Population and buildings

Australia’s urban environment varies in size – from global cities to small remote settlements. It incorporates components constructed by humans, such as buildings and public places and the infrastructure that supports them such as transport, water and energy networks. Importantly, Australia’s urban environment also has natural elements, including rivers, creeks, coastlines, the sky and subterranean aspects, parks, green links and bushlands, together with the flora and fauna within them.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) defines several urban environments:

  • Urban localities are centres with populations of more than 200 people.
  • Urban areas have populations of more than 1,000 people.
  • Significant urban areas have populations of 10,000 people.
  • Major urban areas (cities) have populations of more than 100,000 people.

Based on these definitions, there are more than 1,853 urban environments in Australia. For pragmatic reasons and because of data availability, this chapter focuses largely on the 8 capital cities and, where possible, the 18 cities with more than 100,000 people, including the capital cities. Smaller urban areas have been explored as case studies or examples of the pressures on the environment or management approaches. This chapter also considers smaller, more-remote urban areas that may have fewer than 200 people. Many of these are home to Indigenous peoples.


Australia’s population is increasingly concentrated in our cities. As of 30 June 2020, Australia’s population exceeded 25.6 million people, with more than 76% living in major cities (population of more than 100,000) (Table 1). The major cities grew by 3.1 million (+20%) between 2010 and 2020, accounting for 84% of the country’s total population growth over the decade.

Table 1 Share of population across Australia’s 18 major cities, 2021



Fraction of total (%)
















Gold Coast – Tweed Heads









Sunshine Coast






























Total (major cities)



Total (Australia)



Source: Based on ABS (2021b)

By comparison, growth in inner regional areas between 2010 and 2020 was 501,399 people (+12.4%), representing 13.7% of Australia’s total population growth. During the same period, there was negative growth in Australia’s remote and very remote areas (–5.8%; Table 2). This decade-long trend changed in 2019–20, with a modest population increase in remote and very remote areas (+0.2 and +0.1%, respectively).

Table 2 Estimated resident population by remoteness, 2010–19

Remoteness area

Population 2010

Population 2015

Population 2020















Major cities of Australia











Inner regional Australia











Outer regional Australia











Remote Australia











Very remote Australia











Total Australia











Source: Based on ABS (2021b)

Melbourne experienced the most significant actual growth of all capital cities between 2010 and 2020, increasing by 1,003,723 people or 25%, together with the greatest proportional change in Australia. In 2019–20 alone, the greatest proportional growth in population at the capital city level was in Brisbane (1.9%), followed by Perth (1.8%) and Melbourne (1.5%).

At a state and territory level, there were various notable population changes by suburb between 2006 and 2016 (ABS 2017):

  • Australian Capital Territory – Areas in the northern outskirts of Canberra experienced the most significant population increases. These included Harrison (+7,100 people), Bonner (+6,900), Franklin (+6,500), Casey (+5,900) and Crace (+4,500).
  • New South Wales – More than 75% of New South Wales’ population growth occurred in Greater Sydney, which also reached a milestone of 5 million residents in 2016. Areas with the greatest growth were Parklea – Kellyville Ridge, located in Greater Sydney’s north-west growth centres (+22,200 people), and the inner-city area of Waterloo–Beaconsfield (+17,800 people).
  • Northern Territory – Darwin’s population increased almost 7 times faster than the rest of the Northern Territory (+4.4%), and Darwin was the fastest-growing capital city in Australia in proportional terms (+29%) over the decade. The most significant population increase (+5,500 people) occurred in the Rosebery–Bellamack area of Palmerston.
  • Queensland – 3 of the 5 largest-growing areas in Queensland during the period were located outside of Brisbane, including Upper Coomera – Willow Vale (+17,400) on the Gold Coast and Deeragun (+14,200) in the outer suburbs of Townsville. The biggest population growth (+22,000 people) occurred in the North Lakes – Mango Hill area north of Brisbane.
  • South Australia – Mawson Lakes – Globe Derby Park in Adelaide’s north experienced the largest population growth in the state (+8,400 people). This was followed by Munno Para West – Angle Vale (+7,900), the southern areas of Seaford (+6,800) and Aldinga (+5,700).
  • Tasmania – The largest growth in Tasmania was in Margate–Snug (+1,900 people), followed by Kingston–Huntingfield (+1,700); both are south of the Hobart central business district (CBD).
  • Victoria – 5 of the 10 largest-growing areas in Australia between 2006 and 2016 were in Melbourne. These were the outer western suburb of Tarneit (+28,800 people), inner-city Melbourne (+26,200) and the outer suburbs of Cranbourne East (+22,600), Truganina (+21,800) and Doreen (+19,200).
  • Western Australia – Baldivis, in Perth’s outer south, was the largest-growing area in Western Australia in the decade to 2016 (+27,400 people). Other areas to experience notable growth were Ellenbrook in Perth’s north-east (+23,600) and Forrestdale – Harrisdale – Piara Waters (+18,800) in the south-east.

