Natural environment and heritage

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

SDG 11.4 Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.

SoE 2016: Built environment: Related key finding: “The built environment puts pressure on the natural environment and affects the lives of its residents.”

Australia’s ongoing urban expansion through greenfield development — a product of sustained population growth — continues to put pressure on the natural environment both directly and through the demand for resources. Indirect impacts that result from this low-density expansion include energy consumption, with higher per capita transport emissions resulting from longer commutes, as well as the additional embodied energy required to construct an expansive network of additional urban infrastructure (such as roads, sewerage and energy networks).

Direct impacts of this urban expansion on significant natural environment features, as noted in the SoE 2016 report, are primarily managed through the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The importance of the EPBC Act is reflected in a series of completed and ongoing strategic assessments being undertaken in greenfield growth areas in the Australian Capital Territory, Western Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. As discussed in the Biodiversity section of the SoE 2016 report, a quarter of EPBC Act listed plants and almost half of EPBC Act listed animals overlap with urban areas in Australia, with a number of threatened species exclusively or predominantly found within these built-up zones.

A number of globally significant cultural and natural heritage sites exist within and adjacent to Australian cities, including the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, the Sydney Opera House, and a number of the “Australian Convict Sites” that were registered in 2010 being globally recognised. Of Australia’s 107 listed sites of national heritage significance, 32 are inherently urban in nature or based in cities, including sites of natural or environmental significance such as Bondi Beach and urban landscapes such as the Adelaide City Layout and Park Lands.

The relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and urban environments is complex. Much of the aforementioned, nationally registered heritage is reflective of a process of dispossession centred upon colonial settlements, some of the first of which have grown to become state capitals, representative of colonial and post-colonial government.

The development of these cities resulted in the direct destruction of numerous culturally significant landscapes; for instance, through the draining of West Melbourne Swamp, a significant wetland resource for the local Kulin people. Others, such as the City of Perth, Kempsey Municipal Council and Darwin, physically excluded Aboriginal Australians from entering urban centres throughout much of the first half of the 20th century.

The Native Title Act 1993 has resulted in the return of title to Indigenous Australians across almost a third of the continent. However, successful claims have almost exclusively been located outside of urban domains. At the same time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are becoming increasingly urbanised; of the 649,171 Indigenous Australians counted in the 2016 census, 35 per cent lived in capital cities and 79 per cent lived in urban areas; increases from 29 per cent and 72 per cent respectively since 2011. Recognition of both historically significant urban sites, as well as those areas of contemporary significance for urban Indigenous Australians, represents an important step towards reconciling the governance and planning of Australian cities with Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.