• Peter Spearritt

    1. The University of Queensland
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      I thank Guy Gibson, Megan McCarthy, Marion Stell, Robert Stimson, and John Young for assistance with this article.


Since the 1970s, several Southeast Queensland coastal towns in areas marketed as the ‘Gold Coast’ and the ‘Sunshine Coast’ have merged with each other and joined with Brisbane to become one of the world's longest urban coastal strips. The population of this 200 km long city is fast approaching three million. This urban pattern reflects the preferences of many Australians about where and in what type of housing they would like to live. The unplanned nature of this growth raises several policy challenges relating to resource use and traffic congestion.


Since the 1970s, three rapidly growing urban areas in Southeast Queensland have merged into a 200 km long city. Brisbane has outgrown its river port origins and now houses one million people. Built around Moreton Bay and its river, Brisbane has no surf beaches, and for over a century, its residents have repaired to small but growing townships that boast magnificent beaches. From the late 1950s, these two coasts became specifically marketed strips of holiday coastline under the brand names ‘Gold Coast’ and ‘Sunshine Coast’. Small coastal towns merged with each other, and now with Brisbane, to become one of the world's longest urban coastal strips, with a population fast approaching three million.

Urban geographers and urban historians have long been fascinated by the growth of very large, land-extensive cities. French geographer Jean Gottmann turned to Greek to coin the term ‘megalopolis’, describing the territory from Boston to Washington, now often referred to as the ‘BosWash corridor’.1 Similar developments have been identified in the Hong Kong to Guangzhou corridor, between Shanghai and Suzhou, and the so-called ‘Tokaido megalopolis’ running along the south coast of Honshu from Tokyo to Kobe.2 All these are based around large industrial and service cities, and in the USA, the dispersal of jobs is generally compounded by the growth of ‘edge cities’– concentrations of jobs, services, and housing away from traditional downtowns.3 In The 100 Mile City, Deyan Sudjic focused not on contiguous urban growth, but on the city's ‘force field’ that ‘stretches for a hundred miles in each direction, over towns and villages and across vast tracts of what appears to be open country, far from any existing settlement that could conventionally be called a city’.4

Southeast Queensland had a very different trajectory. Brisbane, a state capital with a modest industrial base, has been joined to its two holiday coasts by freeway-led suburbanisation. These coastal areas have in turn experienced such rapid population growth that their economies are no longer simply dependent on holidaymakers and retirees, but have merged into the wider metropolitan economy that now dominates this coastline.5 Most of the merged townships have now lost any sense of distinct geographical identity, in contrast with many developments elsewhere in the world where regional, state, and local governments have attempted to retain a strong sense of town boundaries and township distinctiveness for those settlements beyond or between the core metropolises.

The unplanned nature of this rapid urban growth has created policy challenges. The effects of past decisions about land use will make it difficult to provide needed infrastructure, especially water supply, in a cost-effective way. The concentrated location of jobs in areas such as health and education at some distance from where most people live has created a high level of car dependence. The aim of this paper is to examine the reasons why Southeast Queensland developed this urban form and how this recent growth has created a range of urban problems that will be difficult to solve in the future.


In 1954, Brisbane accounted for 78 per cent of the population of the seven local government areas that now make up the 200 km city (see Table 1). Despite its population almost doubling between then and 2008, Brisbane now accounts for only 37 per cent of the region's population.

Table 1. Southeast Queensland city populations and size, 1954–2006
Prior local government area1954 population ('000)1976 population ('000)1991 population ('000)2006 population ('000)Current councilsSize in km2
Brisbane City502697751956Brisbane City Council1,367
Ipswich City406973142Ipswich City Council1,207
Moreton Shire91547   
Redcliffe143948338Moreton Bay Regional Council2,011
Redland72881133Redland City Council537
Noosa61029290Sunshine Coast Regional Council3,127
South Coast/Gold Coast2088158455Gold Coast City Council1,402
Albert shire97233  
Beaudesert Shire§923254Logan City Council957
Logan C143  