A significant proportion of Indigenous people live in urban areas. In 2016, there were 798,400 Indigenous people in Australia, representing 3.3% of the total population; 37.4% of Indigenous people live in capital and other major cities. The largest urban Indigenous population in Australia is in the Blacktown local government area in Western Sydney. Seventy-five per cent of Australia’s Indigenous population live in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia combined, with the largest Indigenous population in New South Wales. The Indigenous population increased by 19% during 2011–16. It should be noted that demographic trends for Indigenous communities can be markedly different from those for wider Australia. For example, ABS data from 2016 shows that just 5% of the Indigenous community were aged 65 years and over, compared with 16% of the non-Indigenous population (AIHW 2018).

Population concentration

While Australia is a highly urbanised country, it has comparatively low levels of overall population concentration by international standards. In 2020, Australia’s population concentration was 3.3 people per square kilometre (people/km2), increasing from 2.9 people/km2 in 2011. By way of comparison, Japan had 347 people/km2 in 2020, the United Kingdom had 281 people/km2, and the United States had 36 people/km2.

The concentration of population varies across Australia’s states and territories. The Australian Capital Territory is the smallest and most urbanised territory and has the highest population concentration (181 people/km2) as of 2019. Urban densities then reduce significantly to Victoria as the second-most densely populated state or territory at 29 people/km2. Western Australia had the lowest ratio – just 1 person/km2 as of 2019.

Cities and suburbs

The urban concentration by capital city and suburb shows similar variability. In 2019, Greater Sydney and Greater Melbourne had the highest population densities of all Australian capital cities. Densities within these cities also varied – pockets of higher density were generally within inner-city and CBD areas compared with lower, more dispersed greenfield development on the city fringes (Table 3).

Between 2011 and 2019, there was an apparent trend towards increasing population density in Australia’s most established inner urban areas of Brisbane (e.g. New Farm), Melbourne (e.g. Carlton) and Greater Sydney (e.g. Potts Point). The increasing population density of Australia’s densest suburbs between 2011 and 2019 (Table 3) is likely to reflect changing lifestyle preferences and interests, as many Australians sought to downsize or live closer to a greater mix of entertainment and retail activities as well as their place of work.

These activities are supported by the critical mass offered by a denser and growing inner-city population, and enabled by local and state government plans and strategies for urban regeneration and intensification (see Management approaches). These plans seek to optimise existing services and infrastructure, bringing citizens closer to jobs and services to reduce the need to travel and the associated adverse impacts to lifestyles and the environment such as traffic congestion.

Yet at the same time, governments have also supported new greenfield developments, offering larger and more affordable homes on the outskirts of urban areas (see Management approaches).

