How sustainable are Australian cities?

The sustainability of Australia’s cities and urban communities is part of the United Nations’ “2030 Agenda”.

Sustainable Development Goals

We can follow a framework intended to guide sustainable development across all UN Member States — both developing and more developed — through 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For the first time an “urban” goal, SDG 11, sets out specific targets for cities, aiming to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

Although the Australian Government released a voluntary national review of Australia’s progress towards implementing the SDGs in June 2018, it is yet to complete a detailed analysis of SDG 11 metrics and targets (as noted on the Australian SDG Data Portal). Therefore, we represent an initial scoping of data and findings relating to the seven locally focused SDG 11 sub-targets, focusing on environmental issues and consequences. We also consider wider urban-related trends, threats and pressures that are likely to emerge.

Access to housing and basic services

SDG 11.1 By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe, and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums.

SoE 2016: Built environment: Related key finding: “The outlook for the built environment is mixed.”

Despite the dominance of cities as the preferred location of much of the Australian population, the last two decades have been characterised by ad hoc urban planning policies at national and state levels, with changes driven heavily by the interests of developers and investors.

As noted in the SoE 2016 report, this lack of strategic urban planning has seen a divergence in urban growth. Peri-urban expansion is continuing, while inner-city areas in some cities have seen drastic increases in density through high-rise residential development. As a result, urban access to housing and services has seen mixed outcomes both socially and environmentally as the Australian urban form has polarised spatially.

Australian housing throughout the 20th century was characterised by the construction of detached, free-standing residential dwellings, a category that has subsequently grown to accommodate 8,286,073 (72.9 per cent) of Australian households at the time of the 2016 census.

Correspondingly, continued expansion of housing areas based on the ideal of the “quarter-acre block” has led to extensive suburban low-density growth, with most new urban development over this time having occurred through expansion of established capital cities into peri-urban agricultural zones, greenbelts and reserves.

Although historically viewed as the cornerstone of the “Great Australian Dream” (wherein suburban home ownership was argued to provide the basis for household security and economic opportunity), the environmental and social shortcomings of continued suburban growth, coupled with the increase in secondary and investment-based home ownership, has seen a marked decrease in housing affordability over the last two-and-a-half decades.

The Grattan Institute, for instance, calculates that median dwelling prices have increased from around four to more than seven times the median Australian full-time income over the last 20 years.

Australian housing occupancy by tenure
Australian housing occupancy by tenure 1994/95 to 2015/16.

One outcome of the decline in housing affordability is evident in Figure 2, which visually demonstrates the reduction in the share of households owning their home outright from 41.8 per cent in 1994/95 to 30.4 per cent in 2015/16.

The proportion of Australian households renting from private landlords has also increased from 18.4 per cent to 25.4 per cent, while the share supported by state or territory housing authorities has fallen by a third.

These shifts have a range of consequences:

Debt-burdened households are less able to invest in more sustainable housing materials and efficiency upgrades, while renters are both constrained by legislative limits to housing modifications as well as lacking the financial incentives for investing in environmental upgrades.

Over the last decade, Australian cities have seen a shift in new residential construction away from detached dwellings towards other forms of housing.

This change has been driven in large part by the construction of high-rise apartment dwellings within capital city central business districts (CBDs) and along major transport corridors, with more than 75 per cent of all apartment developments between 2001 and 2017 located in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Although often more affordable than detached dwellings, high-rise dwellings are not necessarily delivering environmental benefits, despite generally encouraging the use of more sustainable active and public transport modes. An Energy Australia study, for example, found that high-rise apartment dwellings can result in per capita operational greenhouse gas emissions more than double that of both detached houses and low-rise apartments.

Quarterly construction of new dwellings in Australia
Quarterly construction of new dwellings in Australia.

Transport systems

SDG 11.2 By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.

SoE 2016: Built environment: Related key finding: “Pressures affecting liveability andthe environmental efficiency of the builtenvironment will differ, depending ongeographic location and population size.”

Private motor vehicles have dominated Australian cities since the mid-20th century, with the total distance travelled by passengers on light and heavy rail being exceeded by travel by car for the first time in 1949. Following four decades of rapid post-war growth, private vehicle transport mode share stabilised, with more than 85 per cent of total urban passenger kilometres in Australian cities having been travelled by car from the early 1980s to present.

