How the Gold Coast has Seen one of Australia’s Biggest Urban Transformations

By Jared Hodge

In my lifetime, I’ve seen the place go from a sleepy seaside village to the sixth-largest place in Australia,” says John Witheriff. As a lifelong resident and chairman of GoldLinQ, operator of the G:Link light rail, Mr Witheriff has witnessed one of Australia’s biggest urban transformations over the past decade.

Since beating the Sri Lankan city of Hambantota to win the rights to host the XXI Commonwealth Games, close to £7.5bn has poured into the Gold Coast and its surrounds.

A council-led development plan is seizing the opportunity of a lifetime to champion and invest in the city’s impressive economic credentials. By concentrating on economic, environmental and social pillars, the city is hoping to strike gold everywhere from job creation and the diversification of its economy to reducing waste and pollution, and developing a greater sense of citizenship among the city’s growing population.

Newly constructed commercial property within the Central Business District (CBD), partnerships between industry and research in the health and knowledge precinct, plus the extension of transport and optic-fibre links that connect the coastal corridor are translating into new commercial opportunities.

A rising commercial opportunity

An early candidate for investment was Southport, the traditional CBD of the Gold Coast. “Southport, the city’s CBD, is essential to driving the economic growth of the Gold Coast,” says planning chair Councillor Cameron Caldwell. The area was declared a Priority Development Area in 2012 to remove development barriers and boost investment opportunities.

The city has created a dedicated business unit to oversee the reinvigoration of Southport, including the creation a new Chinatown district, street upgrades and attraction of new business.

One of many forthcoming developments in Southport is the Au – a £201m two-tower project by ASF Group that will include four levels of mixed retail and commercial space, alongside luxury residential properties and a hotel.

Imperial Square, the tallest tower ever proposed for the Gold Coast, is also planned for the CBD. The project consists of a four staged, vertically integrated education and accommodation complex, capturing Australia’s two largest non-resource export sectors; education and tourism.

The knowledge economy

With health the largest employing sector on the Gold Coast, it comes as no surprise that the city is attracting internationally acclaimed researchers to its emerging research and innovation hubs.

One example is Professor Mark von Itzstein who led the team that discovered the world’s first anti-flu drug, Relenza – a major breakthrough that could save the lives of 250,000 people each year. In 2000 Professor von Itzstein founded Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics on the Gold Coast – the only one of its kind in Australia and one of the largest worldwide.

“The Gold Coast is now establishing itself as a biomedical research hub and all of the translational facilities are already in place. Within the next 10 years I have no doubt that the Gold Coast will be seen as a world-leading research precinct,” von Itzstein said.

The work being done at the Institute for Glycomics is part of a large network of groundbreaking research in health and medicine taking place at the city’s impressive Health and Knowledge Precinct.  Supported by £2.9bn in infrastructure, including the Gold Coast University Hospital, Private Hospital and Griffith University, the Precinct has created a unique environment where researchers, academics, clinicians and business leaders can collaborate and ultimately provide some of the best services in Australia.

Following GC2018, more than nine hectares (22 acres) of land will be available for targeted commercial development as the next stage of growth.

A focus on technology

To deliver a smooth Commonwealth Games, the City of Gold Coast is spending £2m on high speed fibre-optic cable. Post-games, it will be used for the city’s high-quality security camera network and for free Wi-Fi in key neighbourhoods.

Such connectivity is seen by the council as essential to support the collaborative approach showcased in the Health and Knowledge Precinct, and is a driver for a number of schemes from within the business community and academia.

IT software company Opmantek, which chose the city over Silicon Valley and Sydney as the base to serve its 60,000 users across 130 countries, is building a dedicated factory space to serve as an epicentre of innovation, where entrepreneurs, start-ups and business leaders can connect and develop new ideas.

It’s an idea that echoes nearby Bond University’s Business Accelerator, a start-up bootcamp designed to help fledgling businesses succeed.

Dr Baden U’Ren, director of the Bond Business Commercialisation Centre, says his course taps into the zeitgeist of the tech-enabled entrepreneurialism in the Gold Coast today. “We’re building work-readiness – the ability for young people to go out, have a job, start their own business or design, and create their own income,” he says. “Tourism and construction have been our economic pillars for so long but the interconnectivity of the world is starting to change that.”

The strongest link

Helping people get around is the G:Link light rail network, one of Australia’s biggest public transportation projects. It is a vital piece of infrastructure that links the Health and Knowledge Precinct to the CBD and the city’s key economic centres and private enterprise such as The Star Casino, Pacific Fair mall and other cultural attractions.

The added connectivity will support population growth, and be a great boost for business. “It spreads the benefit of economic attraction right along the coast,” says Mr Witheriff. “Take retail, or food. They are materially improving because you have a much broader catchment now.”

For Mr Witheriff, public transport increases livability, which in turn attracts the right calibre of staff. “Easy, accessible public transport into your workplace makes it far more attractive. Because of that, we’re attracting some of the world’s best people,” he says.


  • The Gold Coast population has grown from 20,000 in the 1950’s to 580,000 and is home to three research-intensive universities.
  • The Gold Coast has an economy of more than £17bn with a growth rate of 4.3pc over the past 12 months.
  • It attracts more than 13 million visitors a year.
  • Southport has the most commercial floor space, comprising a third of the city’s office stock.
  • The Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct will generate 12,400 high-value jobs for the city and £1.6bn economic benefit to the city.
  • Delegates visiting the Gold Coast spend an average 4.2 days in the region – more than any other Queensland destination.
  • In 2015 Queen Street in Southport was dubbed ‘The Golden Mile’ because five high-rise projects worth more than £570m were either approved or proposed during that year.


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