Table 3 Population density (people per square kilometre) and change in Australia’s most densely populated suburbs, 2011–19


Capital city

Suburbs and area

June 2011

June 2016

June 2019

Increase 2011–16 (%)

Increase 2016–19 (%)

Increase 2011–19 (%)


Greater Sydney 








Potts Point
















Greater Brisbane

New Farm







Kangaroo Point







Fortitude Valley








Greater Melbourne 

Inner-city Melbourne














NSW = New South Wales; Qld = Queensland; Vic = Victoria

Source: Amended as per ABS (2021b)

Rural and remote areas

Despite the population growth in Australia’s major cities, populations in rural and remote urban areas across all Australian states and territories are declining. Infrastructure Australia contends that the trend of declining rural and remote population reflects changes to regional and rural economies as industries decline, the environment changes and personal preferences shift, including the move of young people to larger towns and cities to seek job opportunities.

Infrastructure Australia has identified service provision as a factor influencing population movements. For example, in New South Wales, a ‘hub-and-spoke’ service delivery model is galvanising a shift towards regional centres as ‘service centres’ across the state (Infrastructure Australia 2019). Access to employment is also important in explaining localised increases in remote populations, which may reflect the growth in some remotely located industries such as mining.

Built form and development

The structure and form of buildings within our urban environment affects how we experience the urban environment, how we socially interact and our overall wellbeing. Given that most of our built form and development activity relate to housing (56% of all development) (ABS 2021e), the changing character, scale and density of housing significantly influences the character of Australia’s urban environments.

As of 2020, Australia had an estimated 10,558,000 dwellings. The 2016 Census provides the latest breakdown by type: 73% of existing dwellings in Australia are detached dwellings and 13% are apartments (ABS 2020c).

While the number of dwellings (including houses, townhouses and apartments) developed each year fluctuates with market trends, the overall number produced has increased over the past 20 years from 146,500 dwellings per year to more than 201,000, with 2018 seeing the peak at close to 218,000. Over the same period, the proportion of housing developed by the public sector has declined from 2% to 1% (noting a peak of 7% across Australia in 2011, which likely represents a counter-cyclical government response to the fall in housing starts by the private sector).

Since 2002, the number of detached dwellings developed each year across Australia has remained relatively constant (between 95,000 and 105,000). Thus, growth in the overall number of dwellings has been because of a significant shift towards more medium (semidetached) and higher-density (apartment) forms of development.

As a proportion of the total housing market, between 2002 and 2019 the production of semidetached dwellings increased from 11% to 15% of total supply, and apartments increased from 15% to 29%. By contrast, the proportion of detached dwellings built across Australia declined from 73% to 54% over the same period (Figure 1).

Of note has been the increase in the proportion of apartments constructed in buildings of more than 4 storeys (from 11% to 28%). These taller buildings, combined with the growing trend towards more medium-density supply, are creating a significant shift in the character of many of our inner-city and middle-ring urban areas, and therefore of how we live.

Figure 01 Australian new residential dwellings by type as a proportion of the total, 2002–19

Despite constant housing growth over the past 2 decades, in 2019 and 2020 overall housing construction dropped to 131,790 dwellings, representing an 38% decline in the 2-year period. The greatest proportional declines occurred in the semidetached and apartment markets (–12 and –18%, respectively; Table 4). This significant change is likely to be due to 2 factors – the ending of a significant housing construction boom, and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic (Evans et al. 2020, KPMG Economics 2021, Verdouw et al. 2021) (see COVID-19 pandemic) on market preferences and thereby the feasibility and supply of medium and high-density development.

Table 4 New residential dwellings in Australia by type, 2019–20



Total units

Semidetached/terraces total

Total residential











Change 2019–20 (no.)





