Sustainable cities and communities

Sustainable cities and communities draw on the resources of local, regional and global environments without compromising their ecological, social and economic boundaries.


Sustainable cities and communities provide all their inhabitants with access to safe, healthy and inclusive livelihoods. They also protect the rights and well-being of its most vulnerable citizens.

Regrettably, Australia’s major cities fall well short of being sustainable cities and communities.

Our state and territory capital cities are characterised by dispersed, low-density housing and high levels of energy consumption based on greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels. As urban populations grow, greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector are rising, in part fuelled by a continued dependency on cars for personal transport. All this is contributing to the ecological footprints of Australia’s urban citizens, which remain some of the largest in the world.

Australian cities are also characterised by social inequality, with inequities in access to services, employment, public transport, and green and open space for urban communities.

Meanwhile, homelessness and housing affordability continue to worsen. With less people being able to afford their own home — and many existing homeowners under mortgage stress — household uptake of more sustainable and environmentally friendly technologies is lagging. Changes in climate are further testing the resilience of our cities. The worsening of many existing extreme weather risks due to climate change is already underway, with many Australian cities experiencing unprecedented heatwaves, bushfire conditions and accelerated coastal erosion and storm surge events.

Despite these challenges, philanthropy has an enormous opportunity to achieve a more transformative vision of sustainable cities and communities within Australia. Grantmakers can support research and initiatives to improve the sustainability of key systems, such as food, transport, energy, waste and recycling. With strategic urban planning a high priority, they can fund the research and advocacy needed to create systems change. They can support organisations with expertise in working with city councils to drive emissions reductions and climate change adaptation, as well as those working with urban communities to adopt healthier, more sustainable lifestyles.

Finally, foundations can consider investing their corpus in ventures that promote city sustainability, generating a return while creating the cities our communities — and the planet — so urgently need.

AEGN philanthropy briefing:
sustainable cities and communities

This briefing prepared by Alexei Trundle and Brendan Gleeson examines Australia’s cities and urban communities through the lens of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda, a framework for sustainable development. The authors also draw on the 2016 State of the Environment report; please note the 2021 State of the Environment report has since been released providing updated data — see the report’s urban chapter and watch the chapter briefing for more information.

Characteristics of Australian cities

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, 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
Australian population in significant urban areas (2016). Source: The Australian Bureau of Statistics

Principles for sustainable cities and communities

A sustainable city must be underpinned by basic principles across four key domains, a proposition put by James et al. (2017) in their Principles for Better Cities framework.

Cities should have the following:

  • Culture: Actively develop ongoing processes for dealing with identity and cultural differences
  • Ecology: A deep and integrated relationship with nature
  • Economics: Based around the social needs of all citizens
  • Politics: Enhanced emphasis on engaged and negotiated civic involvement

How sustainable are Australian cities?

Find out about access to housing and basic services, transport systems, urban planning and management, natural environment and heritage, disaster preparedness and climate change adaptation, air quality and waster management, and access to green and public spaces.

Aiming for 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.

What philanthropy can do

A wide range of philanthropic trusts and foundations can fulfil their purpose areas and contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals through supporting sustainable cities.

Sustainable cities and communities are places where people have healthier lives through better active transport options and locally grown healthy foods, and which meet the needs of vulnerable and disadvantaged people through better housing and social connectedness. As such, a focus on sustainable cities enables grantmakers to realise multiple environmental and social outcomes. For example, philanthropy can support research and specific interventions to improve the sustainability of key systems, such as food, transport, energy, and waste and recycling. Philanthropy can also support the innovation required to ensure our cities meet the challenges of climate change.

Several global philanthropic foundations have identified city governments as important leaders that can drive action on climate change. Across the world, cities are adopting strong mitigation targets and thoughtful adaptation strategies, with targeted help from philanthropy backing this work. While philanthropic trusts and foundations are less likely to make grants directly to governments, they can engage this important sector by supporting intermediary organisations that:

  • provide resources targeted to helping city councils drive emission reduction and adaptation in their communities, which could involve a wide range of measures from local renewable energy systems to urban food production
  • bring city councils together so they can learn from each other, accelerating everyone’s efforts.

Housing the vast majority of the Australian population, cities are terrific places to engage communities in the challenges of adopting better lifestyle practices and valuing and protecting nature. Many organisations provide environmental education and mobilise their communities in positive initiatives ranging from community gardens to revegetating public land.

These organisations are often small and value core funding and capacity-building support for their work.

Sustainable outcomes can be unlocked through better planning rules and reforms to the systems that enshrine the large “ecological footprints” of our cities. With strategic urban planning a high priority need area, philanthropy can support organisations to undertake the research and advocacy needed to create systems change.

Foundations can also consider investing their corpus in ventures that promote city sustainability, generating a return while creating a more sustainable city. There is great potential in retrofitting commercial buildings for energy and water efficiency and using the large roof space available in city buildings to construct solar farms.

Our network includes foundations that are funding in different ways to improve the sustainability of our cities. New funders are most welcome to join us on this journey.