Management approaches

Australia’s urban environments are managed by 3 levels of government – local, state and territory, and federal. Each of these levels has its own policies, strategies and regulations that are increasingly looking to, and aligning with, a range of international benchmarks and goals, including the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Contributing to this mix of management approaches are new sources of data and research from citizen science programs, along with a growing recognition of the value of traditional information from Indigenous people. These inputs are being provided in the context of a rapidly changing urban landscape that is responding to the implementation of new technologies and the pressures of climate change.

Urban planning and collaboration

Urban environments are predominantly, designed, curated and influenced by local planning policies, schemes and plans. This local focus allows for a tailored approach to addressing the needs of a particular place and to working with local communities. It also allows for a better understanding of the particular pressures facing a given area and a more targeted set of actions and outcomes.

State and territory governments play an important role in setting the overarching strategic directions and objectives to guide broader outcomes relevant to a larger geographic area. These strategies and policies often define where growth should and could occur, and how it can most effectively be managed to improve urban livability, optimise existing infrastructure and protect areas of high environmental value.

These objectives are important considering the findings of a Parliamentary Inquiry into the Australian Government’s role in the development of cities in 2018. The inquiry found that many of Australia’s cities are sprawling into peri-urban agricultural areas that have functioned as high-value food production areas. With the effects of climate change and growing livability concerns such as the urban heat island effect (see Urban heat), the pressures on biodiversity and food security are growing. In the case of Melbourne, one submission to the inquiry identified that continued urban sprawl ‘… will reduce the city’s food bowl capacity significantly, from 40% currently to around 18% by 2050’ (Sheridan et al. 2015). In response to these issues, many state and territory plans identify urban boundaries to control the sprawl of cities. Examples of such management policies include Melbourne’s and Hobart’s urban growth boundaries, Greater Sydney’s Metropolitan Rural Area and Adelaide’s Environment and Food Production Areas.

In addition to these urban boundaries, many jurisdictions manage urban sprawl by targeting an increasing proportion of new development to occur within existing brownfield (inner urban) or greyfield (suburban) areas as infill rather than new greenfield (urban fringe) development. These ratios are provided in overarching strategic plans such as:

  • the 2018 ACT planning strategy, which targets a 70:30 ratio
  • the 30-year plan for Greater Adelaide (2017), which targets 85% of new development to be urban infill and all development occurring within the environment and food production areas, recognising that the existing ratio is at 76:24
  • Plan Melbourne 2017–2050, which looks at 2 main scenarios for growth. The scenarios vary the established infill to greenfield ratio from 75:35 to 70:30, with the latter ratio referred to as the ‘Aspirational Scenario’. These scenarios are being refined further in land-use frameworks presently being prepared by the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning
  • the South East Queensland plan 2017 (2017–2031), which includes Brisbane City and targets a 60:40 ratio, favouring new development in existing urban areas
  • the Perth and Peel @3.5million plan, which has targeted 47% of new development as infill since 2010 with the remaining 53% as greenfield; it is estimated that this equates to an additional 380,000 infill dwellings by 2050
  • the Greater Sydney Region Plan: a metropolis of three cities – connecting people (2018), which builds on the 70:30 ratio of previous metropolitan plans. It encourages infill development around transport nodes and all new development to occur within existing areas designated as urban, to retain the metropolitan rural area as a green, agricultural and environmental belt around the city
  • the Southern Tasmania regional land use strategy 2010–2035 (amended 2019), which targets a 50:50 ratio of infill to greenfield development within Greater Hobart, with a minimum net residential density of 15 dwellings per hectare. The strategy also stipulates infill targets for each of the 5 municipal areas.

Targets for a ratio of infill compared to greenfield development are not limited to state and territory plans for capital cities. A survey undertaken of all councils across Australia for this report found that more than 60% of respondents had ratios in their local plans. When asked whether their local government area encouraged most new developments in greenfield or brownfield areas, 60% said brownfield, 33% said greenfield and 8% said 50:50. This direction for predominantly infill development was notable given that 66% of council respondents categorised themselves as remote, rural or peri-urban.

At the federal level, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 assesses the impacts of proposed new urban development in greenfield areas on matters of national environmental significance. It seeks to assess impacts more broadly than can be achieved on a site-by-site or development-by-development basis. Strategic environmental assessments (SEAs) consider the cumulative impacts of development over time (50 years or more) and determine whether areas are sustainable for development, where development can go and the conditions it must meet to proceed. SEAs have been used in various locations including the Australian Capital Territory (Eastern Broadacre, Gungahlin, Molonglo Valley and West Belconnen), Greater Sydney’s Western City, Melbourne’s urban growth boundary, and the Perth and Peel regions. A strategic assessment is being progressed for Eastern Broadacre, located to the east of Canberra city. This strategic environmental assessment is assessing employment opportunities, such as industrial land, in the context of several matters of national environmental significance present in this corridor (EPSDD 2021).