Proportional change (%)





  1. Refers to apartments, units, semidetached and town house dwellings. Excludes ‘other’ category.

Source: Adjusted from ABS (2021a)

Housing supply, and the type of housing developed varies notably by state, territory and city:

  • Australian Capital Territory – The Australian Capital Territory is an urban environment traditionally dominated by detached dwellings. Up to 2014, it supplied an average of 1,200 new dwellings per year, reaching a peak in 2014 of 1,516 dwellings. Since 2014, however, the type of dwellings developed has shifted, with a significant increase in apartment dwellings resulting in a new average of 4,400 dwellings per year, peaking in 2019 at 5,327 new dwellings. As of 2019, 28% of this supply was detached dwellings and 57% was apartments; in total, 72% was higher- and medium-density housing (including semidetached and terrace dwellings and apartments). These changes are significantly altering the character of urban development in the Australian Capital Territory.
  • New South Wales – On average, New South Wales has developed 25,000–30,000 dwellings per year since 2010. However, in 2018, supply increased substantially, reaching a record high of 72,913 new dwellings. Detached dwellings as a proportion of the whole have continuously declined, with a notable shift occurring in 2016 when most developments were units, terraces, townhouses and semidetached dwellings (57% of total supply, up from 34% in 2010). The proportions have remained stable since then – as of 2019, 43% of supply was detached dwellings and 57% was higher- and medium-density housing (including terraces, semidetached dwellings and townhouses).
  • Northern Territory – An average of 1,000 dwellings per year were developed before 2016, with supply decreasing to around 600 per year in 2018. This is a notable contrast to the boom experienced in NSW. The ratio of detached dwellings has continuously increased from 44% in 2015 of all dwellings to 84% in 2018.
  • Queensland – On average, Queensland developed 30,000 dwellings per year from 2008 to 2015, jumping significantly to 46,106 in 2017 and dropping back to 35,265 in 2019. The number of detached houses remained at double that of apartments until mid-2017, then increased so that by 2019 3 times as many houses as units were being constructed.
  • South Australia – On average, South Australia has developed 10,000 new dwellings per year since 2004. Detached homes have out-developed medium- and high-density dwellings at a ratio of about 4 to 1.
  • Tasmania – On average, Tasmania has developed around 2,500 new dwellings per year since 2004, and there has been consistently more new detached houses (85% on average) than any other type of dwelling.
  • Victoria – On average, housing supply has been strong in Victoria, at 49,000 dwellings per year from 2009 to 2014, reaching a peak of 64,610 new dwellings in 2019. Detached dwellings accounted for three-quarters of new construction until 2014, when apartment and medium-density housing supply increased and accounted for half of new construction. From 2016, detached dwellings were most common, at a ratio of 1.5 to 1 compared to other forms.
  • Western Australia – From a consistent supply of approximately 20,000 dwellings per year up to 2014, supply jumped to a peak of 31,154 in 2015, then dropped to 17,000 per year between 2017 and 2019. This drop reflects an adjustment in the market after the increased supply in 2015, together with broader economic changes such as the decline in the mining industry. Detached dwellings are consistently developed 3.5 times more often than other forms combined.

Size of dwelling

Australian homes are among the largest in the world (CommSec 2020), and the average size increased between 2008 and 2018, from 234 m2 to 248 m2 (+6%) (ABS 2019a). However, the number of occupants within an Australian home on average remained relatively constant over the decade, at 2.6 persons per dwelling (ABS 2019a).

These findings vary by Australian capital city (Table 5). Greater Sydney and Perth both experienced a notable reduction in dwelling size between 2008 and 2018 (–10% and –9%, respectively). This likely reflects the trend towards greater inner-city development as well as responses to housing affordability in these cities.

Notwithstanding the decline in average home size in Greater Sydney – from 280 m2 in 2005–06 to 252 m2 in 2019–20 – homes in Greater Sydney continued to be larger than the average across all Australian capital cities of 248 m2. In all other capital cities, the trend towards larger homes continued, with the most significant growth in dwelling size occurring in Greater Brisbane (+18%) and Greater Melbourne (+10%).

Table 5 Average floor area of new houses, Australian capital cities, 2005–06 to 2019–20

Greater capital city statistical area

2005–06 (m²)

2019–20 (m²)

2005–06 to 2019–20 change (m²)

2005–06 to 2019–20 change (%)

Greater Sydney





Greater Melbourne





Greater Brisbane





Greater Adelaide





Greater Perth





Australian capital cities





m2 = square metre

Source: ABS (2020a)

While dwelling size across Australia remained relatively consistent on average, block sizes decreased from 2005–06 to 2019–20 (ABS 2020a). The combined average lot size for dwellings approved within the 5 largest greater capital cities (Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth) fell from 602 m2 in 2005–06 to 467 m2 in 2019–20.