As John McCarty noted, the nineteenth-century urban pattern of commercial cities such as Brisbane was shaped by railway links to the hinterlands they served. Their internal spatial structure was a product of location and planning decisions and the development of rail-based public transport systems.6 But Brisbane's urban form that we see today reflects a linear city that has grown up around its highway system, with the car being the dominant form of transport for all trips except the Brisbane central business district (CBD) journey to work. The transport arteries that link the 200 km city are the Bruce Highway and the Sunshine Motorway to the Sunshine Coast, the Pacific Motorway to the Gold Coast, and the Logan and Ipswich Motorways to the immediate west. Crucial transport decisions have hastened this linked city, not least the Gateway Motorway, opened in 1986, which enables motorists to bypass Brisbane and travel between the two urbanising coasts (Fig. 1). So popular is this bypass that the six-lane bridge over the Brisbane River is being replicated, as is the freeway itself.

Figure 1.

Southeast Queensland's 200 mile urban strip. CBD, central business district; SEQ, Southeast Queensland.
Source: Stimson et al. (2007).

Few residents of Southeast Queensland are prepared to admit that they live in one huge coastal city. They prefer to think of themselves still living in distinct settlements,7 but it is now visually impossible to see where Brisbane ends and the Gold Coast begins, other than to point to a municipal logo on a freeway overpass. On the Bruce Highway going north, a handful of pine plantations still separate Caboolture (now part of the Moreton Bay Regional Council) from Caloundra (now part of the Sunshine Coast Regional Council), but the plantations are also under pressure because of an insatiable demand for new suburban building blocks. Meanwhile, the railway towns that lie west of the highway, in the foothills of the Glasshouse Mountains, are experiencing rapid suburban growth.8 The so-called Glasshouse Mountains National Park only protects the volcanic cones themselves, not the vast tracts of arable land between them.

Sydney, with its striking topography and long history of conservation, has avoided the fate of Southeast Queensland because its huge national parks, the Royal National in the south, and Ku-ring-gai Chase and the Brisbane Water National Park to the north, have prevented it from being joined to Newcastle and Wollongong. The escarpment above Wollongong and the deep cliffs and valleys of the Hawkesbury River have a similar effect. Brisbane has had neither the topographic features nor the national parks to prevent its undifferentiated merging with its urban neighbours. The great national parks of southeast Queensland – Coolola, north of Noosa, and Lamington, west of the Gold Coast – do not serve as barriers to linear urban growth. Nor do the largest national parks within the 200 km zone, as they are islands off the coast, including Moreton Island, and parts of Stradbroke and Bribie Islands.

The issues raised by this changing pattern of land use have received little scholarly attention. There has not been a major book on Brisbane itself since 1984, when John Cole's commissioned history of the Brisbane City Council was published.9 There has never been a major study of the Sunshine Coast, and while the Gold Coast has had some partial accounts, these accounts have focussed on the region's boom–bust real estate culture, set to a backdrop of bikini girls frolicking on the beach.10

In the 1990s, demographers and geographers identified Southeast Queensland as part of a worldwide ‘sun-belt’ migration phenomenon. As Australia's fastest-growing metropolitan region, most of its population growth came from interstate rather than overseas migration. In 1999, Robert Stimson and Shane Taylor concluded that ‘much of the region's economic growth has been to serve local consumption rather than it being growth oriented towards exports and high value added production’.11 But they went on to observe that the Gold Coast, not least because of Japanese investment in the late 1980s and early 1990s, had become Australia's most popular tourist destination after Sydney.12 As its population grew, its economy diversified, and in the last 10 years, it has seen the rise of a successful film and television industry, drawing on both local and international productions.13 Local Gold Coast entrepreneurs owe much to Florida's canal estates and theme parks as models and sources of inspiration.

Brisbane, the Gold Coast, and Sunshine Coast invest millions every year in competing marketing campaigns,14 so it is easy to see why not only the citizens of these cities but also their elected representatives have never admitted that they are part of one giant urban area. Practical recognition of the 200 km city came persuasively in 2005, when the Melbourne street directory firm Melway, produced Brisway. In direct competition with the UBD street directory, it had one street index for all the streets from Noosa to the Tweed River, while the UBD persists in three separate indices.15 This remains confusing even for locals, because in the absence of definable or recognisable boundaries between the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, and the Gold Coast, it can be hard to determine which index to consult first. Brisbane still clings to its ‘city hall’– the American terminology is used because Brisbane is the only capital city in Australia to have found the political will to abolish 20 municipalities in 1925 and create a metropolitan government that today has the largest municipal budget of any local government area in Australia. But because successive Brisbane City Councils have allowed their city hall to be overshadowed by nondescript skyscrapers, Brisbane no longer has any symbolic structure recognised beyond its own immediate citizens.

