Characteristics of Australia’s cities

This content forms a part of our issue briefing on sustainable cities and communities.

Australia is one of the world’s most heavily urbanised countries, with two-thirds of its population living within the greater metropolitan areas of the capitals of each state and territory, and 86.1 per cent living in urban centres of 10,000 inhabitants or more. Although covering only 0.3 per cent of Australia’s land mass, these cities and their populations account for resource consumption, environmental impacts and economic production extending well beyond their immediate boundaries. Regularly lauded as some of the safest and most liveable places in the world, Australian cities are also some of the most resource intensive. Low-density, dispersed urban development, high levels of energy and fossil fuel consumption, and a dependency on cars for personal transport continue to cause both direct and indirect environmental damage.

The negative impact of these wider urban “footprints” is consistent with cities globally, which, although covering three per cent of the Earth’s land mass, have been estimated to demand 60 per cent to 80 per cent of global energy use and 75 per cent of all carbon emissions, as well as generate 80 per cent of global economic output.

Calculations of humanity’s global ecological footprint — a measure of per capita consumption, relative to an average global measure of biological productivity (referred to as a “global hectare”) in a given year — show that our global environmental demands exceed the carrying capacity of the planet, and are depleting ecological, atmospheric and hydrospheric reserves. Cities play a central role in fuelling this unsustainable demand. They are also critically important in driving the transformative change we need to prevent the Earth shifting into an unsafe and uncertain planetary state.

As noted in the Australian State of the Environment (SoE) 2016: Built environment report, continued population growth in Australian cities is heavily polarised. Inner-city areas, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney, are growing upwards as they are rapidly becoming more densely populated. At the same time detached housing continues to spread outwards into peri-urban areas, defined as the hinterlands – often of high agricultural, recreational, or environmental value – that immediately surround our cities and towns. The failure to effectively plan for this dual urban expansion and intensification is putting significant pressure on urban systems such as transport, as well as peri-urban ecosystem services such as water supply, accelerating the need for fundamental change to more sustainable urban forms and livelihoods.

Australia’s major capital cities, which concentrate our largely urban population in a small number of coastal state capitals (as demonstrated in Figure 1), are also heavily interconnected with the wider global network of cities through trade-based material flows and high levels of social, cultural and human exchange. If we are to address the sustainability of Australian cities and communities, we also need to consider these global interconnections as well as the broader goals for sustainable urban development.

Australian population in significant urban areas (2016)

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