Census – A Key Tool for Town Planners

What is the Australian Census?

The Australian Census of Population and Housing is the official procedure of systematically acquiring information about the Australian population by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Conducted every 5 years, the census is a detailed count of, among other things, citizens and visitors, young and old, on a given night, and of the places they live. Conducting this national survey at regular intervals provides a standardised source of data for statistical analysis. In short, census data is used by individuals, organisations and government to make informed decisions on public policy and planning issues that impact the lives of all Australians.

By covering a wide range of information, the census provides the single most accurate snapshot of living arrangements, cultural background, care & education, income & work and housing in Australia.

This information helps estimate Australia’s population (and trends within the population), which can be used in the decision making process to distribute government funds and plan services and infrastructure for the community – such as housing, transport, education, industry, hospitals and the environment.

Relevance of the Census to Town Planning

Planning for the future is likely to be only as good as the reliability of data on which it is based.

The profession of town planning relies on census information for various tasks such as assessing demographic trends; analysing socio-economic conditions; designing evidence-based poverty-reduction strategies; monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of policies; and tracking progress toward national and internationally agreed development goals and best practice. In his column in The Australian on 11 August, Demographer & social commentator Bernard Salt observes that since the first census in 1961, we can see the rise and distribution of our multicultural communities. At the last census (2011), 42 per cent of Sydney’s population was born overseas compared with 29 per cent for New York, 22 per cent for Paris and 2 per cent for Tokyo, enabling this census figure alone to contribute to the national debate about migration and tolerance.

Following our March 2016 blog "Town Planning in a Nutshell – It’s Sort of like Sim City…"  where we described the role of strategic planning, census data is relied upon by strategic planners (usually employed in Government) when drafting forward planning documents (such as the South East Queensland Regional Plan, Local Government Planning Schemes, State Planning Policy) to analyse areas that have experienced change so that any necessary adjustments can be made to accommodate the growth and needs of the future population.

Census information enables recommendations to be put to politicians and decision-makers to meet the various challenges of managing municipalities, including building infrastructure and housing, as well as improving transportation links, public services and the environment. By using census data in the planning and decision making process, it provides transparency to the process, while at the same time providing certainty of accuracy and increased confidence in the planning process.

Australian Population Association’s Dr Alison Taylor (2016) advises that “The future planning of our cities, towns and regions including infrastructure and health, education and social services depends on high quality Census data…” She goes on to explain that “Planning for better transport near where people live, affordable housing, shorter waiting times in hospitals…” all requires valuable census data to be able to resolve the issues in a meaningful way.

One of the purposes of the Sustainable Planning Act is to “manage the process by which development takes place, including ensuring the process is accountable, effective and efficient and delivers sustainable outcomes” (Section 3(a) SPA). In terms of achieving the Act’s Purpose, at least in terms of accountability, effectiveness and efficiency, census data is a credible source of information. In advancing the Act’s Purpose (Section 5 SPA), decision makers must also apply the Precautionary Principle: “the principle that lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing a measure to prevent degradation of the environment if there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage.” Therefore, strategic planners can analyse census data to identify trends and then using the precautionary principle, plan accordingly.

For example, when government looks at making significant investments in infrastructure, information about where the population is and how and where it moves each day is needed. A key source of data required to make these sorts of decisions is in “Journey to Work” data recorded by the Transport Authority, who derive population and housing data from the census. It includes data on employment by industry and occupation, and method of travel to work which are all crucial metrics for the analysis and forecasting of employment, commuting patterns and land use change. This practice encompasses 'empirically grounded' decision-making where evidence informs policy. By repeating the process and evaluating the previous cycle to inform the next cycle, an ever improving plan evolves aligning itself each time closer to a community’s actual needs.

A reliable census can also empower local communities by providing them with the necessary information to participate in local decision-making (such as creating a new planning scheme) and ensuring they are accurately represented. The census data forms the baseline information from which potential issues can be identified and plans/policies developed to address forecasted issues. This creates consistency in the approach to planning making it an objective exercise for the benefit of all.

Applying planning theory alone when creating a planning document is not enough. Without historical data, early identification of trends is difficult and the process becomes reactive – fixing the plan when there is a problem, rather than seeking to minimise disconnects between the planned community & development needs and the actual community & development needs. Accurate prediction of the direction of trends before a disconnect occurs is an insurance policy of sorts to thwart issues before they arise. This process is depicted by the Rational Planning Model - the process of realizing a problem, establishing and evaluating planning criteria, creating alternatives, implementing alternatives, and monitoring progress of the alternatives. It is used in designing neighbourhoods, cities, and regions.



What Data is Required for Town Planning?

The permutation and combination of data required by town planners to carry out forward planning tasks will depend upon the particular aspect of planning under consideration. The following data provides some insight into the information acquired from the Census that may be used by town planners:

Users Data
Data related to people in the city (spatial distribution/density), distribution of social groups, profile, age and other characteristics and includes:

  • Household survey
  • Sex ratio
  • Employment (population characteristics, % of population scattered)
  • Qualification (education profile)
  • Age distribution
  • Income levels etc.

 Activities Data
Data related to land use activities and changes to them that the people of the city are engaged in such as:

  • Trade and Commerce.
  • Traffic and Transportation.
  • Recreational / Environmental space.
  • Residential / Housing.
  • Industrial and Manufacturing.
  • Infrastructure.

 Network Data
Data related to the various networks that are required to service the population such as:

  • Transport network capacity - rail, road, airway
  • Methods of transport (modal choice)
  • Public transport infrastructure - bus depot and terminals, rail terminals etc.
  • Water, sewage and drainage

 The Take Away

While the sceptics might argue it’s an invasion of privacy, Australia is not a totalitarian state and unlike Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty-four”, every citizen is not under constant surveillance by the Australian Government. In the modern digital world of the internet and social media, we freely fill out forms on-line yet question the legitimate need to provide information that will be used to improve our quality of life.

So stand and be counted at every Census because it matters. The accuracy of data will be better and with better data, town planners can make better planning documents. When better planning documents are implemented, we should be able to expect improvements to our quality of life (reduced traffic congestion, improved environmental quality, better infrastructure, more jobs, less homelessness, etc). Planning in this fashion is proactive, seeking to continually adjust to the changing needs of the community.

However above all, the most important take-away is that interrogation of reliable census data enabled the discovery that New South Wales population (6,549,177) is about double Queensland’s (3,904,532), but the Maroons are six times as good at Origin. This might explain net migration north!