In the washup of a predictably unfulfilling night in Surfers Paradise, driving back to my home in Coolangatta with a hangover and parking ticket in tow, some ideas crystallized in my mind in a way that I felt the need to put pen to paper. I've lived on the Southern Gold Coast for 3 years now; it's the first place I've chosen to live in my life, and I've decided to make it my home more or less permanently. People who already live here or visit regularly know that there is much more to the southern Gold Coast than the high-rises, fake boobs and overseas tourists that our Northern Gold Coast friends are celebrated for (in fairness there is more to the north GC than this as well, but I'm focusing on the south). They may also have felt a new energy in the last year or two, as tourism has increased, cool new restaurants and bars have opened and property prices have rebounded. I've written this article to capitalise on this momentum. I think there are a lot of good things already happening on the southern GC. I also think that if we play our cards right, our community can become an exemplar for what living is all about. So I'm going to talk about what I see future living as being like, what the southern Gold Coast already has that's great, and propose some ideas about how we can make it a dynamic, prosperous and amazing place for people to live in the future.
No-one really knows exactly what 'future living' will look like, and there are plenty of cliches and trite phrases about what it may constitute. Luckily though, we have a lot of human history to look back on, as well as some solid current trends, which I'm going to use to make some basic points about how I think people will want to live and what our future societies may look like:
- I think people will work less. That's the whole point of automation and technology after all. We can do more in less time.
- As physical goods become cheaper and cheaper (relatively), more jobs will be based around knowledge, technology and providing services that enhance our lives.
- With more downtime, people will have more opportunities for leisure.
- People will want to be as connected as possible to information, friends and family.
- People will travel more and more, and will want to be able to get to places they want to go quickly and easily.
- People are going to want high-quality and interesting food and drink, and they'll prefer if it's local.
- There will be a focus on healthier lifestyles and being in nature more.
In short, people will be wealthier, better-educated, have more time and expect more out of life. So what does it mean for the southern Gold Coast?
What We Have Already
Fortunately, we are already blessed with a number of natural advantages:
- The southern Gold Coast is naturally stunning with a highly attractive and stable climate. The beaches are beautiful, uncrowded and can be swum in all-year round. The hinterland is magnificent and close by. There are great waterways including the Tallebudgera and Currumbin Creeks for boating, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. We're also under an hour away from the arguably even more stunning Byron region. The natural lifestyle people can enjoy here is enviable. We also have very high-quality produce grown locally - if you've been to a farmers market on the coast you'll know what I mean.
- Cost of Living is manageable. Property prices are not extortionate like in Sydney or Melbourne, and the price of goods and services here is affordable.
- We have the bones of a good infrastructure setup here. A lot of the hard infrastructure work has been done already. We have a decent motorway linking us to Brisbane, and a train service at least to Varsity Lakes. We also have a vastly underrated airport, where you can get to most Australian cities on cheap flights, fly to Auckland, Singapore or KL for $200 each way or to Tokyo for $350. Flight connections into China are also increasing. There is a world-class university based here (Bond University). We also have a desal plant. Winning!.
- The Gold Coast has entrepreneurial spirit. Unlike a capital city, the Gold Coast hasn't been able to suckle on the teat of the public sector to prop up its economy, so it has had to make its own fortune. In fact, the Gold Coast has the highest percentage of entrepreneurs out of any major city in Australia. Of course there are good and bad approaches. Good entrepreneurs include the Burleigh Brewing Co, a GC success story who saw an opportunity in the market and ran with it. On the other hand, the numerous companies who spruik low-grade properties or financial products for fat commissions, and build their own wealth on the back of unsuspecting clients' retirement savings, sit more at the bad end of the spectrum. We want more of the good and less of the bad, and I believe a shift has already begun in this direction.
Despite these factors, the southern Gold Coast economy is still largely one-dimensional, with a reliance on the volatile tourism and construction industries. This creates a definite boom-bust mentality, with the last bust after the GFC causing quite a substantial hangover. The coast also clings to an unflattering reputation for lacking class and culture, and somewhere people wouldn't want to live long-term and settle down. I'd like to see these issues addressed.
What can the Southern Gold Coast Be Like?
I believe that the Southern Gold Coast can be one of the best places to live and work in the world. It can be a place with some of world's most creative and brilliant people, and where innovative and profitable businesses choose to operate. We can create, attract and retain healthy, well-balanced and prosperous people and families, who enjoy interesting jobs, an enviable lifestyle, high-quality health and education and great connectivity with the rest of the world. In short, the Southern GC can shed its reputation of just being a tourist destination, and become a shining example of how a community can create outstanding lives for the people who choose to live there.