Both the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast market their pristine beaches and green hinterlands, and never admit in official pronouncements that 98 per cent of all travel is by private car. The central image of the Gold Coast remains the high-rise strip from Main Beach to Palm Beach and signature buildings like Q1 that can briefly claim to be the tallest apartment block in the world. To the immediate west of the holiday strip, the Gold Coast is much like any other Australian city, with most people living in detached dwellings. Councillors avoid facing their declining proportion of greenspace per capita, compromised until recent state government intervention, by rampant rural residential subdivisions that carve up remnant bushland at an alarming rate.


In developing the first-ever statutory regional plan for Southeast Queensland in 2005, the state government belatedly recognised that urban growth was proceeding in an extraordinarily haphazard manner, with coastal townships and country towns being subsumed in a tide of suburbanisation. Two years earlier, the Courier-Mail, the dominant paper in Southeast Queensland, had supported a public campaign about diminishing greenspace in the region. It published maps showing that only 17 per cent of the land area from Noosa to the Tweed River and out to Gatton was held in national parks and state forests, compared with 43 per cent of the same land area in and around Greater Sydney. While environmentalists had known this for years, it had never been part of a broad public debate. Some key professional groups also entered the fray, notably the Institute of Architects and the Planning Institute. Even the Urban Development Institute of Australia industry group agreed that the region lacked planning certainty.16 Queensland Labor Premier Beattie finally reacted by appointing an Office of Urban Management to prepare a regional plan, putting strongman Treasurer Mackenroth in charge. Previously, planning had been the remit of the Local Government Department and the Environmental Planning Authority, both very junior in budgets and cabinet hierarchy. Mackenroth was supported by Noel Playford, a former mayor of Noosa and the President of the Local Government Association of Queensland, and together they brokered a regional plan that local government would support. Prior to this, municipal and shire councils had been bitterly opposed to any legislation that might restrict their own room to manoeuvre, especially any opportunities to promote new subdivisions and expand their ratepayer base.17

Two of the councils in the region, the Brisbane City Council (BCC) and the Gold Coast City Council, had huge budgets, large populations and physical territory. Abutting councils were often of equivalent geographic size, but with smaller populations and much smaller rate bases. Nonetheless, subdivision decisions had implications for the whole region, while arterial roads, motorways, rail, water, and energy systems did not stop at municipal borders. Finally, the state government acknowledged that it had a role in shaping Southeast Queensland beyond town planning legislation.

The Southeast Queensland Regional Plan (SEQ Plan) identified an ‘urban footprint’ and gave developers some certainty about where new subdivisions could take place. It also made plain what rural land would stay for productive purposes.18 Developers soon lobbied to expand the urban footprint, and were mollified with the offer of new ‘investigation areas’.19 No green belt was proclaimed, unlike earlier planning efforts in Sydney and Melbourne, not least because both State and local governments owned very little greenspace in the region, and what they did own certainly did not encircle the urban area. The SEQ Plan, while arguing for higher residential densities – up to 15 houses per hectare – still envisages that over half of all new development will be on greenfield sites within its proposed urban footprint, in marked contrast to the Melbourne 2030 Plan that aims to reduce greenfield urban development from 38 to 22 per cent over the next two decades.20

The Beattie State Government, following the long political tradition of all Queensland governments, proved loathe to spend any money acquiring more greenspace, unlike Labor Premier Carr in New South Wales in the 1990s. Instead, the Queensland government legislated to prevent more tree clearing on privately owned land, and expanded some national parks by transferring parcels of land from state forests to national parks. But greenspace per head continues to decline dramatically. Three of the key infrastructure developments in Southeast Queensland – the Gold Coast desalination plant, the Traveston Dam near Gympie, and the massive expenditure on the 5 km north–south tunnel under Brisbane's Story Bridge (over three billion dollars in a public–private partnership) have proceeded without any reference to the regional plan. They are all knee-jerk reactions placating population and traffic growth, but in each case, they have failed to take into account the urban dynamics, let alone the sustainability of the 200 km city.

