Sustainable cities and communities

Most Australians live in cities. Our cities are centres of innovation, economic growth and cultural and social life. Jobs, educational opportunities and proximity to social services make them magnets for a growing population.

Australian cities also have an international reputation for ‘liveability’, which encompasses quality of life and includes housing conditions, access to transport and nature.

The ‘vortex effect’

Despite this reputation, our cities and larger towns deplete resources at an unsustainable rate. They exert a ‘vortex effect’, importing resources from the hinterland and rural parts of the country, as well as from overseas. Cities also dispose of waste outside their boundaries. Globalisation, population growth and increasing material wealth have accelerated these impacts. Traffic congestion, air pollution and poor natural environments are some of the issues that people face in cities.

How do cities and towns affect the environment?

The impact of Australian cities and towns on the environment is strongly influenced by:

  • increases in urban population
  • the expansion of cities into urban hinterlands, often taking over productive agricultural land or areas of high ecological value
  • high per capita and household consumption, including a tendency towards larger buildings and more material goods
  • high household and per capita energy and water use
  • car dependency and a tendency towards larger vehicles
  • high levels of waste generation.

Population growth

The crucial sustainability challenge is the combination of population growth and high levels of consumption. The relationship between population and environment is not simple: the impacts of growth can be lessened through improvements in efficiency. However, this requires substantial, coordinated and complex action by governments, business and the community.

Population densities

The links between the comparatively low population densities of Australian cities and their environmental impacts is just as fraught as the population-environment debate. High density can mean more efficient use of land and better access for people to services like transport, but it may also be associated with loss of open space and crowding.

Housing design and energy

Housing design, size and location influence the environmental impacts of cities and suburbs. While regulations and policies to improve buildings have proliferated in recent years, our use of energy-hungry home appliances increases.

Aside from the issue of electricity use, there is also significant energy embodied in buildings, infrastructure and lifestyles. This ‘embodied energy’ accounts for 70% of average household energy consumption.


Advertising and the media feed an ever-increasing, commercially-driven consumption.


While this list is not comprehensive it will give you an idea of the solutions to the environmental challenges posed by our towns and cities.

Better urban planning

Reduce urban sprawl and loss of amenity, and provide better transport infrastructure through:

  • urban planning policies that clearly define and protect areas of value from development
  • community engagement in planning and development processes
  • protection of solar access
  • investment in better provision of public transport, including infrastructure, timetabling and modal interchange
  • provision and protection of urban green spaces, in particular areas of remnant vegetation
  • provision of bike and walking paths
  • support for smaller and low-emission vehicles
  • support for innovative approaches to urban ecology (for example, green roofs).

Better buildings

Reduce building size and improve building design to ensure more efficient energy and water use through:

  • improved building standards for residential and commercial buildings
  • mandatory disclosure of building efficiency at the point of sale to drive change in existing building stock
  • support for retrofitting of existing buildings
  • support for research and deployment of new building materials, including materials with low embodied energy
  • support for development of, and better access to, improved information for consumers about energy and water efficient products and appliances
  • support for alternative forms of household and community energy generation
  • government, business and community programs to support improved efficiency of low-income housing
  • targeted programs focusing on the energy and water needs of specific people, for example the elderly, those from non- English-speaking backgrounds).

Sustainable production and consumption

Reduce consumption, particularly of goods and food, in order to use fewer resources and produce less waste, through:

  • encouragement of product stewardship by key manufacturing industries; industry should take responsibility for the full life cycle of products from ‘cradle to cradle’
  • promotion of sustainable lifestyles and responsible consumption patterns
  • provision of information to consumers on ‘food miles’ (the transport energy inherent in foods)
  • support for small-scale urban agriculture and community gardens
  • support for community-led recycling and re-use programs.
Looking for more information?

Download our   pdf icon Giving Green Briefing Note – Sustainable cities and communities, which tackles the issue in more depth. To receive a hard copy, email

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