The share of total trips by public (heavy and light rail, bus and ferry) and active (walking and cycling) transport modes has changed very little since this time: mass transit accounted for 8.2 per cent of total urban passenger kilometres in 1984, compared with 8.8 per cent in 2014, while active travel is estimated to have declined slightly from 4.1 per cent to 3.8 per cent.

As a consequence, greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector have grown broadly in line with population growth, increasing by 16.4 per cent between 2007/08 and 2017/18 to reach a record high of 101.6 Mt CO2-e, comprising 19 per cent of Australia’s total emissions. With limited government incentives or infrastructure support, the uptake of electric vehicles — a transformation central to reducing emissions in the transport sector — is also lagging behind other comparable countries.

Battery electric vehicle sales in Australia in 2017 represented less than 0.1 per cent of local market share, lower than Canada (0.6 per cent), the United Kingdom (0.5 per cent) and New Zealand (1.1 per cent), while leading countries by total unit sales in 2017 were China, the United States, Norway, Germany and Japan. Despite this slow uptake to date, the rapid growth in sales and policy incentives in a number of major economies elsewhere is likely to drive a market shift globally over the next decade, with the International Energy Agency projecting the number of light passenger electric vehicles worldwide to reach between 125 and 220 million by 2030.

Residence within 400m of a public transport stop with a service every 30 minutes
Residence within 400m of a public transport stop with a service every 30 minutes.

Public and active transport accessibility remains limited by distinct spatial inequalities in infrastructure, route connectivity and service frequencies in all Australian cities, as demonstrated by Figure 4, with outer suburbs generally at a disadvantage in terms of public transport services. Although public transport networks generally service outer-city areas, low frequency of services and complex multimodal changes (such as between trains, buses and ferries) disincentivise their use.

The integration of new mapping technologies across public, active and private transport modes is beginning to provide deeper insights into “door-to-door” commute times and the rationales behind commuter mode-choice, providing further evidence of outer suburb transport disadvantage. With the exception of Perth and Canberra, ratings of walkability similarly favour established inner-city suburbs, while national cycling data is limited and generally only reflective of commuter trip share.

Transport systems as assessed in the SoE 2016 report are presented largely in terms of lost productivity as a result of road congestion. However, although the existing low-density form of Australian cities is predisposed towards — and enabled by — private vehicle transport, complex relationships exist between infrastructure for public and active transport modes, and the much more substantive investments made in road infrastructure.

With congestion across differing transport modes, trip times and other factors (such as cost, service frequency, end-of-trip infrastructure, safety and connectivity) all central to commuting behaviour, a more integrated approach to transport planning is needed across municipal, state and federal levels of government.

Urban planning and management

SDG 11.3 By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanisation and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.

SoE 2016: Built environment: Related key finding: “Urban planning is consideredonly partially effective because of a lackof coordination and integration.”

Although participatory planning processes vary greatly between urban municipalities and state governments, online technologies and platforms are rapidly transforming the possibilities for increased transparency and community input into urban planning and decision-making processes.

Ranging from feedback and community engagement sites such as Participate Melbourne, to the ACT Government’s Freedom of Information Online document release portal, to the regular live-streaming of council meetings, the increasing involvement of community members in city-scale sustainability initiatives through virtual modes of communication is enabling much more direct and rapid engagement of community members across Australia.

Local councils in Australia play a critical role in urban environmental management. Of Victoria’s 79 local councils, 26 have specific Special Committees to address planning and environment issues, with community representation, submissions, and the capacity for Freedom of Information requests providing a key avenue for ensuring urban governance takes into account environmental and sustainable development concerns.

Innovative use of technology, such as the City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Portal, has also demonstrated the potential for heightened engagement of citizens with their urban environments. The issuing of individual email addresses to more than 77,000 significant trees across the city has received international acclaim, allowing urban inhabitants to express their own connections with nature.

Despite these positive examples – and the critical role of local government in sustainable urban development more generally — a recent Victorian Ombudsman’s report into the transparency of local government decision-making shows substantial variation in participation levels across different local government planning processes, with the ability of members of the public to provide input into ordinary council meetings shown in Figure 5.