The recent amalgamation of coastal councils into mega-city mode has further eroded the sense of local identity. In 2007, despite strident protests, Premier Beattie, as one of his last acts before retiring, amalgamated urban and rural councils throughout Queensland. The amalgamation of Noosa, Maroochydore (including Mooloolaba and Nambour), and Caloundra into the Sunshine Coast Regional Council recognised the urban reality that these were inextricably linked urban settlements, with the road system providing the economic gel. Having failed to stop urban development between the volcanic cones that make up the Glasshouse Mountains, the Caloundra Council did not have much to show for itself, while the Maroochydore Council had become an apologist for coastal property developers. Only Noosa, under the leadership of Mayor Bob Abbott, had managed to broker an accommodation between the green and development lobbies, keeping all structures at six stories or less so that some sense of the coastal topography still remains. The other two councils had conspicuously failed in this matter, corrupting both rural and seascape vistas of Mt Coolum and the Glasshouse Mountains. Abbott became the popularly elected major of the new amalgamated council in 2008 because he stood for locality over high-rise development.

In most scholarly analysis, Brisbane continues to be treated as a distinct urban area, especially for comparison with other Australian capital cities. A typical example is a recent article on the journey to work in Australia that finds Adelaide to be ‘Australia's most car-dominated capital city’.21 Such a conclusion rests entirely on the assumption that comparing the Adelaide and Brisbane Statistical Divisions continues to be a relevant comparison.22 My argument is that Greater Brisbane has ceased to exist as a distinct urban area and must now be considered in the context of the 200 km city of which it is the largest – in population and budget terms – part, but now less than one-fifth of the total urban footprint. On that definition, Southeast Queensland is unquestionably Australia's most car-dominated city, with less than 2 per cent of all travel on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts by public transport.23


As a river port city with room to expand in every direction, Brisbane began as a low-density city. By the early 1880s, however, developers had already discovered the joys of re-subdividing land. In 1885, the Queensland Parliament passed the Undue Subdivision of Land Act, a radical response to Brisbane being overrun by speculators and small-lot developers. All future housing lots were to be a minimum of 16 perches (about 400 m2). Houses would face the street, and each would have a proper back yard. Undersized blocks in inner city areas, some as small as 100 m2, were outlawed.24

In the twentieth century, Brisbane continued to grow outwards, encouraged by the electrification of the tramways and growth of a suburban rail network. Flood-prone land was declared out of bounds for housing after the 1893 flood. By 1901, Brisbane had a population of 120,000, one-quarter of the population of either Sydney or Melbourne. Still the city continued to spread it tentacles, with railway lines to Moreton Bay for recreational purposes, and to Southport, Coolangatta, and Tweed Heads. In 1915, the first subdivision at Elston (the present-day Surfers Paradise, renamed in 1933 after a hotel of the same name) proceeded. Mangrove wetlands and sugar plantations gave way to housing estates and golf courses.

On the north coast, subdivisions soon went well beyond the railway towns to the north of Caboolture. Town allotments were offered for sale in Caloundra by 1900, and coastal allotments were sold in Maroochydore from 1908. In the immediate hinterland, pineapple, citrus fruits, and dairy farms flourished in an arable landscape formerly covered by rainforest. In the interwar and early post-war years, guide books were published to the ‘near north coast’– the area now known as the Sunshine Coast – and to the ‘south coast’– the area now known as the Gold Coast (Fig. 2).25

Figure 2.

Cover of a holiday guidebook promoting the Gold Coast, c. 1950.
Source: Peter Spearritt Collection.

