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Once Designed in an American Image, Australian Cities Are Being Reshaped by Asian Influences

On paper, Australia is one of the most sparsely occupied places on the planet. It’s a small nation living on a vast continental landmass, with a population only slightly larger than the New York metro area in an area the size of Europe and India combined.


But the reality of the world’s sixth largest country is that much of its 7.7 million square kilometres is an uninhabitable desert, and its 24 million people are clustered in a thin green fringe along its southern coast. Nearly two-thirds of Australians live in its five largest cities, and these are currently the scene of some of the world’s densest developments.

Talent and Investment Are Pouring into Australia

While the habitable portion of the country is, if anything, shrinking due to climate change, its population growth is far outstripping most comparable countries. Between 2011 and 2015, Australia’s population grew by an average of 1.6% a year, compared to increases well below 1% for much of Europe and the United States. A large proportion of this is from net migration. Both talent and investment are pouring into Australia, lured by high standards of living and a stable economy that remained largely unscathed by the global recession.


This is driving a massive boom in high-rise development: “Australia has more skyscrapers per person than any other country in the world with a population greater than 5 million,” says Mark Hennessy, director at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff in Melbourne.

Asian Investors Drive the Development

But population growth is not the only factor. Much of the development taking place in Australian cities is due to the arrival of deep-pocketed Asian investors and developers. According to property firm Knight Frank, Asian investors have spent more than A$22bn on core Australian property over the last two years, making it the third-largest investment destination behind the US and UK. Sydney and Melbourne were the primary targets, but as the market heats up, investors are now looking further afield to Brisbane, Perth, Canberra and Adelaide. Foreign buyers accounted for between half and two-thirds of sales of higher-density residential sites in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth in the year to August 2015.

350 Queen Street, Melbourne

Influence of Asian Mega-Tall High-Rise

These new market entrants are particularly comfortable with high-rise projects, both as developers and buyers of the resulting product. It is this that is driving the race to the skies across Australian cities. “China is way ahead of everyone in the scale and the volume of high-rise that’s happening right now,” says Hennessy. “Cities such as New York were centres of excellence for high-rise, but most of the mega-tall buildings are in eastern cities.”

The New Urban World

It’s not just Australia’s proximity to Asia that makes it a pioneer over the US or Europe, says Igor Kebel, design director at architect Elenberg Fraser and co-founder of XO Projects. “Australian cities are younger, a lot less established and a lot more exposed than old world countries. Some things are only possible here. If you want to see what the new urban world is going to be like, you have to go to Australia.”

Kebel believes that the densification taking place in Australian cities is a foretaste of what we can expect elsewhere as the century progresses. “During the 20th century, the world was developed by globalization, which is an alternative term for Americanization,” he says. “The equivalent for the 21st century will be Asianization. That’s what we’re experiencing in Australia now. It’s a western continent but it’s being rapidly transformed by Asian influences.”

Shift to Vertical Cities

Australia’s cities initially followed the American model, defined by low-density sprawl built around the car and self-sustained satellite cities. In contrast, Kebel says, Asian countries have tended to concentrate development around transport nodes and collective amenities. Now cities such as Melbourne and Sydney are shifting rapidly from a horizontal plane to a vertical one, as people reject long commutes and congestion in favour of more compact living spaces with essential amenities on their doorsteps.

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