Key findings

Growing populations, resource demand and travel are the main pressures on our urban areas

  • Population growth, urban density, industry and the associated consumption of resources have a significant influence on the shape, form and function of our urban areas. Most of Australia’s 8 major cities are growing at rates faster than many developed cities internationally. As our cities expand and change, so do their impacts. These include increased urban heat, congestion, pollution and waste, as well as growing pressure on our increasingly scarce resources such as water and energy. These impacts expand to the natural environment surrounding our urban areas and the biodiversity, green and blue spaces within them.
  • Our climate is changing. Average temperatures have become warmer since 1950. We are experiencing more extremely high temperatures, more bushfires and more intense rain events. Sea levels also continue to rise. These factors affect our urban spaces, especially when impacts combine, such as the combined effects of storm surges and sea level rise on our coastal environments.
  • Furthermore, shocks such as bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic, together with climate stresses such as drought and lack of water security, have significantly affected our wellbeing, and the resilience and character of our urban environments. Over the past 18 months, our urban environments have experienced several 1-in-100-year shocks and stresses that will have significant impacts for future generations.

The COVID-19 pandemic affected our urban environments in both positive and negative ways

  • The COVID-19 pandemic was an unforeseen event that has profoundly affected the state of urban environments. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted to government, industry and communities the complex and fragile nature of our urban ecosystems, the value of the natural environment for citizen wellbeing and the need to plan for greater urban resilience. The pandemic has significantly reduced international immigration and interstate migration. Combined with lower fertility rates, this will result in the lowest forecast rate of population growth across Australia since World War 1 (Centre for Population 2020).
  • The pandemic has shifted where we work in our urban areas and how we move around them, and increased our reliance on digital networks. While the pandemic has had some desirable short-term impacts such as improved air quality, increased rates of walking, cycling and flexible working, it is less clear how equitable the changes have been across urban areas and what it means for designing and planning our urban areas in the longer term.

Livability varies between different urban areas and within different parts of our cities and towns

  • Australia’s 18 largest urban areas have higher liveability than smaller urban areas. But smaller urban areas have some advantages – mainly shorter commute times. An analysis of Australia’s 18 largest urban areas finds that older, inner-city areas have higher levels of livability when considering factors such as walkability, access to green spaces and services. Conversely, smaller urban areas have shorter commute times yet fewer services and less diversity of employment opportunities.
  • Livability also varies within urban areas. Urban fringe areas tend to have poorer access to services and longer commute times. Higher socio-economic areas tend to benefit from better tree canopy cover and digital access.
  • The character of our urban areas continues to shift in response to lifestyle preferences and needs. The proportion of Australians living in higher-density dwellings such as units and townhouses continued to grow, consistent with state and territory targets for greater infill development. However, since the pandemic, our growing appreciation of space and demand for larger homes has led to a move away from apartment living towards more suburban and regional opportunities, supported by greater rates of working from home for some.
  • Despite this recent shift in lifestyle preferences and needs, the distribution of Australian population growth has been uneven. Most growth has occurred in our major cities while the population of many regional and remote areas has declined. This has challenged assumptions as to where growth could and should occur across Australia, and the extent to which factors such as affordability, urban resilience and environmental sustainability should be considered. This has led the planning profession to call for better data consistency, and agreed employment and population growth assumptions.

A nationwide approach to urban growth and resilience is needed

  • The resilience and sustainability of our urban environments are being challenged. To effectively respond to these challenges, it will be critical for all 3 levels of government to effectively collaborate and take a holistic, nationwide approach to developing resilient frameworks that do not just sustain our cities, but regenerate them. We must break the nexus between urban growth and poor outcomes. The economic roadmap out of the COVID-19 pandemic and other environmental shocks must therefore dovetail with the shift towards zero carbon and climate-resilient urban environments so that our urban areas can bounce back smarter, greener, cleaner and more equitable.
  • There have been renewed calls for a more strategic, national approach to urban management. An example is a national population and settlement strategy to improve the timely delivery of urban support services, jobs and infrastructure to meet need and demand. Failure to think holistically is also resulting in the limited consideration of cumulative and longer-term pressures on the environment (e.g. pollution and waste generation).
  • The largest populations of Indigenous people in Australia live in urban environments. The social and economic disadvantages experienced by Indigenous people and the efforts of successive generations to address these issues are well documented. The ongoing expansion and development of urban areas disproportionally impact Indigenous people’s sense of cultural connection and identity through the disruption and destruction of culturally significant places and landscapes.
  • When planning and managing the urban environment, it is important to recognise the need for a rights-based approach for Indigenous people. We also need greater inclusion, involvement and self-determination for Indigenous people in urban planning, design and environmental management, and in housing diversity to suit their cultural needs. Across Australia, there is still a failure to recognise Indigenous communities in legislation and policy.