City deals

City deals are another means of coordinating multiple levels of government to achieve constructive and lasting urban outcomes by delivering common goals in a defined place. Modelled on the United Kingdom’s City Deal approach, which began in 2012, Australian City Deals have prioritised government investment in cities. The first city deal was signed in December 2016 for the City of Townsville, with 8 subsequent deals either signed or under development (Adelaide, Darwin, Geelong, Hobart, Launceston, Perth, Western Sydney, South East Queensland). Based on the success of this model, it has expanded to include 3 regional areas: Barkly (Northern Territory), Hinkler (Queensland) and Albury–Wodonga (New South Wales, Victoria). (See case study: Launceston city deal.)

A key element of the city deals’ success has been their design to suit a specific place. Each deal has been negotiated on a case-by-case basis, regarding local objectives, challenges and opportunities. Each city deal has a defined geographic area, with clear outcomes and actions that are monitored annually. Each deal also has clear governance arrangements, delivery timeframes and accountabilities, and performance measures, including indicators.

The deals seek to unlock business investment through economic reform and infrastructure investment to accelerate job generation. The deals also frequently have a strong environmental, safety, security and urban design focus to improve levels of urban activity and livability outcomes. Other common elements of the deals include (PM&C 2016):

  • targeted initiatives to strengthen existing or emerging economic hubs, including transport, industry, defence, health and education facilities
  • transport infrastructure funding or financing to improve connectivity and increase access to jobs
  • housing supply and planning changes to encourage higher-density development, affordable housing and activate value capture
  • changes to regulatory and zoning arrangements to encourage commercial growth and allow entrepreneurial approaches to service delivery including the sharing economy
  • investments that improve environmental outcomes – such as enhancing public spaces, facilities and active transport options; reducing emissions and pollutants; or improving the sustainability performance of buildings and infrastructure
  • maximising benefits from underused state and federal government land – for example, repurposing government land to be used for affordable housing or public space
  • integrating environmental criteria into decision-making – such as green coverage to minimise urban heat island impacts, reducing localised air pollution, reducing waste and increasing recycling.

Case Study Launceston City Deal

Signed in 2017, the Launceston City Deal positions Launceston as one of Australia’s most livable and innovative regional cities. The deal brings together the Australian Government, Tasmanian Government and the City of Launceston around 5 key objectives:

  • jobs and skills growth
  • business, industry and population growth
  • a vibrant, livable city
  • innovation and industry engagement
  • a healthy Tamar Estuary.

Major commitments include a $260 million investment in the University of Tasmania’s main campus to eventually accommodate 16,000 students, researchers and staff. Activity will be generated within and surrounding the campus through a $19.4 million investment in the Launceston City Heart Project. This project aims to enliven Launceston’s historic central business district to create a competitive, vibrant and compelling city centre for locals and visitors.

The deal also seeks to increase housing choice. Through the Tasmanian Planning Scheme reforms, the deal seeks to work with developers to increase in infill development and make better use of vacant brownfield and greyfield land in the city centre.

An important infrastructure objective of the deal related to the exploration of financing options for upgrades to Launceston’s combined sewerage and stormwater system. This includes through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Improving the health of the Tamar Estuary and Esk River catchments was also identified as a key deliverable, given the important role the estuary and its catchment plays in the wellbeing of wildlife as well as local tourism. The City Deal, through the Tasmanian Government, established the Tamar Estuary Management Taskforce (TEMT) to oversee the development of the Tamar Estuary River health action plan by the end of 2017. Reporting to the Launceston City Deal Executive Board, the TEMT will measure the success of the action plan by the degree to which it reduces pollution from urban and rural land uses and addresses pollution from the combined sewerage and stormwater system (DITRDC 2017).

Vision and validate

A new concept – referred to as a ‘vision and validate’ approach – has emerged to better manage and service our growing urban environment with the right infrastructure at the right time.

Traditionally, city and transport planners have used a ‘predict and provide’ approach, which predicts where growth will occur based on prior trends and provides infrastructure in response.

In contrast, the vision and validate approach seeks to proactively shape urban environments in line with an agreed overarching vision for an area. It focuses on user needs and aims to provide the necessary urban infrastructure ahead of demand. This can provide greater efficiency of delivery and reduce the cost of provision. At the same time, it can deliver a better quality of life for residents with the services they need available as they move into an area or as it grows.

