The population experiment and the towns that almost made it10/08/2023
By Benjamin Preiss
Albury-Wodonga is much closer to Melbourne than Sydney.Credit: Illustration: Marija Ercegovac
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Bruce Pennay moved to Albury from Goulburn during what he calls “the experiment”. It was 1982 and the federal government had earmarked Albury-Wodonga as a development centre to take the population pressure off major cities, including Melbourne and Sydney.
Before Pennay’s arrival, Gough Whitlam’s government hoped the neighbouring cities on either side of the Murray River would undergo a combined population boom from fewer than 50,000 residents during the mid-1970s to 300,000 by the year 2000.
“There was certainly this idea that big things were still expected,” Pennay recalls.
By the time Pennay got to Albury, the Fraser government lowered the population target to about 150,000 for the region. Now, the total population of Albury-Wodonga is just over 100,000. Yet Pennay, a historian and adjunct professor at Charles Sturt University, believes the experiment delivered benefits.
Historian Bruce Pennay with a library copy of his book, “Making a City in the Country”.Credit: Jason Robins
Pennay, who wrote a book about Albury-Wodonga’s development, says the Whitlam government did substantial planning for the future through its now-disbanded Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation, which banked land anticipating population growth.
“There was provision for schools and parks and all kinds of facilities — not like a private developer trying to get the most of the land he’s bought.”
In a series focusing on the imminent transformation of Victoria’s regional cities, The Age is exploring how Albury-Wodonga, Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo will change in the coming decades.
Albury-Wodonga is now ranked 20th in the top cities by population in Australia and the twin cities are expected to grow by about 21,500 residents combined between 2021 and 2036.
Albury and Wodonga are subject to the control of the New South Wales and Victorian governments respectively, and while they’ve long been rivals, they also have a shared identity and destiny. As well, the cities are much closer to Melbourne than Sydney (325 kilometres and 554 kilometres respectively).
The region’s economy was founded on growing wine grapes, wool and wheat in the mid-1800s, but now healthcare, retail, aged care and social services are among the biggest employers.
Wodonga’s big facelift
Development, too, is steaming ahead, both on their outskirts and city centres. The Leneva-Baranduda growth area is expected to house 15,395 residents within about 20 years in Wodonga alone.
Wodonga mayor Ron Mildren says the councils are tasked with implementing the kind of long-term infrastructure vision he believes the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation delivered in its planning. Bike paths separated from cars are one example.
While Albury has the more developed CBD and the better reputation for bars and restaurants, there has been major change in Wodonga’s city centre and more is coming.
“Historically Wodonga has looked inwards. It’s been a bit introverted,” Mildren says.
The streetscape in Wodonga’s town centre underwent a $20 million facelift before the pandemic, which is attracting new businesses. There is a new library and art gallery with spaces for artists who can use advanced tools, including 3D printers.
The re-routing of the Melbourne to Sydney rail line, which previously ran through Wodonga’s CBD, opened up more than 15 hectares of open space for redevelopment as part of a project called Junction Place.
Development Victoria describes Junction Place as Australia’s “largest regional urban renewal project”. It is still looking to developers to complete it. But already, the former train station is becoming a hospitality precinct and a market attracting crowds on weekends. Mildren believes Junction Place is ready for apartment complexes, offices and more hospitality venues.
“It’s all growth in front of us.”
The Victorian government confirmed more than $30 million had been invested in the project to repurpose the historic railway station and goods.
But Michelle Cowan, co-convenor of the Engage Wodonga residents group, wants to see Junction Place offer more restaurants and entertainment for families, who are increasingly shifting to the region.
“There’s not a lot that keeps us here in the evenings,” she says.
She agrees apartments can play an important role in housing people in the CBD. But Cowan wants to see attractive, good quality buildings that enhance the streetscape.
Few schools, apartments in growing city
“This is a great place to live,” she says. “And we can be very optimistic about the future if we get the right development in our city heart.”
Over the river, Albury mayor Kylie King acknowledges the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation has made an important contribution to planning. She looks at growing suburbs and sees a population threatening to outpace infrastructure.
Thurgoona-Wirlinga is one of those booming growth areas where the population has grown from 6,500 to 11,300 in the past 10 years. Albury city forecasts have Thurgoona-Wirlinga’s population hitting 50,000 by 2070.
“We’re now crying out for new schools,” she says.
Albury Mayor Kylie King sees the need for apartment living.Credit: Jason Robins
As growth surges, King insists Albury must embrace greater residential density. Figures supplied by Albury City show 7000 households or 31.6 per cent consisted of just one person. However, only 3.7 per cent were single-bedroom dwellings. By comparison, three and four-bedroom dwellings accounted for almost three-quarters of all housing.
“Not everyone wants a three or four-bedroom home, but sometimes that’s all we have on the market.”
King says her city is ready for more apartment developments. In February, the council approved a nine-storey building with 23 residential apartments that include one, two and three bedrooms.
“We do need to go up,” she says.
As the city grows, the council has also set a target of achieving net-zero emissions, including waste, by 2050. King hopes tackling climate change can become one of the city’s growth industries and cites a recent trial converting fruit and vegetable waste into fertiliser as an example of future potential.
Although Albury and Wodonga councils consider themselves “two cities, one community”, that identity was tested in July 2020 when the border closed for the first time in more than 100 years to limit the spread of coronavirus.
The closure severed families and stopped workers crossing the river.
But Business Wodonga chief executive Graham Jenkin says the closure left some benefits to businesses on his side of the Murray River. He said that in past years Wodonga residents considered Albury their shopping destination.
“[During the closure] people had to think — where can I go in Wodonga to get what I need, because I can’t cross the river,” he said.
Cross-border tensions have arisen again over the redevelopment of the Albury Base Hospital. There appears to be widespread agreement that the hospital centre in Albury is inadequate for the growing communities, but there is now a protracted dispute about where it should be built. Albury-Wodonga hospital services are jointly funded by the Victorian and NSW governments but run by Victoria.
Wodonga mayor Ron Mildren.Credit: Jason Robins
The Victorian and NSW governments have announced a $558 million redevelopment of the hospital. But Mildren argues the new hospital should be built on a separate, greenfield site, because the current location is too small and the upgrade will create ongoing traffic problems.
The Victorian government insists all options were investigated to get the planning right for the Albury Wodonga Hospital and the decision was made together with the NSW government and supported by clinicians.
Now Pennay wants governments to focus on other priorities, too, including faster access to Melbourne by rail. He says better train connections would help raise Wodonga’s profile and allow residents to work in the big city — just as many do in Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong.
“We’re just that bit too far away,” he says. “We don’t have a reliable train service to Melbourne.”
Pennay argues more government jobs would help lift Wodonga’s economy by appealing to prospective workers — much like Geelong attracted WorkSafe and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Yet, he is hopeful about the future. As a grandfather with family living nearby, he feels invested in the community and wants to see more young families move to Albury-Wodonga, just like he did in 1982.
“I am optimistic, and I think the community is, too.”
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