As American President John F. Kennedy once said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” This is especially pertinent in Australia when looking at how we use and redevelop our land.

Since European settlement, dominant land uses in Australia have included livestock grazing of native vegetation and introduced pastures, conservation, agriculture, forestry, mining, water management and finally urban purposes.

Land use patterns continue to change over time. More recently, additional land has been set aside for conservation and an increased amount is managed by Indigenous Australians as a means of caring for country. Cities continue to urbanise and expand, and agriculture remains a key industry despite the effects of drought in many regions.

When land redevelopment happens in urban areas, it gives rise to the potential for urban renewal – Barangaroo in Sydney is a great example – but when it happens in regional or rural areas, it can be considered industrial transformation.

Regardless of whether redevelopment occurs in cities or the countryside, it needs to be based on sound economic sense. Simply put, there must be demand for the redeveloped land use. There is also an emerging requirement to meet community expectations and consider public interests.

The next decade will see a number of former mine sites and coal fired power stations potentially close with the decarbonisation of the economy. In the case of mine sites, owners will have rehabilitation provisions in their mining lease contract. The usual requirement is to return the land to its natural landform. It is not uncommon for sites to include a small component of the land that was actually mined and a large area as the balance of site. An option some companies are exploring is adaptive reuse of these balance of site areas for residential or industrial development. Whilst there are statutory planning and regulatory considerations, adaptive reuse of surplus land may benefit the communities that have relied on the previous activities for employment.

An interesting challenge is identifying emergent demand that might underpin any prospective development. And this poses challenges given the foundation of Australia’s existing economy.  In a recent update to the Atlas of Economic Complexity, researchers at Harvard’s Centre of International Development found that Australia has experienced one of the fastest declines in ratings. Economic complexity measures a country’s diversity and sophistication of knowledge and is seen as a key predictor of future growth. Our GDP is still largely made up of extractive industries and primary production. Other countries that have diversified their economies, such as India, Vietnam and Pakistan, have focused on new export markets such as financial services, electronics, chemicals and energy. So how can we capture the opportunities arising from industrial transformation to bolster our economic complexity, and where might future demand for alternate land uses come from?

Ultimately the success of the incoming wave of industrial transformation hinges on demand, along with the ability to commercialise new technology to achieve sustainable returns. Balance this with land supply coming online and the opportunities are great for regional Australia.

The Federal Government has initiatives to support productivity and innovation through the development of new Industry Growth Centres. Key growth areas such as cyber security and advanced manufacturing, food and agribusiness and medical technologies have been identified as opportunities. A number of emerging areas of interest such as hydrogen, renewables and biotechnology all show promise, and both state and federal governments are partnering with industry to align policy with competitiveness.

A key issue for regional locations is how to reuse land for an appropriate purpose underpinned by demand for these growth initiatives. An example would be that food and agribusiness initiatives may be more suitable than cyber security given the infrastructure and workforce demands needed to support new industry development.

Ultimately the success of the incoming wave of industrial transformation hinges on demand, along with the ability to commercialise new technology to achieve sustainable returns. Balance this with land supply coming online and the opportunities are great for regional Australia.

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Author Kate Drews

Kate joined SMEC in 2018 as National Manager, Urban Renewal and was promoted to Market Director, Urban Communities in Feb 2020. With more than 25 years of industry experience, Kate leads a diverse team of more than 250 specialists delivering some of the largest and most high-profile urban developments across Australia. She is also a Director on the Board of Consult Australia.

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