When Greater Brisbane was declared in 1924, 88 per cent of the net rateable value lay within a 5 mile radius of the city centre. The Home Secretary argued that ‘unity of government’ could only be achieved by ‘unity of area, unity of power, unity of functions, and unity of finance’, and by general agreement, a 10 mile radius emerged, taking in the resort town of Sandgate and future port developments as far as Pinkenba, which now abuts the site of Brisbane's airport. Aldermen were to be paid full-time salaries, a first in Australia, and the mayor would be popularly elected.26 The BCC eventually took over both the water supply and the tramway system, so the Council emerged with even greater powers than the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, which never gained control of key elements of public transport.27 The only major urban facilities that the BCC did not control were the railways and main highways, still under the jurisdiction of the state government, and they remain so to this day. Even with the abolition of trams in the mid-1960s, the BCC retained ownership of the bus system, and, with financial support from the state government, invested heavily in separate busways – often abutting the freeway system – from the l990s, to serve suburbs up to 20 km from the city centre that were not part of the rail network. Brisbane could afford such investment because of the rate income from CBD firms.

The power of a metropolitan-wide council was nowhere better displayed than in the decision, taken in the mid-1950s, to build Australia's first major car-based shopping centre at Chermside, a suburb 10 km north of central Brisbane. The 11 ha site, inspired by similar developments on the west coast of the USA, offered a department store, a supermarket, 25 speciality shops, and 700 car parking spaces. Unlike Melbourne and Sydney, developers of car-based shopping centres did not have to worry about competing councils debating the appropriateness of the site and the impact on their own shopping strips, debates that delayed similar shopping centres in those cities.28 Since then, Brisbane has added another dozen such centres, all sited with remarkably little public debate, as local retail interests have no power over the political might of a metropolitan-wide council. The Gold Coast has even more shopping malls per head than Brisbane.29


With the opening of the railway line to Southport and Coolangatta and the growth of car ownership, especially from the 1920s, more and more residents of Brisbane could visit the surf beaches of the near north coast and the south coast. Brisbane had its own coastal resorts on Moreton Bay, including Redcliffe and Sandgate, but they lacked the pristine drama of the surf beaches, as all the bay beaches are really tidal mangroves. Huge camping grounds developed at Maroochydore, Mooloolaba, and Caloundra. Similar establishments dotted the immediate hinterland on most of the south coast beaches. Two-storey fibro blocks of flats appeared along the beachfronts on both coasts and clustered near the railway stations on the south coastline.30 In 1954, Penrod's Guide to South Coast Queensland claimed that in little more than half a century, the coast had ‘been transformed from the wild bush land, the home of the kangaroo and the black fellow to the Playground of the Pacific’.31 The only reminders of former Aboriginal occupation were to be found in place names, including Tugun (breaking wave), Tallebudgera (watering place), Coomera (plenty fern), and Currumbin (quick sand).

The discovery of Queensland's south coast by Melbourne entrepreneurs, Stanley Korman (Chevron Hotels) and Bruce Small (Malvern bicycles), who were besotted by developments in Florida, was to renew interest in publicity and branding of the coastal landscape. In October 1958, the ‘Town of the South Coast’ changed its name to ‘Town of the Gold Coast’, proclaiming itself a city the following year. The state parliament had already passed the Queensland Canals Act (l958), allowing the creation of artificial waterfront blocks on ‘the Florida keys’ style. Bruce Small proposed 160 km of canals. Sand dunes, sand mining operations, and mangroves gave way to ‘direct from developer wholesale prices’, proclaiming property value increases of 163 per cent per year.32

With the local newspapers full of such hyperbole and offers to fly southern investors up for an inspection, the development lobby on the near north coast did not want to be left out of Australia's greatest coastal land boom. In 1960, the Nambour Chamber of Commerce regretfully agreed to a request from the Sunshine Coast branch of the Real Estate Institute of Queensland to change the name of the area from Noosa to Caloundra from ‘near north coast’ to the ‘Sunshine Coast’, nomenclature already widely used in postcards, real estate advertisements, and tourist brochures.33

The credit squeeze of 1961 brought this subdivision frenzy to a temporary halt, but nothing could stop the enthusiasm of both southern investors and Brisbane residents for buying what were still relatively cheap blocks of land. In the 1950s and 1960s, even working-class families, if they already owned a home in Brisbane, could afford to buy a speculative block. The opening of a bridge to Bribie Island in 1963 marked a new wave of speculation that has continued ever since. The Kawana canal estate between Mooloolaba and Caloundra flourished, and then the canal developers moved on to Noosa in the 1970s. Redland Shire, southeast of Brisbane city, allowed a huge canal development at Raby Bay in the 1980s. Not to be outdone, the Gold Coast answered by allowing artificial islands – the Sovereign Islands development – to be constructed in the mouth of the Coomera River. Developer Mike Gore – who epitomised the ‘white shoe brigade’34– proceeded with Sanctuary Cove, a vast marina and golf course resort, with both hotel and house blocks.