Another major shift in how our urban areas are managed relates to a greater focus on place. This focus on geography, rather than on a specific service or issue, has allowed for a more collaborative and integrated approach to managing the pressures of our urban spaces across multiple levels of government and service providers. By thinking of a place as an ecosystem of activity, a greater collective understanding of issues and how they interact can be gained by city planners and leaders. This can in turn lead to a more collaborative and less siloed response. For example, improvements to a place need a combination of road, transport, green, service and design improvements, requiring a collective and aligned response by all relevant government departments, agencies and local stakeholders.

The Australian Government’s City Deals provide examples of both ‘vision and validate’ and place-based approaches (see City deals). The joint investment by the New South Wales and Australian governments in the $11 billion Stage 1 Greater Western Sydney Airport Metro is one such example. The project (due for operation in 2026), takes an approach different from other retrospective investments in rail lines (DITRDC 2021). It is designed to reshape Greater Sydney by providing the first north–south rail line in Western Sydney. In doing this, it will catalyse development in more than 11,000 hectares of greenfield land and create more than 200,000 jobs.

Integrated management

Place-based approaches to managing pressures on our urban areas that are led and funded by local and state governments can be more localised and nuanced. However, such approaches present challenges in addressing pressures that are common across Australia and that have nationwide implications.

A review of urban planning strategies across Australia by the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) found that there was an absence of a single holistic plan for how and where Australia’s urban areas could and should accommodate growth.

PIA argues that, although the Australian Government influences urban conditions and environments by controlling immigration and major infrastructure investment decisions, it lacks accountability for any specific place. City deal locations are the notable exception. It can also provide ‘spatially blind’ national policies that unintentionally influence the shape of our cities and regions.

The PIA found this failure to achieve a ‘line of sight’ across the 3 levels of government is resulting in a mismatch between where and how growth and social changes are occurring across Australia and the infrastructure and services needed to support them. It concluded that this was resulting in ‘… significant community fatigue and frustration at the lack of alignment of integrated planning’ (PIA 2018). Infrastructure Australia reinforced these concerns, highlighting the absence of a national population policy (and growth projections) as particularly problematic for effective and timely infrastructure delivery. Failure to think holistically inhibits consideration of cumulative and longer-term pressures on the environment (e.g. pollution and waste generation).

The PIA based its observations on a review of 57 regional plans across Australia. The review found that most parts of Australia were covered by regional plans, except for large areas in the Northern Territory and Townsville. Collectively, these plans were assuming a population of around 3 million by 2050. However, there was a lack of coordination on timeframes, with 11 different planning horizons (Figure 33). The number of local, state and territory planning authorities, together with a lack of cross-state coordination, resulted in varying and misaligned assumptions, inconsistencies of timeframes and approaches.

The PIA also found that:

  • plans often nominated population growth targets, yet as local and regional plans they failed to plan for variations to national immigration
  • fewer than half the plans included targets for future housing needs
  • only 13 of the 57 plans included explicit future job growth targets. Even fewer of the plans considered the nature of future jobs and their implications for planning activities and services within our cities and regions
  • most of the 57 plans showed only partial integration of land-use and infrastructure planning. Many regional plans lacked either a transport or other infrastructure component. Where infrastructure matters were considered, it was generally not linked to assumptions for long-term growth.

Figure 33 (a) Regional plan boundaries, as of June 2018, and (b) end dates for regional plans, 2020–50

To address these shortfalls in managing our urban environment, the PIA proposes a national strategy for the sustainable management of our urban environments – that is, a national settlement strategy. Such a strategy would establish key directions, targets and performance indicators to be consistently followed by regional (state and territory) and subsequent local plans. It could take a holistic view of where and how Australia should grow based on environmental and economic factors, including how and where the projected demand for an additional 1.2 million new dwellings over the next decade should be accommodated across Australia and within our urban areas. This will help ensure that the right infrastructure is funded and delivered to create more sustainable outcomes.

The PIA identified the benefits of such a potential strategy as enhanced community confidence, more efficient and effective investment in urban infrastructure, and improved urban livability and wellbeing outcomes for future generations.

The 2018 Parliamentary Inquiry into the Australian Government’s role in the development of cities supported the need for a national plan of settlement to set a vision for our what our cities could and should look like over the next 50 years and to provide a pathway to achieve that vision. It recognised the need to better link vertically and horizontally across governments to align infrastructure with land use to maximise the value of both.

The inquiry findings also recognised that this was not achievable without the coherent vision that comes from a more place-based focus through master planning (Parliament of Australia 2018a). In addition to a national plan, the inquiry recommended governance changes including creating a Minister and Department for Cities and National Settlement, with the national Office of Chief Planner to oversee the creation and implementation of any subsequent plan.