Wider issues relating to transparency of commercial decision-making processes and business interests, issues with record-keeping, and conflicts of interest between council staff and elected officials were also highlighted in the report, with local council related submissions making up 25 per cent of all jurisdictional complaints to the Victorian Ombudsman in 2015.

Many of the referenced conflicts and complaints relating to over-development and land development processes, reflecting the importance of such avenues for citizen input into urban planning processes.

These aspects of built environment governance need to be substantially improved if Australia’s urban planning and management is to be considered properly inclusive and participatory.

The privatisation of many key state-owned urban assets and corporatisation of design and assessment processes for urban infrastructure development have significantly reduced transparency and public accountability. This has occurred in many of the more substantial development projects and utilities across Australia over the last three decades.

Participation levels in ordinary Council meetings
Participation levels in ordinary Council meetings in Victoria.

Complex subsidy payments, ranging from cross-subsidies of toll-road extensions, to ongoing support for public transport services, reduce the capacity for assessing the true costs of both new and existing infrastructure. At the same time, effective monopolies in areas such as energy supply allow for market manipulation and have seen significant increases in household costs disproportionate to those of retail providers.

The tendency to propose technocratic solutions to urban problems, such as the Australian Government’s “Smart Cities” and “City Deals” policy initiatives (noted in the SoE 2016 report as the primary mechanisms for addressing Australia’s urban futures at a federal level), is largely consistent with earlier approaches favouring private sector and market-driven solutions over government intervention.

While harnessing new technologies does present novel approaches for improving urban sustainable development, it is widely acknowledged that without active and participatory citizen input, and transparency in decision-making, wider social and environmental responsibilities are often disregarded.

While not specific to cities, the Commonwealth Government’s Open Government National Action Plan 2018-2020 is the second such effort to drive government transparency standards nationally, for the first time including initiatives to engage with the state and territory governments that control much of the decision-making, legislation, and administration of urban development processes.

The Centre for Local Government found that more than 51.3 per cent of Australians surveyed strongly believe that they should be involved in decision-making about services in their local area, with a further 42 per cent agreeing with the statement.

Natural environment and heritage

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 putspressure on the natural environment andaffects 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.

Disaster preparedness and climate change adaption

SDG 11.5 By 2030, significantly reduce the number of deaths and the number of people affected and substantially decrease the direct economic losses relative to global gross domestic product caused by disasters, including water-related disasters, with a focus on protecting the poor and vulnerable people.

SoE 2016: Built environment: Related key finding: “Climate change brings particularchallenges for our built environments.”

The economic cost of natural disasters in Australia has not been comprehensively assessed since 2001. Although public data relating to disaster events is available through the Australian Disaster Resilience Knowledge Hub, trend analysis of these records is not advisable due to changes in event inclusion criteria over time. Heatwaves — a major cause of deaths in Australian cities — have also only recently been classified as a natural disaster event and up until recently lacked a standard definition, despite being estimated to account for half of all disaster-related fatalities between 1967 and 2013.

Nonetheless, the range of threats posed to Australian cities by climate-related natural disasters requires a comprehensive response, with the SoE 2016 report highlighting various built environment threats ranging from potable water shortages to exposure to sea level rise.

The worsening of many existing extreme weather risks due to climate change is also already underway, with unprecedented heatwaves, bushfire conditions and accelerated coastal erosion and storm surge events being observed across many of Australia’s cities.

Severe storm events — including hailstorms — have been the most financially damaging disaster category in Australia over the last half-century, having accounted for 32 per cent of total losses, followed by flooding (28 per cent), cyclones (19 per cent) and bushfires (17 per cent).

Around one-third of the financial costs of these disasters can be attributed to only ten major events that occurred over this 46-year period, including a number that primarily affected major urban centres such as the 2011 Brisbane floods, the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, the 1999 Sydney hailstorm, and Cyclone Tracy in 1974.

Australian cities occupy a range of distinct climatic zones that lead to different levels of exposure to a variety of climate-related natural hazards. As a result, the impacts of climate change vary from city to city and need to be assessed locally to be properly understood, with a range of climate analogues and differing climate projections able to be analysed through the CSIRO-developed Climate Change in Australia website.

