The changing face of apartment living

The recently released Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016 Census of Population and Housing (ABS Census) data provides insight into how Australians live. This article on apartment living is the first in our series on the 2016 Census.

Australia’s economy is continuing to shift towards a knowledge based services economy concentrated in the centre of our big cities. SGS has often talked about this economic phenomena which has driven a resurgence in compact living as people trade large houses on big blocks for better access to transport, jobs, services and amenities.

This phenomena has contributed to sky rocketing house prices and increased infill development in major cities as people strive to live close to new economy hubs. Despite this, apartment living is most commonly thought of as being best suited to students, young professionals and single family households. For many Australians, the prevailing view is that if you have children, you will want to settle down in a detached house in the middle or outer suburbs.

However, from a global perspective, the ‘quarter acre block’ is a strange concept. In many European and Asian cities it is commonplace for families with children to live in more compact housing. The latest Census data highlights how Australia is beginning to witness a shift towards a more compact, cosmopolitan way of life.

There are several drivers which are contributing to this shift:

  • High house prices are making purchasing a detached house increasingly difficult, and those that are affordable are typically further away from good job opportunities and services.
  • It is now common place for family households with two parents to have both parents working. This creates a ‘spatial leash’, compelling working parents to live as close as possible to where they work.
  • Preferences are shifting and the detached suburban home is not necessarily the ‘great Australian dream’. People are busier than ever and a big house on a large lot means more upkeep. People are eating out more, participating in more cultural activities and drawing on more health and community services. As a result, families are trading private space for better access.

At the 2011 census, 50,000 families with children [1] lived in high rise apartments [2] across Australia. In 2016, this increased to 79,000 families, a jump of 56 per cent in five years.

Use the following dashboard to explore how this trend varies across Australia’s cities and regions and find your own unique insights in the data.


What have we found?

  • Most apartments are located in Australia’s capital cities, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. All cities have experienced an increase in the absolute number of families with children living in apartments, with an increase in the proportion of families in apartment households.
  • Typically, areas surrounding the CBD rather than within the CBD are preferred by family with children apartment dwellers. This is likely due to good access to jobs, lower urban form and good access to parks and other local community facilities. However, this is not consistent across cities.

  • Zooming into Sydney, we see that it has the largest proportion of apartments occupied by families with children at 25 per cent in 2016 (up from 22 per cent in 2011). It also had the largest increase with 18,600 new high rise apartments being occupied by families with children in 2016. There are several areas, including North Sydney, Parramatta, and the inner south western suburbs, that are very popular for families with children living in apartments. These locations are attractive to families for a number of reasons, including the types of apartments available, better relative affordability (compared to detached houses) and access to employment hubs.
  • Zooming into Melbourne, we see that there has actually been a slight decrease in the proportion of apartments occupied by families with children, from 14 per cent to 12 per cent, while the actual number has still increased by 4,200 dwellings. This is possibly due to the significant number of smaller apartments being developed in the city core, and an increasing number of unoccupied dwellings in the city centre. The number of families living in apartments in the CBD and Docklands doubled between 2011 and 2016. Areas located further from the CBD have seen less of an increase, and in some cases a decrease, in families living in apartments, likely due to alternative compact options available such as townhouses.
  • Zooming into Brisbane, we see that there are over 4,500 high rise apartments occupied by families with children in 2016, almost double since 2011. Over 70 per cent of these apartments are located in the inner city, highlighting the preference for inner city areas for families living in apartments. Overall there was a marginal increase in the proportion of apartments occupied by families with children since 2011, to almost 14 per cent in 2016. Interestingly, Brisbane has a greater proportion of apartments occupied by families with children than compared to Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
  • Zooming into Perth, we see that there are 2,000 high rise apartments occupied by families with children in 2016, comprising 12 per cent of all apartments in the city (up from 11 per cent in 2011). Over 60 per cent of these are located in inner Perth, with other popular areas being the south east and south western suburbs.
  • Zooming into Adelaide, we see that there has been an increase in the proportion of apartments occupied by families with children, at 11 per cent in 2016 (up from 9 per cent in 2011). Over half of these are located in Adelaide Central and Hills.
  • Zooming into Darwin, we see that there has been a robust increase in the proportion of apartments occupied by families with children, at 21 per cent in 2016 (up from 17 per cent in 2011). The total number of high rise apartments in Darwin has doubled since 2011, with a quarter of these new apartments being occupied by families with children.
  • Zooming into Hobart, we see that there has been a drop in the proportion of apartments occupied by families with children. However, there is a very small number of apartments in Hobart, with only 50 units being occupied by families with children (out of 600 high rise apartments in 2016).

The 2016 Census data reveals that Australian families are slowly adapting to changes in the urban economy. Leadership from policy makers and strategic planners is critical to ensure that housing options meet the needs of households. Policies like Better Apartments Design Standards (BADS) in Victoria and the NSW State Environmental Planning Policy No 65 - Design Quality of Residential Apartment Development (SEPP 65) should be applauded for ensuring that cities like Melbourne and Sydney can provide adequate housing options for a variety of lifestyles to improve the quality of life for families in cities across Australia.

Furthermore, it is critical to provide the supporting infrastructure and services for this growth. Innovative approaches to planning this future demand are required to ensure long term sustainable urban development.


[1] Families with children have been defined as all family households with children including couples and one parent families.

[2] High rise apartments have been defined as a flat or apartment in a four or more storey block