There is an important point I want to make though. The vision I've described doesn't require a dramatic change in the area's identity, nor should it short-change those already living here. I don't foresee the need for vast increases in the population, sky-high property prices or the trashing of the natural environment. I think we have an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other cities, and keep building and improving a society that reflects the unique human and physical environment of the Southern Gold Coast.
how to we get there?
I'm going to now put some ideas forward about how I think we can develop the kind of community which, as I put it, 'nails' future living. Some of the ideas are big-picture, while others are not. Undoubtedly, there are plenty of people who won't agree with the vision I've described, and there are probably more still who won't agree with what I'm suggesting now. Ultimately, I'm trying to start a conversation, and hopefully build on the momentum that I feel is developing here already.
In a future where there will be fierce global competition between cities for the best and brightest people and companies, I believe we can leverage off our natural advantages to create a place that continually ranks at the top. To achieve this, we need to be constantly doing better - in the goods and services we create and provide, in the way our community develops and interacts with each other, and in how we sell ourselves to the world.
While there are roles for all levels of government in what I'm proposing, this isn't just a list of problems for governments to solve. I believe there is far too much of a reliance in modern society on governments to fix everything, instead of individuals and communities acting to make things better on their own. We've also outsourced the whole vision thing to politicians and bureaucracies, who frankly are too bland, unimaginative, hidebound and politically correct to inspire anybody or really drive any change. If you've read a government or council mission statement, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. So I think we should embrace the fact that the GC has developed largely without the dead hand of the public sector, and get moving on making life better ourselves. And where government action is required, we should start making a compelling case for it through our own actions, advocacy and ingenuity.
So here are some ideas to make the Southern Gold Coast one of the best places to live in the world...
- Let's create innovative and disruptive businesses here. 'Innovation' and 'disruption' are definitely the buzzwords in business at the moment. But it's banal to simply say we should create the next Facebook, Uber or Airbnb here on the Southern GC. If we could, I'm sure we would have already. So instead, I'm going to be specific about a couple of sectors we have a natural advantage in, and where we can use technology, data and innovation to create goods and services which genuinely make life better. And make businesses money and provide people jobs in the process:
Health and Aged Care - This is an area that genuinely threatens to swamp our societies with ever-growing costs. The Gold Coast has always had a high percentage of retirees and seniors. We have a large traditional health sector of public and private hospitals, and a lot of aged care facilities. We also have a much stronger base of health, fitness and lifestyle practitioners outside of the traditional health sector. I think most people intuitively know that our system of health needs to get better, and I believe there are vast opportunities locally and globally for businesses who can help people to achieve better health outcomes for less money. So let's start lifting our eyes here, move beyond just trying to get ourselves fit and healthy, and start applying our considerable talent to solving the ever-growing crisis in health. Health, fitness and lifestyle are natural advantages we have here - let's work out how we can export them to the rest of the country and the world.
Tourism - As people get more access to information, and the number of destinations they can travel to continues to grow, the pressure on our tourism industry here becomes greater and greater. To survive and thrive in a market of intense global competition, fluctuating exchange rates and increasing demands of more for less, we need to constantly be looking to do better. The future traveller is likely to demand more individual attention, ever increasing luxury and most importantly, unique experiences which go beyond the simple tour model which has dominated the travel industry for so long. To excel in this sector, the Southern Gold Coast needs people who can create these experiences and successfully market them to the world. Again - we've got an advantage here - we have a beautiful natural environment and developed tourism infrastructure. But we can't afford to rest on our laurels here. I'd use Cairns as an example here - a place of great natural beauty but one that feels increasingly tired. If we want a dynamic and robust tourism sector that can weather economic crises, then we need to keep providing better and better experiences, and not just wait for big investments like cruise ship terminals or new hotels and casinos to power us along.
- Let's build smart, affordable housing that keeps property prices in check. If we want to be a place that people can settle down in, where young peoples can get into the property market, and where our mortgages or rents don't take up 40-50% of our incomes, we must constantly be creating smarter housing. There are a number of housing trends we can follow to guide us here, and plenty of mistakes from other cities we can learn from. Here are some of my thoughts on how we can meet rising demand for housing, while retaining the attractive quality of life we already have here.
Increase density sensibly. One of the things I like about the suburbs of the Southern Gold Coast is that there are a variety of property types within each suburb. In many capital cities we are increasingly seeing areas with either only high-rise buildings or endless swathes of suburban house and land packages. I think it will be a great thing for our community if we avoid this. Urban analyst Michael Matusik describes high-rises as 'the ghettos of the future', and looking at high-rises from 30-40 years ago I think he is right. Similarly, I don't think the suburban sprawl/shopping mall culture is really what the Southern GC is about either. Each of our suburbs already has its own unique housing mix and character, and incorporates natural beauty as well as access to the things people need to live and work.
