Register Now!

Search Skwirk


When we discuss settlement patterns, we look at the historical flows and migration patterns of the population over time. We also observe population growth rates and density rates in particular areas. By observing past and present settlement patterns, we can observe the impacts of change on different Australian communities.

See image 1

European landing and its impact

Terra nullius was the official settlement claim made by Europeans when they arrived in Australia in 1788. Terra nullius or 'empty land' has now been legally removed from our Constitution, because between 300 000 to 1 000 000 Indigenous peoples were settled here many thousands of years prior. The impact of European settlement on the Indigenous peoples was disastrous; genocide and disease had wiped out Indigenous peoples in Tasmania by 1876. Racism and intolerance was exhibited by settlers, pastoralists and the like for most of the 19th century. Pastoralists had forcefully occupied indigenous-occupied land. Reserves were created on town fringes, leading to further dispossession. Indigenous peoples (Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders) had enjoyed thousands of years of sustainable and harmonious life on the land. There were 18 broad language regions, based on water catchments and contrasting indigenous groups.

Geographical factors affecting early settlement

The impact of the Australian climate and geography on the settlers was generally harsh. The settlers were not accustomed to the harsh and unforgiving Australian climate and conditions. They encountered low levels of rainfall, poor soils and faced topography (land forms such as mountains) and vegetation which were hard to travel through and manage. The settlers found that the Australian continent was too large to travel in, leading to high financial costs for the colony. The early settlers and communities found the Australian environment ideal for agricultural methods. Around 70 per cent of woodland and forests were cleared for crops and housing. Settlement and agricultural practices, together with destruction of the indigenous way of life and culture, were indeed negative impacts on the ecology and geography. Soil was consistently degraded, pollution of the natural environment and destruction of various species of animals and plants were other negative impacts.

See image 2

Settlement patterns

Colonisation of Australia featured a series of migration waves around the south and south-east regions of Australia. Between 1788 and 1868 about 150 000 convicts arrived in Australia from the United Kingdom. During the 1850s and the gold rushes, the population of NSW doubled and the population of Victoria increased six-fold. By the 1830s there were over 100 000 settlers in the Australian colonies. By the 1850s over half a million migrants were added to the existing population. Railways were built and expanded inland for farming. Eventually the railway network allowed relatively easy internal migration of the population. The 1880s featured more intensive agriculture, which led to the development of prosperous towns, rural communities and regional centres (a large town or city of over 1000 people, with many surrounding villages). After World War II there was a large European wave of migration to Australia. In the 1970s there was an influx of Vietnam War refugees. Through the 1980s and 1990s there was a mix of cultural arrivals (21 per cent were overseas-born in the mid 1980s. In 2006, it is 25 per cent).

There were essentially two types of human settlement by the turn of the 20th century: rural settlements (featuring primary industries such as farming, mining and fishing) and urban settlements (secondary industries, such as manufacturing of raw materials and tertiary industry, such as professional services and government). Sydney is an example of an urban settlement. It has become our largest city, with a settlement population of over four million people. Sydney is not a large city by world standards, yet it features a vast urban or suburban sprawl that spreads around 100 kilometres in three directions (north, south and west). This large sprawl of suburbs gives Sydney one of the world's lowest population densities (even though Sydney is far more densely populated than most other Australian cities). To illustrate this point, Mumbai in India has a population of over 14 million, which would fit within the area of Sydney's eastern suburbs.

Changing settlement patterns: urban growth and decline, and the rural-urban drift

While Sydney has grown and renewed to the point of overdevelopment, other urban areas in Australia have both grown and declined. There has been development growth of 75 per cent in cities over 10 000 people. Overall, more than half of Australia's population live in the capital cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide; 4.7 million reside in the Greater Metropolitan Region of NSW (Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong and the Central Coast); 85 per cent of NSW live in urban areas.

See animation 1
We can track growth of areas in relation to natural population increases, internal migration and overseas migration. In 2002, the largest population increases occurred in Melbourne (increase of 52 500) and Sydney (increase of 42 700). In the same year, Brisbane's population increased the fastest at 2.3 per cent, whilst Melbourne and Perth both increased significantly at 1.5 per cent. In 2003, Queensland's Gold Coast recorded a large increase of 3.4 per cent. 'Sun belt' growth has been significant (retirement, tourism, young people), where people pursue lower costs, less crime and cleaner living (big increases were recorded in coastal NSW cities like Shoalhaven, Tweed Heads and Hastings Point).

Pop Quiz

The more you learn - the more you earn!
What are points?Earn up to points by getting 100% in this pop quiz!

Question 1/5

1. What did European settlers call Australia when they arrived in 1788?

The land that we know belongs to other people

Our land

Unoccupied land

'Terra Nullius' or 'empty land'


No thanks. Remind me again later.