and the Hunter Region.
How big should Newcastle grow? Should it, in fact, grow at all?
Those are interesting questions, but maybe they're hardly worth discussing. It's better to focus on how to deal with the growth that certainly will happen.
We have a responsibility to make life easier for later generations. Our predecessors did that for us.
One measure of their success is that Novocastrians keep talking about how the size of the city is just right - even as it gets bigger. If the size is just right now, then people who said that in 1980 were wrong, and it was then too small. What's really happened is that earlier planners ensured that it could grow with comfort.
Actually, we could talk all day about how big the future population should be, and we'd be just about wasting our time - because we don't get to choose.
We can't even arrest current population expansion, let alone decide now what future generations must do. To prevent growth in the urban area we'd not only need the country to stop international immigration; we'd also have to have a controlled border around the city to stop people from moving in from elsewhere in Australia.
Good luck trying to get that into law.
Alternatively, we could ask for zoning changes within the city that prevented more housing construction, so it would be physically impossible for more people to fit in. And the result would be horrendous rises in housing prices as expanding demand fought over unchanging supply.
How about decentralisation policies, to direct people elsewhere? Actually, if Australia were serious about decentralisation, Newcastle would be a destination for more residents, not fewer, since the aim would be to hold down expansion of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
The state government sensibly defines Greater Newcastle as most of the land of the five Lower Hunter local government areas: Cessnock, Lake Macquarie, Maitland, Newcastle and Port Stephens. The main exclusion is the southern shore of the port. So Medowie and Raymond Terrace are in but Nelson Bay is not.
That definition may seem to be a bit of a stretch, since Maitland, Cessnock and Kurri Kurri have clear identities as separate towns. But the Lower Hunter urban area is steadily coalescing. Thinking of the whole lot as a single city makes more sense as the years pass - and doing so is essential for long-term planning.
So what's the population in this zone? It must now be close to 600,000, since the state's Greater Newcastle Metropolitan Plan, published three years ago, estimated it at 576,000 in 2016.
The same document projected a population of 692,000 for 2036, and its accompanying transportation plan estimated 760,000 in 2056.
This is not as impressive as it looks. It implies average annual growth of 0.9% in the 20 years to 2036 then 0.5% for the following two decades. Australia's population grew at 1.5% a year in the 20 years to 2019.
Without doubting the expertise behind the forecasts, we have to wonder about the risk that the state is underestimating our future population, especially because of the possibility of significant overflow from Sydney. If you talk to any real estate agent around town, you'll hear that this is already underway.
In looking to our distant future, maybe the most useful number available to us also comes from the metropolitan plan. It intriguingly estimates that land currently zoned for housing in Greater Newcastle can accommodate at least 1.2 million people.
That's not a bad figure to hang onto when we imagine future roads and public transport infrastructure. They may seem unnecessary and even undesirable now, but that gives us no excuse for not planning for them.
Similarly, for a 2021 mindset, great densities and building heights may seem excessive. But they don't to someone contemplating a doubled population that will want to fit lots of people into the best spots.
Notice that having zoning for "at least 1.2 million" does not create a population ceiling, and not only because the words "at least" leave wriggle room. More land within and outside the current boundaries will be zoned for residential use.
Actually, if Australia were serious about decentralisation, Newcastle would be a destination for more residents, not fewer, since the aim would be to hold down expansion of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
In the Maitland LGA, a new housing estate is already going up at Lochinvar, 4-5 km west from Rutherford. I hope we don't see too much more of this, at least not in the next few decades. It would be better to increase density on the land we're using now, or fill in some of the gaps, rather than prematurely sprawl further up the valley.
The state government has identified preferred areas to be released for more housing. (See the map.) A lot of that land is in a huge triangle with its corners at Maitland, Cessnock and Branxton.
Zoning already provides for more people living in each square kilometre. A big policy, which few people know about, allows densification ofmuch of the flat land of the Newcastle LGA, making it more like Cooks Hill.
Such development will result in enormous changes to the look of our streets, not necessarily for the better. A later Hunter Essay will consider the risk to the character of old suburbs.
The state government gives no estimate of when Newcastle will reach 1.2 million - and maybe that's reasonable, since long-range population forecasts are difficult. But some back-of-the-envelope calculations can help us imagine the future.
The chart accompanying this article takes for granted the official estimates out to 2056 then projects conjectural population levels for later years. The green line assumes that growth continues at the expected 2016-56 average of 0.7%; for the yellow line, the rate is 1.5%.
It tells us that we could easily get to 1 million in 75 years and 1.2 million in about a century, assuming the official forecast out to 2056 is right. If growth after 2056 picks up to what has been the national average, we'll be through 1 million in 54 years.
Remember that these post-2056 numbers are only conjectural, painting a picture of what we can reasonably imagine happening; they're not forecasts.
Now, consider the requirements of a city of 1.2 million. Without disruptive changes in urban-transportation technology, that city will of course need internal motorways (of which we now have just one, or two fragments of one, from Sandgate to Bennetts Green).
Land for those and other high-capacity arterial roads needs to be reserved before that bulging population covers the best routes with houses and blocks of flats.
Readers of earlier Hunter Essays have heard that one before. The problem is that voters don't spend much time thinking about what future generations will need; maybe many people just don't care about them at all. Knowing that talk of future arterial roads will stir nimby possums and the anti-car brigade, politicians are hardly interested in raising the subject.
They talk a lot about cycling and cycleways - a minor issue for the long-term planning of a major city. As if any significant number of people are going to ride bikes up from Eleebana to Charlestown to do their shopping.
A city of 1.2 million also needs serious public transport - though the arrival of autonomous vehicles will be a challenge in developing it. If we're wise, we'll plan not just for tramlines but also greater use of heavy rail. Another article in this series will consider those options.