The push for canal developments demonstrated that developers would stop at nothing to create new waterfront subdivisions. If they could not be within easy walking distance of the beach, the waterfrontage would be dug out of mangroves and sand spits and brought to the purchaser's front door. These blocks were very much in the standard Australian suburban pattern, but at the same time, other developers were marketing a different urban form.

When building began on Torbreck, a 22-storey apartment block in Highgate Hill in 1959, it was expected to be Australia's tallest building. Again, as with Chermside, because of the metropolitan-wide council, Torbreck could not be killed off by municipal rivalry, even though most residents in the surrounding area were horrified at the thought of a large apartment block towering above old ‘Queenslanders’ (large wooden houses on stilts) and the workers' cottages down the hill. Torbreck soon lost out to Sydney's 26-storey AMP office block, the first building in Sydney to take advantage of the lifting of the 150 ft limit. The developers of Torbreck proceeded to plan similar tower blocks at Surfers Paradise and Burleigh, but these were derailed by the credit squeeze. The Gold Coast had already seen one high-rise tower, Kinkabool, opened in 1959, but at 11 storeys, it was no match for Torbreck, which still dominates the southern Brisbane skyline.35

The apartment boom had to await the passing of strata title legislation, pioneered by New South Wales in 1961, with Queensland the third state to pass such legislation in 1965. Gold Coast property entrepreneurs were quick to take advantage of the new legislation, which made it much easier for owners and investors to raise a bank mortgage. By the late 1970s, the Gold Coast was home to over 20 major high rise towers, their names – Iluka, Chateau – well known to local and interstate holiday makers. Indeed, it is fair to suggest that most interstate tourists had their first experience of renting a self-contained apartment on the Gold Coast strip. While Sydney had as many large apartment blocks, they were spread across a number of harbourside locations, whereas the Gold Coast strip concentrated these structures in just a few kilometres. Brisbane, by comparison, looked unadventurous and deadly dull. The Gold Coast offered bright lights, flashy cars, open air restaurants, and beachside living, playing much the same role for Brisbane that King's Cross played for Sydney. But from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, when a new railway line opened as far as Robina, the only way to get to the Gold Coast was by car. Hundreds of thousands made the trip on weekends, especially in Brisbane's long summer months.

On the Sunshine Coast, residents and holidaymakers alike were quick to point out that they did not want to become another Gold Coast, which today houses over 200 high-rise blocks. But this pious hope did not last for long. Caloundra succumbed to high-rise development in the 1970s, Mooloolaba followed in the 1980s, and Maroochydore played catch-up in the 1990s. While most apartment blocks on the Sunshine Coast are 10 storeys or less, the pressures for development, from both developers and councils, have seen coastal camping grounds given over to apartments, and surf clubs turned into gambling and drinking establishments. Their surf education and life-saving role is now but a colourful backdrop to their real business of making money. It is very hard to escape the long reach of commerce on the beaches of Southeast Queensland, where public space has become the front yard of the development industry, abetted by retirees looking to place their superannuation in coastal real estate.36

Over the past 15 years, Brisbane has effectively played catch-up with the Gold Coast in the apartment stakes. Hundreds of walk-up blocks of apartments were built in Brisbane from the late 1960s, and some 10-storey blocks appeared on the northern side of the river from the 1970s, but the serious apartment building did not begin until the 1990s, with the redevelopment of Kangaroo Point. Since then, over 20 high-rise blocks have appeared in the Brisbane CBD, and similar blocks are now planned for West End, again with river views. Brisbane's answer to the Gold Coast's sun and surf has been, like many other redundant river ports, to reinvent its river, first by turning industrial sites at Southbank into a World Expo site (1988), then redeveloping that as an office, apartment, and recreational site, replete with the world's first urban beach: the sand is regularly replenished, lifeguards watch over the swimmers, and carefully tended palm trees create a subtropical ambience.