Because of the increasing ratio of building area to land area on lots, the space for trees, plants and outdoor recreation at both the front and rear of dwellings has declined. This change in urban form is not only changing the physical form and character of existing and greenfield neighbourhoods, but the ability to manage heat, improve walkability and thereby the livability or our urban environments. It is also reducing the extent of urban biodiversity by decreasing tree canopy cover and garden space (Garrard et al. 2015). Research has found that private sector residential development in the past 20 years has less tree cover than in previous decades (Saunders et al. 2020).

People per dwelling

Occupancy rates for Australian homes range from an average of 2.7 people and 3.2 bedrooms per home in capital cities, to 2.4 people per home in regional areas (the remaining parts of the relevant state or territory, minus the capital city). The most recent data – from 2017–18 – found that Greater Darwin had the highest average occupancy rate of 2.9 people per dwelling, whereas urban areas in South Australia (excluding the Greater Adelaide area) had the lowest occupancy rate of 2.2 people per dwelling (Table 6).

Table 6 Dwelling occupancy rate by capital city and other areas, 2017–18

Capital city or area

Mean number of persons in household

Mean number of bedrooms in dwelling

Australian Capital Territory



Greater Sydney



Rest of New South Wales



Greater Brisbane



Rest of Queensland



Greater Adelaide



Rest of South Australia



Greater Hobart



Rest of Tasmania



Greater Melbourne



Rest of Victoria



Greater Perth



Rest of Western Australia



Greater Darwin



Rest of Northern Territory



Total capital cities



Total rest of states or territories



n/a = data not available

Source: ABS (2019c)

Indigenous built environment

While the built environment in Australia rarely reflects Indigenous peoples and their cultures, belonging, histories or knowledges, there have been some small steps towards building a more just relationship between the urban planning profession and the rights and interests of Indigenous peoples (Parris et al. 2020). This includes the ways in which Indigenous peoples are engaged to participate in housing and building design, to better meet their living and cultural needs. In the book Indigenous place: contemporary buildings, landmarks and places of significance in south-east Australia and beyond, the authors assert:

Meanwhile, purpose-built structures and what might even be described as ‘modern Aboriginal architectural forms’ have been designed and built in other more regional and especially remote areas. The colonial tendency is to obliterate any trace of Indigeneity in the city, while continuing to celebrate ‘our’ Aboriginal heritage in the outback/on the frontier. Indeed, the way in which Aboriginal people and culture is viewed by, and the extent to which Aboriginal society has been reconciled with, mainstream Australian settler society can be measured in the nation’s geography and architecture alone. The return or reinsertion of Aboriginal places into metropolitan centres may well be the best measure of how far along the road to reconciliation we have come. (Pieris et al. 2014:95)

Darug academic and archaeologist Maddison Miller elucidates the importance of recognising and empowering Indigenous perspectives in the built environment:

Cities can give back to Indigenous peoples in a number of different ways. The way in which we plan our cities and the way in which we consider our cities can reflect Aboriginal thought and Aboriginal knowledge and Aboriginal principles for caring for Country. If we consider all of the parts of Country, and all of the parts that are important to Aboriginal peoples, we can create better communities. Ones that consider waterways and animal pathways, ones that consider our sacred sites, ones that consider the way in which resources are used and protected and nourish back to the Earth. (Barrow et al. 2020)

In the Queensland Parliament, a planning statute has been passed that asserts Indigenous knowledge, culture and tradition are integral to advancing the purpose of the Planning Act 2016 (Qld). This provision opens pathways for Indigenous peoples to be meaningfully involved in land-use planning projects from the outset, as opposed to being involved merely as a ‘tick-a-box’ towards the end of processes. It also does not depend on the existence of native title, or heritage listings or a site of significance being registered, nor does it involve land grants or any transfer of titles. In another small but significant gain, the Planning Institute of Australia recently effected changes to its policies of educational accreditation to ensure Indigenous knowledges are recognised as a foundational Supporting Knowledge Area as a part of attaining Australian qualifications in planning (Wensing 2018).