However, some general trends and projected impacts of climate change can be considered at a national level. Average surface temperatures, for instance, have warmed fairly consistently across Australia, increasing by roughly 1°C since 1910, while levels of average annual rainfall across southern and south-eastern parts of the country, as well south-west Western Australia, have decreased significantly.

Projected annual temperature increases over the 21st century are reasonably consistent across the four major climate regions (Southern, Eastern and Northern Australia, as well as the Rangelands).

Under a high emissions scenario — referred to as Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5 in reference to an average warming of 8.5 watts per square metre in 2100 — all four regions of Australia are likely to increase by an average temperature of 2.7°C to between 4.2°C and 5.3°C, with the central Australian rangelands having the potential to warm by 1°C more than southern Australia if the top end of this range is reached.

In contrast, both the direction and magnitude of changes in average annual rainfall are highly uncertain across each region, with the equivalent projected change in annual rainfall in northern Australia under RCP 8.5 being between 26 per cent less and 23 per cent more rainfall, even when excluding outlier model results.

This represents a critical challenge for cities, where building codes, design standards and drainage systems rely heavily on established understandings of rainfall return periods. Time in drought is also projected to increase in southern Australia and southern Western Australia in particular, threatening the security of urban water supplies in these areas.

Extreme heat conditions are becoming more prevalent nationally. “Very warm” monthly night-time minimum temperatures (a measure central to extreme heat factor calculations) that occurred around 2 per cent of the time between 1951 and 1980 are now occurring around 12 per cent of the time. This represents a particular threat to cities located in regions not acclimatised to extreme heat events due to infrastructure – such as power stations, train lines and building structures – not being designed to cope with heat events and urban heat island effects.

Higher and more prolonged extreme heat events also risk spikes in morbidity and mortality due to a lack of awareness about the risks posed by these events in vulnerable urban population groups. In hotter regions, other risks associated with infrastructure have also been observed, such as heavy rail buckling, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system failure, and blackouts associated with ageing baseload coal powerplant shutdowns.

Average sea levels around Australia rose at a rate of 1.4mm per year between 1966 and 2009, while sea surface temperatures have also increased by an average of 1°C since 1910.

The increasing threat of coastal erosion and inundation presents a particular risk to Australian cities and settlements, with much of the country’s population based in coastal areas. Average sea levels are expected to increase by another 38–88cm by 2090 under a high emissions scenario (RCP 8.5), or by 22–55cm if global emissions are rapidly reduced (RCP 2.6).

Bushfire risk threatens many urban fringe and peri-urban areas. These areas are often adjacent to vegetated spaces and parks, which can enable fires to spread rapidly. If the driest model outcomes for rainfall in eastern and southern Australia are realised, the number of severe fire danger days is likely to increase by 160 per cent to 190 per cent by 2090, representing an annual increase of 30–35 per cent in severe risk days.

Air quality and waste management

SDG 11.6 By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management.

SoE 2016: Built environment: Related key finding: “Activities associated with the built environment consume significant natural resources, but the efficiency of use of energy and water has improved recently.”

Although there is no agreed measure of per capita environmental impact, one approach is to calculate the ecological footprint of per capita consumption, relative to an average global measure of biological productivity (referred to as a “global hectare”) in a given year. This in turn allows a standardised understanding of how to live within a city, nation, or planetary means; a balance that has not been met since before 1970, with current world resource consumption requiring an estimated 1.7 “Earths” to sustain it. The long-term trend in Australian per capita ecological footprints, as calculated by the Global Footprint Network, is shown in Figure 6.

Ecological footprint
Australia ecological footprint per person.

The bulk of Australian citizens’ ecological footprint is made up of consumption of fossil fuels and other emissions of greenhouse gases, with per capita emissions decreasing to 21.5 tonnes CO2-e, a reduction from 28 tonnes CO2-e, a decade earlier.

This is broadly consistent with observations in the SoE 2016 report that noted improvements to energy efficiency when considered on a per capita basis (despite overall emissions continuing to rise nationally). Other major contributors are derived from food production and forestry; industries that while not located within cities provide material goods and sustenance for their inhabitants.