The state government remains not only firmly ensconced in Brisbane, but within the Brisbane CBD, which houses not only the Parliament but all the senior public servants. The powerful BCC, the only council in Southeast Queensland to have its own Act of Parliament, has continued to foster the dominance of the CBD. The BCC reluctantly permitted the development of a handful of other office centres, most notably at Toowong, but most of its suburban centres are anchored in shopping malls. Other office centres have developed in a remarkably haphazard way, so that Springwood in the Logan City Council straddles the Gold Coast Motorway in a most unseemly and inefficient manner.

Unlike Sydney and Melbourne, major hospitals have not been decentralised to the suburbs. Brisbane's three biggest hospitals – Mater, Royal Brisbane, and Princess Alexandra – are all within a few kilometres of each other. Southport, at the northern end of the Gold Coast, has a base hospital, but it has only flourished because Griffith University (which began in the Brisbane suburb of Nathan but has now built a new and more populous campus at Southport) adopted it as a teaching hospital. Nambour hospital, servicing the Sunshine Coast, is a much more modest establishment, despite the rising demand for medical services from both young families and retirees.

The metropolitan universities control other key campuses in the region, from the University of Queensland (Gatton and Ipswich) to the Queensland University of Technology (Kelvin Grove) to Griffith University (Logan, Southbank and Southport). With the opening of the ‘Green Bridge’ (now known officially as the Eleanor Schonell Bridge) for buses, pedestrians, and cyclists over the Brisbane River in 2006, the University of Queensland is now within a 10-min bus ride of the city centre. The University of the Sunshine Coast suffers from an inaccessible, nondescript suburban site nowhere near the beaches the region is justly famous for, while Bond University is now surrounded by suburban development, making it look more like a sandstone-encrusted resort – it has an artificial lake – than a site of excellence in teaching and research. Nonetheless, with the extension of the Gold Coast railway line, it will shortly have a nearby station.

All Queensland's major government cultural edifices are just over the river from the CBD – the museum, the art gallery, the conservatorium, the performing arts centre, and the state library. They are linked to the CBD by road bridges and two recently built pedestrian bridges. The State's largest convention centre – paid for by the state government – is also at Southbank. As a sop to marginal electorates, the Gold Coast recently got its own convention centre. And it continues to dominate in the world of theme parks: Warner Bros Movie World, Dreamworld, and Wet ‘n’ Wild are equidistant between Brisbane and Coolangatta, and just 20 km from the high-rise holiday strip. The oldest theme park, Sea World, remains on the coast, just north of Surfers Paradise. Generations of local and interstate children associate a visit to the Gold Coast with the theme parks.


Linked by its dominant road system, Brisbane and its two coastal cities, now merged, create one huge but geographically disparate job market.37 Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the building trades, where the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast – reflecting their long histories of property speculation – have a higher proportion of tradespeople than Greater Brisbane. More and more of the workers on sites in Greater Brisbane, including the CBD, live on the coast. Reflecting this, peak hour conditions prevail on both the Bruce Highway and the Pacific Motorway as early as 6.00 a.m., when the subcontractors hit the road, often for jobs up to 100 km away. Whether such work locations and work practices would survive a sharp and sustained rise in the price of fuel remains to be seen.38

Regional economic interdependence in terms of the electricity grid and the location of coal-fired power stations is well known. Not so well understood is that the severe drought from 2003–07, when Southeast Queensland looked like it could run out of drinking water, has seen the abandonment of any notion of regional water self-sufficiency. Facing a worried electorate at the September 2006 election, Premier Beattie promised a ‘water grid’, where not only would water be pumped between dams but the massively expensive desalination plant announced for the Gold Coast, abutting the Coolangatta airport, would be expanded to produce so much water that half of it could be pumped into the Brisbane supply. There was no analysis of whether an increase in the installation of household water tanks could go part-way to meet residential demand, even though the Gold Coast has a regular and almost always reliable rainfall. Instead, the politicians and senior bureaucrats simply continued 100 years of path dependency in water supply and sewage disposal. The desalination plant, powered by coal-fired stations, will add to the carbon emissions problems of the region.39