Case Study Government Architect New South Wales – Connecting with Country

The NSW Government is exploring how to plan and design projects in the built environment that are informed by Indigenous connections with Country. The Government Architect NSW has developed the Connecting with Country draft framework for understanding the value of Indigenous knowledge in the design and planning of places. The framework has been informed by the experiences and knowledges of Indigenous people who work on and are from Countries in and around the Sydney Basin (GA NSW 2021). The project is being led by Yugembir man Dillon Kombumerri in close collaboration with Traditional Custodians and knowledge holders. Dillon says, ‘There is a tendency to see Aboriginal places as distinct from non-Aboriginal places without acknowledging we are always on Country wherever we are. We need to better understand that post-contact heritage is generated from a shared history between 2 cultures even though each culture is distinct’ (email correspondence 29 July 2021).

The Connecting with Country framework reflects on the meaning of Country and the interconnections between culture, identity and community. The framework puts forward a ‘Country-centred’ model in which natural systems – including people, animals, plants and resources – are integrated in a network of relationships through Country (GA NSW 2020a:17). It then offers strategies for connecting with Country and a guide for implementation. It also includes case studies on significant projects in architecture (e.g. Casino Aboriginal Medical Service), interior design (e.g. Koorie Heritage Trust) and public art (e.g. Barrangal Dyara) (KPAP 2021).

Overall, the project has 3 long-term strategic goals (GA NSW 2021:8); they are to:

  • reduce the impacts of natural events such as fire, drought and flooding through sustainable land and water use practices
  • value and respect Aboriginal cultural knowledge with Indigenous peoples co-leading design and development of all NSW infrastructure projects
  • ensure Country is cared for appropriately, and sensitive sites are protected by Aboriginal people having access to their homelands to continue their cultural practices.

The Connecting with Country framework is intended for community, local government, government agencies, industry and developers. The draft framework will be tested and piloted over 12 months, with further input and guidance sought from Aboriginal communities across New South Wales.

Indigenous housing design preference

Housing is central to many of the Closing the Gap goals. It has direct flow-on effects in many areas, including physical and mental health, susceptibility to infectious diseases, emotional stress, health in infancy, early childhood education, and employment (Habibis et al. 2018). Studies have shown that, when community housing is improved, the incidence of hospital admissions are as much as 40% lower than in communities that do not receive improved services (NSW Department of Health 2010).

Some initiatives recognise the relationship between housing and health outcomes of Indigenous people and communities, such as the 10-year Remote Indigenous Building and Refurbishment Program in 2008–18. But attempts to address Indigenous community needs for housing have been hampered by a lack of enforceable guidelines and by expedited rollouts that have failed to use high-quality materials and design processes that actively and meaningfully engage community (ANAO 2011, Wong 2018).

For many decades, Indigenous people have been subject to housing availability and design that does not meet basic needs or cultural needs, or suit their family composition. One way that Indigenous communities have sought to rectify this issue is through a more involved and collaborative design process (Saha et al. 2019). Indigenous people are seeking housing design that is more in tune with kinship and intergenerational living, provides better amenity for facilities such as kitchen and bathrooms, and allows for common living and outdoor areas to facilitate large family gatherings and events. Also favoured are designs for sturdier kitchen and bathroom facilities that consider family influxes during times of funerals and cultural celebrations and gatherings (Long et al. 2007:55, Page et al. 2021).

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlight the problematic deficiencies in Australia in terms of compliance with international frameworks and in servicing the rights of Indigenous people through meeting housing needs (UN 2021). This is especially evident in SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation) and SGD 11 (sustainable cities and communities).