To preserve and enhance this, we should be creating the type of housing that accommodates steady population growth, but retains the character that Australians are looking for in their accommodation. In housing markets across Australia, we are seeing strong demand from owner-occupiers for well positioned small-lot houses, dual-living homes, duplexes, townhouses and boutique apartments. When located near to shops, services, infrastructure and amenity, these kind of properties are extremely attractive. The trend in housing is definitely moving towards smaller backyards and more compact housing, but with better-designed internal and external space and with better access to neighbourhood hubs.
Our ability to produce this type of housing in the future will play a large part in whether or not we attract and retain quality people and businesses to our city. It also provides us with more economic opportunities to develop and export, which I'll discuss below.
Pioneer smart housing design. A quick stroll into Surfers Paradise or down Hedges Ave will tell you that the Gold Coast isn't a place celebrated for its architectural achievements. We don't have rich architectural legacy of European cities or even many of Australia's own capital cities, and probably never will. But it does leave us with a clean slate for our building designers to create the kind of housing that will best serve us in the future. We have creative architects here and a relatively permissive council, so we can develop property that isn't just about turning a quick buck for developers, but instead genuinely suits and enhances the suburb. Council could get on board by providing incentives, such as lower infrastructure charges, to developers who genuinely innovate in creating housing best designed for the future. This isn't just to benefit our suburbs, however. New and better ways of designing and building houses is something we can export to Australia and the rest of the world. I think we can build a reputation for excellent housing that is aesthetically pleasing, affordable, and integrates our natural environment, and that this can become an important plank of our economy.
Improve the living in our valleys. The hinterland of the Southern Gold Coast is one of its most underrated assets. At the moment, however, I feel that it's not reaching its full potential as a place to live. For one, the infrastructure and services are not up to par. Reedy Creek, Tallebudgera and to a lesser extent Elanora suffer serious traffic bottlenecking, which needs to be fixed as a matter of urgency. There are nowhere near enough shops in the hinterland either. I'm not suggesting massively increasing the density in the valleys, but building up their infrastructure and services will allow for sensible new developments that make use of the great natural amenity of these locations. People living in the hinterland generally are wanting a different kind of property to those living near the beach, but there is still plenty of scope for a mix of housing that allows more people to live there without fundamentally changing what makes living there great.
- Fix the traffic lights on the Gold Coast Highway and West Burleigh Road. Immediately. I'd suggest the traffic system on the GC was designed by a four-year old, however that would suggest that four-year old's don't just not understand how traffic works, but also maliciously delight in needlessly delaying your journey. We can't claim to be a smart city if our traffic lights add 5 mins to every journey. Can we please have somebody smart in traffic flow come and review, and then fix this now.
- Upgrade the M1 and get a faster train. I won't be breaking any news here when I say that the M1 south of Robina is already over capacity and getting worse. I don't expect this article to get the wheels turning on this, but we've already had funding stolen for an upgrade once, without much of a political backlash here. There's no future funding in sight, and given how long it took to upgrade the measly section from Worongary to Robina, if it doesn't get started soon it may literally be decades before it happens. That's simply not acceptable.
While we're on the topic, to ease congestion on the M1 I'd love to see the train line extended. I'd also like to see the journey sped up substantially. High-speed rail between Brisbane and the GC would be tremendous and a real game-changer, but there are also simpler and cheaper things that could be done now to make the journey more efficient. If you've been on train you'll know it slows to a crawl once it reaches the inner suburbs of Brisbane. Why is this? Is anyone doing anything to fix it? Surely it wouldn't cost that much to improve the journey time a few minutes. It shouldn't be hard to imagine a train journey from Varsity Lakes to Central Station in 45-50 mins.
For both the train and M1, the only real solution here is making some noise. The Gold Coast doesn't contain any marginal electorates, so our political advocacy needs to be that much more vociferous.
- Change the way we market ourselves. The Gold Coast has never had much trouble selling itself as a tourist destination. But we still have a long way to go in building a reputation as one of the best places in the world to live and work. Some of this will happen naturally through our deeds, but we can also change the way we perceive and market ourselves. Events such as Bleach Festival, sites such as Metropolist, restaurants such as Rick Shores and developments such as Magnoli will slowly change the way we are seen over time, but it's also in how we market our businesses, talk about our lifestyle and welcome tourists and newcomers to the area. It's definitely not the job of a government marketing campaign!
So that's it. If you're a Southern Gold Coast local, then I hope this has provided some food for thought and perhaps some inspiration. If you're not, then perhaps this has given you some cause to reevaluate the Southern Gold Coast, and more importantly, I hope we continue to give you reasons to. I'd love to hear your comments.