Unpacking Australia’s tree-change trend

Video: Wheat field / Adobe Stock.

Video: Wheat field / Adobe Stock.

New data shows Aussies are embracing regional living more than ever. But how can you ensure your escape to the country is a smooth move? 

Dreaming of uprooting for greener pastures in regional Australia? You might not be as secluded as you thought you would be. A new report has found that more and more Aussies are choosing the country over the city.

Key points

  • Noosa and Southern Downs are the most popular regional destinations for Queenslanders.
  • Economic benefits, as well as a stronger connection to the local community, are drawcards for tree-changers.
  • Follow a UQ expert's top tips before making the move.

The Regional Movers Index report has found regional migration is at its highest level since 2018, with net migration to the regions up 66 per cent. 

The report was developed by the Regional Australia Institute in partnership with the Commonwealth Bank to better understand the number of people moving from Australian capital cities to local government areas. 

The areas that saw the largest growth in inland migration was Noosa at 49 per cent, closely followed by Queensland’s Southern Downs at 44 per cent. 

Other destinations attracting people moving out of cities included the Gold Coast (up 11 per cent), the Sunshine Coast (six per cent), Greater Geelong (four per cent), Wollongong (three per cent) and Newcastle (two per cent).

The tree-change trend hasn’t come as a surprise to demography experts – in fact, they say it’s been a long time coming. 

“A lot of the migration trends we're seeing now are actually longer trends that precede the start of COVID-19 – the pandemic has just amplified existing trends,” said Dr Aude Bernard, a demographer from UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. 

“This index shows the net, which is the sum of people moving in, minus people moving out. In reality, we know from Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data that was published a few weeks ago that the increase in the net is not due to more people moving to the region – but it's actually less people leaving the regions.” 

“If you look at Census data going back to the 1980s, the proportion of people who change their address, or who migrate between states, has gone down in the last 30 years. Australians are actually less and less mobile than they used to be, and so that speaks to more people staying in the regions.”

The shift from Brisbane to Toowoomba was a long-time coming for horticulturalist and UQ alumni James Feez (Bachelor of Applied Science ’15), who yearned to have the same ‘country town’ experience he’d had growing up in the outer suburbs of Brisbane. 

“As a horticulturist, moving to the Garden City was a dream come true,” Feez (pictured) said.

“Toowoomba feels like living in The Gap back when I was a child. Believe it or not, the far western suburbs of Brisbane in the early 2000s still had a country-town vibe. For instance, there was a paddock down the road from my childhood house. 

“Fast forward 20 years and that paddock is now a housing estate – it’s sad, but that’s life. Dotted around Toowoomba, there are paddocks with livestock, large open spaces, parks, gardens and pretty much all the things I had growing up.

“It’s great knowing my family will be able to experience a similar environment to what I had once upon a time.” 

According to Feez, the economic benefits of moving inland were a key factor for the shift, as well as a stronger connection to the local community.

“The biggest drawcard for my wife and I was the affordable housing market. We were able to buy a three-bedroom house for a fraction of the price compared to the Brisbane property market. 

“We now have a house we can call our own, in a lovely neighbourhood, in a lovely street, and less than a stone's throw from Queens Park and the Spotted Cow Hotel.”

Horticulturalist James Feez pruning a plant.

If getting neighbourly is on your agenda, urban planning expert from UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences Dr Laurel Johnson said small towns were big on community connection.

“There tends to be higher levels of social capital (or community connectedness) in regional and rural areas, and this has benefits for individuals and families moving to the area and feeling welcome,” Johnson said. 

“So, your skills are highly regarded and you can contribute to the local community in diverse ways, including volunteering in the many sports, local arts and recreation organisations.” 

Two people sitting by a campfire in front of a small wooden cottage in Stanthorpe, Queensland.

Winding down by the fire in Stanthorpe. Image: Southern Downs and Granite Belt

Winding down by the fire in Stanthorpe. Image: Southern Downs and Granite Belt

Whether your tree-change dreams are new-found or long-held, Johnson said there were some important factors to consider before taking the leap to small-town living. 

“To ensure a smooth move, check out the digital connectivity as there are still many places in Australia where internet and telephone coverage has limits,” she said. 

“In addition to digital connectivity, if you have young children, consider their needs as teenagers – what will they do? Regional and rural areas suffer from a drift of youth to the city for education and social experiences, and many don’t return to regional and rural areas.

“Also consider transport, as travel in many regional and rural areas is predominantly car-based. Young people and others without licences find mobility is an issue for them. 

“Finally, join and contribute to organisations and activities outside of your work. Buy into the social capital in the area and build your networks through volunteering.” 

For Feez, the best advice for tree-changers is simple. 

“Try to move to a town with a good coffee shop. The absence of good coffee will make you homesick quicker than anything.”

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