The 2018 Australian Government report on the implementation of the SDGs in Australia noted some of the disproportionate challenges faced by Indigenous communities:

Remote communities, many of which are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, may lack reliable energy supply, telecommunications, clean water and wastewater services, and adequate road access. Low population densities in some areas result in higher per capita costs for some goods and services. Disadvantage also occurs in urban areas. High housing costs contribute to the rate of homelessness in Australia, with disadvantaged groups particularly affected. (DFAT 2018)

However, the same report revealed that there were no specific programs to work towards meeting the SDGs that relate to housing for Indigenous communities, except for the Closing the Gap initiative, which incorporates some housing targets. The lack of specific targeted undertakings in Indigenous housing is part of a failing to recognise and act on SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing) and SDG 10 (reduced inequality) (DFAT 2018).

Case Study The Koorie Energy Efficiency Project

The Koorie Energy Efficiency Project (KEEP) (Bedggood et al. 2016, Bedggood et al. 2017), funded by the Australian Government Department of Industry, Innovation and Science’s Low Income Energy Efficiency Program, provides some insight into the many barriers Indigenous people (as with other vulnerable groups) face in achieving energy efficiency in their homes. Based on data collected from 867 Indigenous households across Victoria (2013–15), the KEEP report states (Bedggood et al. 2016):

Initial analysis reveals that Aboriginal households invariably live in homes that are older than 20 years and were not structurally energy-efficient. Participants were mostly tenants and lived in dwellings with higher than average occupancy levels, had limited window coverings and insulation and relied heavily on gas for heating in the winter. Many struggled to pay their utility bills and were stressed due to their financial situation.

The fact that most Indigenous respondents were tenants (86% compared with 25% in the non-Indigenous population) means that they cannot make structural change (retrofits or insulation) or engage with new technologies (such as solar panels) that deliver energy efficiency. With insulation being one of the most important aspects in the energy efficiency of homes, it is alarming that 36% of Indigenous households reported having none.

The data collected showed that Indigenous households in Victoria live in suboptimal thermal conditions, which pose significant health risks to all family members. Overwhelmingly, Aboriginal tenants in Victoria are living in old draughty homes that have had little to no upkeep from landlords. Their financial situation is often further eroded because their appliances, including heaters, are energy-hungry, resulting in large energy bills that are difficult to pay. The KEEP data showed that energy-related disadvantage for Aboriginal peoples is complex, and given the rising costs of gas (55% of Aboriginal households reported gas as the most common heating source) tenants will be under increasing financial strain if the price of gas continues to rise.

The KEEP report (Bedggood et al. 2016) put forward several recommendations, including:

  • the need to consider factors beyond energy consumption when assessing energy efficiency – such as energy-related disadvantage and the resulting stress and discomfort
  • the need to design and undertake programs within Aboriginal communities and with high-level Aboriginal community involvement
  • ensuring homes are well-insulated as a priority in reducing disadvantage
  • the need for regulations and incentives to encourage landlords (private and public, and including Aboriginal housing) to improve their properties with retrofits, especially insulation
  • providing Aboriginal households with support and guidance in negotiating with energy providers, and encouraging energy providers to employ Aboriginal representatives
  • providing tips and advice to Aboriginal households that are easily transferrable between different properties, and providing efficient appliances that are movable.

Indigenous occupancy rates

Household occupancy rates for Indigenous people in Australia are markedly different from broader Australian society. Inadequate income and a lack of affordable housing options result in overcrowding and increased risk of homelessness. This is particularly true in rural and remote communities. Overcrowding in Indigenous communities is a well-documented phenomenon – as of 30 June 2017, 4% of public rental housing, 4% of community housing and 24% of state-owned and managed Indigenous housing was considered to be overcrowded (NSW Department of Health 2010:6).