As highlighted in the SoE 2016 report, Australian urban air quality is consistently viewed favourably compared with most global cities, as evidenced by the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Ambient Air Pollution Database. Annual mean measurements of PM2.5 and PM10, for instance, remain within WHO guidelines (10 μg/m3 and 20 μg/m3 respectively) in all of the 46 Australian cities listed in the 2014/2016 database.

In contrast, an estimated 91 per cent of the world’s population is exposed to higher than recommended PM2.5 levels. Measures of indoor air quality continue to lack effective data collection and analysis in both residential buildings and workplaces, despite their potentially significant impacts on human health.

Australian cities are producing more waste on both a total and a per capita basis, with 48 Mt being generated Australia-wide in 2010/11, equivalent to 2.1 tonnes per person. Although this represented an increase of 9 per cent from 2006/07, Australia’s disposed tonnage — waste to landfill — decreased by 9.5 per cent, with resource recovery reaching a record level of 60 per cent.

However, following an effective halt in Chinese importation of recyclable materials in early 2018, much of Australia’s collected recyclable materials are being stockpiled. China previously imported more than 58 per cent of Australia’s exported recyclable cardboard and 26 per cent of recyclable plastics. State and municipal governments are now having to examine new approaches to resource reduction, reuse and recovery in cities.

Access to green and public spaces

SDG 11.7 By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.

SoE 2016: Built environment: Related key finding: “Pressures from population growth are having a high and negative impact on aspects of the quality of the natural environment, as well as the liveability of Australia’s built environment.”

One advantage of the low-density suburban form that typifies Australian cities is its compatibility with high levels of urban greenspace coverage. However, levels of canopy cover (in the form of mature trees), green open space and other vegetation such as shrubs and gardens beds vary significantly both within and between Australian cities, irrespective of density.

A Benchmarking Report into Urban Canopy Coverage completed by the University of Technology Sydney, for example, found wide variations between Melbourne’s western and eastern suburbs, with the City of Maribyrnong having canopy coverage of only 7.4 per cent, while the City of Boroondara (an equivalent distance from the CBD to Melbourne’s east) had 28.1 per cent canopy cover.

Although urban municipalities are increasingly developing green-space strategies, these are largely focused on public land, despite the vast majority of urban land being privately owned; 84 per cent of the Melbourne metropolitan region, for instance. Modelling by Infrastructure Australia projects a decline in access to green space in Sydney and Melbourne over the next 30 years from 38 per cent and 62 per cent to 31–33 per cent and 54–58 per cent respectively, depending on different policy settings for urban growth.

New greenfield housing developments and infill sub-divisions are also limiting the potential for privately owned green space and large canopy trees, with an average Melbourne detached house built in 2007 covering 34.5 per cent of its allotment, compared to 21 per cent in 1990.

Analysis of greenfield developments in Perth suggested that “growth suburb” areas have shifted even more dramatically, from 32 per cent to 37 per cent in established areas to 56 per cent to 65 per cent in new developments. Critically, detached houses lead to less usable space than medium-and higher-density attached housing, which can maximise backyard or communal open space.

As such, although the SoE 2016 report posits green space as being pressured by population growth, the failure of private greening in both high- and low-density developments demonstrates that it is poor planning and regulation of recent developments, rather than population growth itself, that is leading to reductions in urban canopy coverage and biodiversity. As urban infill continues, new approaches to incentivising green space, and uptake of new approaches to greening high-density areas needs to be encouraged, drawing on policies from higher-density exemplars of urban greening such as Singapore.

In contrast with European and northern American green-space strategies, water availability defines both household and government decision-maker perceptions of the potential for — and difficulties in maintaining — urban green infrastructure. A major shift in Australian cities over the last decade has been the uptake of rainwater collection and greywater re-use, household water reuse having increased by 183 per cent between 2009/10 and 2015/16, while a quarter of all Australian households were using rainwater tanks in 2013, up from 19.3 per cent in 2007.

Estimates of the total stormwater runoff from Melbourne (415GL) relative to overall water consumption (412GL) demonstrate the potential for effective stormwater management to play a significant role in flood reduction, potable water management and urban cooling through green infrastructure.

Identifying similar co-benefits across other areas of sustainable urban design will be critical if Australia’s cities are to remain some of the world’s most liveable as they continue to grow in a changing climate.