Aiming for a sustainable city

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

In aiming for a sustainable city, we must address two key relationships. Firstly, as a site of heavily concentrated consumption and production, it should draw on the resources of its local, regional and global environments without compromising their ecological, social and economic boundaries. Secondly, it should provide safe, healthy and inclusive livelihood opportunities for all its inhabitants, particularly protecting the rights and wellbeing of vulnerable urban citizens.

The Australian State of the Environment (SoE) 2016: Built environment report largely frames Australia’s cities in terms of their incremental impacts on these wider consumption networks, as well as the broadly positive internal environment for urban inhabitants within our cities (noting the spatial inequities highlighted throughout this brief). However, in order to address the urgent and growing threats to our planetary system — many of which are driven by urban consumption and the resource extraction related to urban supply chains — we need a more transformative vision of Australia’s cities.

Australian cities continue to fall short in terms of active and public transport use, however internal spatial variations demonstrate that this is more a product of neglected infrastructure investment, and the incentivisation of private car use, than the overall urban form itself.

Further, co-benefits – such as improved health outcomes, regeneration of natural land and the generation of new recreational spaces on old roads – are rarely considered in discussions about the viability of a continued bias towards road investment.

A failure to consider this inequality risks further isolating vulnerable urban inhabitants who lack access to the social benefits associated with urban life, ranging from migrants, to the homeless, to those with disabilities. This is most evident in the case of Australia’s urban Indigenous population, which continues to face social exclusion, disenfranchisement and the legacy of dispossession within our cities. Recognition of millennia of sustainable land management — particularly that evident in the Indigenous heritage and pre-colonial ecosystems and landscapes that remain within our cities — should be addressed as part of national frameworks for reconciliation, acknowledging our increasingly urbanised Indigenous living heritage.

Overarching urban policy frameworks remain grounded in the aspiration of the “Australian Dream”, with little done to specifically consider the growing share of citizens renting their homes, living in overcrowded conditions, or facing mortgage stress. These considerations are central to ensuring equitable change in the sustainability of Australia’s urban form and should be coordinated at a federal level with state and territory government support.

Similarly, legislative efforts to increase transparency and participatory input into local government decision-making can ensure that these voices are heard within communities in both urban and rural settings. At the same time, the development of a national urban policy framework could be used to transform design and planning for sustainable urban development, stimulating investment in areas such as private urban green space while protecting existing ecological and environmental assets for future generations.

The unsustainability of current urban consumption patterns is evident in the substantive array of contemporary urban waste flows, ranging from carbon dioxide, to e-waste, to organic matter. Recycling, highlighted as a strength in the SoE 2016 report, has since become extremely problematic, as a function of the global connectivity of our cities and their associated resource flows. The recent ban by China of importation of a wide range of recyclable materials from Australia and other countries highlighted the risk in depending on waste export systems to less developed and middle income countries, as noted above.

A holistic national framework for waste management, focused first on reducing consumption, but also standardising ad hoc recycling and re-use programs, is urgently required. Many of these waste streams also have the potential to generate additional urban productivity (such as through stormwater reuse and composting) at little net cost. Such a framework should aspire to the concept of the circular economy, underpinned by the principles of building additional economic, natural and social capital through system-based design.

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