So too will the continued expansion of the three major airports in the 200 km city. Coolangatta airport, founded in the 1930s, has flourished since the 1950s with the growth of flights from Sydney and Melbourne. It has recently gained permission to host international flights. Brisbane airport has seen successive waves of expansion development, by the Commonwealth Games in 1982, the World Expo in 1988, and the subsequent rapid growth of the region. Maroochy airport, expanded to take jet aircraft in the 1980s, has benefited from the rise of the low-cost holiday carriers. The net effect is that within 160 km, Southeast Queensland has three major airports, serving rapid linear growth. No other Australian city has had such an absurd proliferation of commercial airports within the one urban area.


What are the implications of Southeast Queensland's 200 km city, and, in particular, are current planning decisions suitable for this urban form? While I have argued in this article that the pressures for contiguous urbanisation in the absence of substantial greenspace are ubiquitous, many of the planning decisions remain highly localised. The large metropolitan councils, with their popularly elected mayors and full-time paid councillors, guard their budgets and their decision-making powers. The Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Campbell Newman, has championed a $3-billion tunnel under the Story Bridge and a freeway to the airport, with scant regard for the wider regional implications. Traffic will move quickly under the Brisbane CBD, but increasing congestion in the neighbouring mega-municipalities will not be addressed. The mayor of the Gold Coast, Ron Clarke, backed the desalination plant because developers got rattled at the illusory prospect that the Gold Coast might run out of drinking water, and Clarke wanted to be seen, like Newman, as a can-do, infrastructure builder. Southeast Queensland has gone infrastructure mad, with more and more planning decisions being taken by consulting engineers whose firms then get a large slice of constructing the transport and water projects they recommend.

The 200 km city does not need three airports, but there is no prospect of Coolangatta or Maroochydore being closed – short of a collapse in demand for air travel – because sub-regional loyalty remains strong. Water policy and water resources in the region have been taken over by a state government that has a penchant for large gestures, from the desalination plant to the Traveston Dam on the Mary River near Gympie. No regional plans exist to replace the reliance on coal-fired electricity, other than cosmetic attempts at solar power for water heating and charging consumers more to pay for their carbon credits. New car-based shopping centres are still being built, though at least most now have some form of bus transport for the 30 per cent of people in the region who cannot drive because they do not have a licence. The SEQ Plan is backing transport oriented developments, but nothing on the scale of Sydney's successful regional centres from Chatswood to Parramatta is planned.40

The traditional administrative and office centres on the Sunshine Coast (Nambour and Caloundra) and Gold Coast (Southport and Nerang) will get larger, as will other centres, but none are likely to become pre-eminent in their sub-region. The Brisbane CBD will remain the dominant financial and government site in Southeast Queensland, vying with other capital cities for attention and investment. Brisbane is continuing to expand its airport and its container port, with the latter servicing import and export requirements not only for Southeast Queensland, but for Northern New South Wales. But with only six major companies headquartered in Brisbane, and no major companies headquartered on the Gold or Sunshine Coasts, the 200 km city is a long way from challenging either Sydney or Melbourne, even though some pundits predict its population will overtake Melbourne's by 2021.41

If the 200 km city is to function well in the coming decades and survive the carbon crisis, it will need massive investments in public transport. New government infrastructure plans promise $48 billion in roads, but only $21 billion for rail, $11 billion for buses, and less than $1 billion for cycling and walking. With the exception of belatedly extending rail lines to Coolangatta airport and Maroochydore, most of the rail and bus expenditure remains within 20 km of the CBD.42 A motorised city with long car-based work trips and even longer leisure trips is a recipe for disaster. Both state and local governments need to take local employment much more seriously and end the near monopoly of the territory within 10 km of the Brisbane CBD on health, government, finance, and professional employment. Government-owned corporations and departments could be moved to major regional centres, if only the state government and the BCC were to recognise the reality of the 200 km city that they have helped, perhaps unknowingly, to create.