The problems of overcrowding must not be understated. Living in overcrowded housing increases the likelihood of many health problems, from ear and eye infections and bloodborne viruses to mental health issues. The impact of deteriorating housing on occupants, and the lack of air-conditioning and heating, is made more severe where there is overcrowding and an inability to maintain hygiene (Hall et al. 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic in Australia has further exacerbated the widespread challenges faced by Indigenous communities in relation to housing (Higgins 2021). Overcrowding has been a major cause of the spread of COVID-19 among, for example, western New South Wales Indigenous communities (Poulson 2021). Remote learning, another circumstance of the COVID-19 pandemic, is also more challenging for those in overcrowded housing. Indigenous communities are greatly disadvantaged in coping with the demands of COVID-19 conditions because of poor access to housing that meets fundamental health requirements (e.g. overcrowding and scarcity of housing make quarantine impossible). Their remote learning opportunities are also greatly impeded due to reduced access to technology such as computers and the internet – 1 in 4 Indigenous households have no internet access (Hunter & Radoll 2020, Sonnemann & Goss 2020, WVA & ALNF 2021).

The effects of climate change are likely to necessitate some occupants, especially the aged, disabled and chronically ill, spending more time within their house, which can increase the psychosocial stress and risk of infectious disease transmission (Memmott et al. 2012:12).

However, it must be understood that cultural obligations such as kinship rules, immersive sociality and the cultural traits of sharing and mobility are also factors that affect occupancy rates. Culturally, Indigenous people do not fit into non-Indigenous models and expectations of ‘proper’ modes of occupation where the typical 3-bedroom home is the ‘norm’. Mainstream housing models and expectations fail to serve or recognise foundational ongoing cultural obligations of Indigenous people – these accepted norms are fundamentally incongruent with the Indigenous world-view and cultural circumstances (Memmott et al. 2012).

This reminds us that social justice is not always best achieved through equality, but instead through recognition and respect of the differing circumstance and needs of groups (Memmott et al. 2012:162).

Leading experts in the field of Indigenous housing have made several recommendations in relation to negative impacts of occupancy rates (Memmott et al. 2012:171):

  • Government policy on house crowding should include recognition of combined density and stress models and culture-specific factors.
  • Indigenous cultural practices and values should be considered in all evaluations. Local department of housing offices should take advantage of Indigenous staff’s cultural knowledge when assessing and implementing strategies and management.
  • Concessions should be made regarding maximum wage limits of those renting public housing, because some houses act as ‘community hub households’.
  • New construction should ensure there are adequate large houses (5 and 6 bedroom) in Indigenous neighbourhoods and cities, with sufficient repair and maintenance support.
  • Culturally based rules for sleeping group behaviours should be adequately supported.
  • Good-practice models of culturally appropriate service delivery and emergency accommodation should be identified and used.
  • More housing stock should be developed, especially in Indigenous population centres, as supply has not met Australian Government assessments of need since assessments began in the 1970s.

Commercial and industrial development

Although most development activity occurs in the residential sector, there is also notable development activity in nonresidential areas. On average, there have been 56,500 nonresidential building approvals per year across Australia over the past decade, with a slight increase from 2016 to 2019.

In 2020, however, Australia saw a 10% decline in nonresidential development, with the greatest fall in the commercial sector (including retail and offices). In contrast, industrial development saw an increase of 10%, showing a shift in priorities in the property-development sector with the growing recognition of the importance of onshoring capabilities and industrial supply chains. Despite this positive shift, industrial approvals were still less than 50% of commercial approvals in 2020.

In the past decade, the proportion of nonresidential development per state has remained stable, with Victoria averaging 29% of all nonresidential development, New South Wales 25% and Queensland 20%. This highlights how most (74% on average) of the investment in this type of development occurs in these 3 states.

There are various mechanisms across Australia through which Indigenous people can claim and acquire land (see the Land and Indigenous chapters). Many Indigenous communities may have large land holdings, but little capacity to navigate planning systems that often create legislative and policy barriers to the economic realisation of Indigenous community–driven commercial developments. This lack of connection and alignment between these various pieces of legislation and policy approaches, coupled with a lack of financial capacity, undermines attempts by Indigenous people to achieve self-determination. It also largely excludes their involvement in the ongoing expansion and development of the urban environment.