Future Growth – Cairns 2050

Briefing Note Summary

Cairns is a linear city sandwiched between two World Heritage sites and faces significant growth challenges.

Alternative city shaping models are urgently needed.

An Integrated Urban Development and Transport (IUDT) plan is required to guide Cairns’ future development.

The plan is required to address growth challenges and transform Cairns into a modern, liveable, and sustainable city.

The Issue

Addressing critical growth shortages

Cairns faces significant growth challenges. Increasing population growth has resulted in rental shortages, a housing boom, congestion, and code yellows at Cairns Hospital. More than 300,000 people are expected to live or stay in the city by 2050, doubling the current population. Urban development in Cairns has been occurring in a flat, narrow, ecologically fragile zone between World Heritage-listed reef and rainforests. Past human urban settlement has dramatically altered the landscape and natural areas, and good quality agricultural land is steadily being swallowed up by urban sprawl.

Growth has been and will be driven by several factors including a trend to move to the regions (partially accelerated by COVID-19) and large infrastructure, such as Defence-related projects, a new university hospital, education facilities, and roads. Cairns has been a big beneficiary of people moving to the regions, and its rental vacancy rate is less than 1%. The region is also yet to see the impacts of 30-40,000 (daily) returning tourists.

However, Cairns is running out of developable land. Available land to the north of the city is very limited and expanding to the west is problematic because of the cost and difficulty of upgrading the Kuranda Range Road. As a result, the city is sprawling south using outdated planning models where congestion will be the new norm. For much of the city there is only one road in and out, making it difficult and expensive to continually widen.

Advance Cairns advocated for the critical $659M investment for Cairns Ring Road to improve access into the city and drastically reduce congestion. However, history shows that as populations continue to grow and traffic levels increase, roads typically become congested again. To prevent this from happening and to further support our road infrastructure, now is the time to capitalise on alternative transport opportunities.

Cairns has reached the stage of needing alternative city shaping models much sooner than other cities of its size because of its highly constrained linear nature and its environmental, geological, and geographical constraints. There has been a steady loss of liveability and sustainability in some areas (i.e. congestion) in the past couple of decades, and the southward city sprawl will mean increasingly longer commutes.

This also means greater distance to health services and infrastructure assets such as the JCU Smithfield campus, the proposed new university hospital, and Cairns International Airport. Tourism markets to the north and south will have increasing commute times which will negatively impact on one of the region’s most important industries.

Unmanaged development on a strip of rapidly diminishing coastal land runs the risk of degrading world heritage values, which are the region’s and Australia’s greatest assets. Future growth will be threatened if the city’s liveability is further diminished and if its residents cannot find suitable, affordable, and climate-suited housing.


Creating a liveable and sustainable region

Future development, while necessary to support population growth, should be sensitive to both the reef and the rainforest considering the importance of these natural wonders to our heritage and to our economy. The Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics World Heritage areas are worth $11B to the economy and Cairns is by far northern Australia’s largest gateway for visitors. It is important that growth be managed sustainably.

In Cairns, growth, urban planning, and city infrastructure is developed and managed at Local, State and Federal levels of government. The last State-led Far North Regional Plan was developed in 2009. Cairns Regional Council (CRC) has one planning scheme for the region – “The Cairns Plan” (updated in 2016) that has been prepared in accordance with the Sustainable Planning Act 2009. It sets out Council’s intention for future development in the area over the next 20 years.

All of these multi-government plans are fast becoming out of date and are soon to be reviewed. Therefore, in consideration of the challenges faced in one of the most unique and special places in the world, it is now time to reimagine how the people of Cairns grow, move, live, and work. In developing new plans, Cairns has a choice. Does it want to continue being a car-dominated, sprawling city or a more compact, liveable, modern, and sustainable city?

Urban consolidation policies started to become a major urban planning policy back in the 1980s and 1990s and are now being implemented in all major Australian capital cities. It just so happens that Cairns is reaching the stage to consider change much earlier than other cities for the reasons discussed. The general aim of consolidation policies is to reduce urban sprawl by increasing densities, particularly around good quality transport nodes.

Unfortunately, Cairns’ public transport is limited to buses and currently lacks good quality heavy or light rail or a metro, all of which are very suitable for linear cities. Good quality public transport should be a prerequisite for consolidation policies. Research suggests that these transit-oriented communities (often called TODs) created around transport nodes should be mixed use with a range of different product types and a strong sense of place. They should be walkable, have enough density to support transit services and good public amenities/services, with ample open space, greenery, parks, and gardens. Furthermore, urban planning and place-based design should be tailored to regional Australia to protect local character and identity.

Since the last statutory regional and city plans were first formulated over a decade ago, there has been significant development in new transportation technologies such as battery-operated metros, trackless trams, trains, autonomous vehicles and shuttles, and personal electric transport devices (i.e. electric scooters and bikes), particularly for end-of-journey trips. It is time for these new technologies and planning models to be researched and considered as a system and become part of the solution in reshaping our communities.

Next Steps

Strategic Integrated Urban Development and Transport Plan

One of the issues with planning at city level is that it’s very complex and has often led to specialisation, work being done in silos across various government departments, and lack of coordination of critical infrastructure that has not been integrated. Nowhere is this problem more evident than in the planning of urban development and transport, particularly when done at strategic level and when attempting to move towards new models of development and city shaping.

CRC is currently planning for growth through its 2050 Growth Strategy which, will guide the city’s new town plan. It is recommended this strategy be broadened to an Integrated Urban Development and Transport (IUDT) Plan. The overall plan should be bold and aspirational and needs to consider how Cairns people live and move. It should also consider the needs and aspirations of young migrants to Cairns, who often want to use multi-modal transport and live in vibrant “lifestyle” type communities.

The IUDT Plan should address key strategic questions, take on a holistic approach and be developed through collaborative and partnership processes. Although not the main focus, other city-shaping aspects should be considered in the plan at a strategic level, such as water, health, education, tropical housing, communications, and energy infrastructure. Included in the IUDT plan would also be a population study that identifies why, how, and where people want to settle.

It is proposed that a city-shaping partnership be created between CRC, State and Federal Governments, and key stakeholders (including industry bodies, universities such as JCU and CQU, and environmental and community industry bodies, universities such as JCU and CQU, and environmental and community groups). These partnerships would develop strategies to provide more holistic solutions that encourage a reimagining of Cairns as it transforms into a modern, prosperous, liveable, and sustainable city.

Our Recommendation

  • That the Federal and State Governments jointly fund (50:50) the development and implementation of the Strategic Integrated Urban Development and Transport Plan. Total cost $8M.
  • That Cairns Regional Council funds the Cairns Growth Strategy 2050 ($2.5M).