The inquiry identified that links between cities and regions were critical, and there was a need to see regional development as integral to a broader pattern of national development. It supported the ‘hub-and-spoke’ model of development and more effective transport modes such as high-speed rail being prioritised between urban centres on the east coast of Australia. To support the redistribution of growth from our major cities and the economic sustainability of regional and rural areas, the inquiry also recommended regional areas focus on their point of difference by highlighting the economic and lifestyle advantages of living in regional communities through a cost-of-living index.

Sustainable net zero cities

Sustainability is a well-established term in urban management, often cited in legislation as an overarching objective for urban planning and development. Urban sustainability seeks to improve the livability of our urban areas, including their ecological, social and economic components, without leaving an environmental burden on the future generations.

It is increasingly argued that, to best address urban challenges, we need to move away from thinking of sustainable development simply as a means of reducing resources and reducing waste towards the concept of regenerative development. The notion of the regenerative city was outlined in 2010 by the World Future Council as a city that regenerates its ecological footprint, not just minimises it (Girardet 2010). The regenerative approach extends the concept of sustainability to one that aims to ‘turns the curve’ to dramatically reduce environmental impacts (Newman 2020).

A key factor in turning the curve relates to Australia’s commitment to reaching net zero emissions by 2050 as a signatory to the Paris Climate Change Agreement (see the Climate chapter). To achieve reductions and work towards a net zero economy, it will be necessary to rethink our urban structures and systems, how we live within them and the materials we use to build them. For example, the absorption of excess carbon from the atmosphere could be achieved through measures such as carbon-absorbing cement, carbon-negative plastics, biogenic building materials and carbon-negative landscaping (Newman 2020). We will also need to fast-track the transformation of Australia’s energy systems, including the manufacture, use and exporting of green hydrogen, and ongoing investment in grid-scale renewables from virtual power plants and microgrids to large-scale batteries to achieve more distributed models of energy storage. We will also need to support the manufacturing industry to use clean technologies and manufacture new technology for clean energy projects. A focus will also be needed on transforming our transport systems, including its electrification and where possible a move towards the most sustainable form of travel – walking.

Many suggest that the move towards decarbonisation and a net zero economy could be accelerated through post-pandemic economic recovery packages and urban policy considerations (G30 2020, Jung & Murphy 2020, OECD 2020).

The circular economy

The concept of a circular economy is an important manifestation of urban sustainability and regeneration. A circular economy seeks to minimise or eliminate waste and greenhouse gas emissions through better urban infrastructure and service design, using a system of closed loops that rely on renewable energy sources such as sunlight and wind instead of fossil fuels. As the name suggests, it seeks a shift from a linear ‘take, make, dispose’ economy, to a circular model using the 3 Rs approach: to reduce our use of resources, re-use what we have and restore our ecosystems.

This approach is being developed by Australian, state and territory governments through various programs, including the CSIRO’s preparation of a circular economy roadmap (Schandl et al. 2021). The roadmap reviews 4 materials that are common waste streams in our economy: plastics, tyres (automotive and mining), glass and paper. The roadmap identifies a range of economic, social, environmental and resource efficiency benefits for Australia to transition to a circular economy (Schandl et al. 2021).

Australian policy-makers are increasingly applying a circular economy (Geissdoerfer et al. 2017), with many plans and policies developed (or under development). For example:

  • The National Waste Policy Action Plan 2019 has a specific focus on a circular economy (DAWE 2019).
  • New South Wales has prepared the NSW circular economy policy statement 2019 – too good to waste, which has provided a basis for the preparation of the 20 Year Waste Strategy for NSW.
  • Queensland has launched a Circular Economy Lab, which is an incubator for start-up companies.
  • The 2020–21 Tasmanian budget dedicated more than $30 million to waste and resource recovery initiatives across Tasmania.
  • Recycling Victoria has prepared a 10-year plan – A new economy – based on circular economy goals and principles.
  • Western Australia references the circular economy in their Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Strategy 2030 (Schandl et al. 2021).

Industry is also actively engaged in achieving more circular outcomes. Examples include the first apartment made in Australia using waste materials, built by developers Mirvac in collaboration with the UNSW Centre of Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT Centre 2021).

Urban resilience

Urban resilience refers to the capacity of the urban ecosystem and those living and operating within it to retain or recover structure, functions and amenity after experiencing shocks and stresses (adapted from the definition from 100 Resilient Cities (Rockefeller Foundation 2021)). Resilient systems not only respond to and adapt more readily to shocks and stresses, but can emerge stronger after impacts to thrive.

According to the City of Sydney (City of Sydney 2021):


… chronic stresses weaken the fabric of a city on a day-to-day or cyclical basis. Examples include ongoing issues such as rising inequity, increasing pressures on healthcare services, a lack of social cohesion and inadequate public transport. Acute shocks are sudden, sharp events that threaten a city. Examples include heatwaves, bushfires, floods, disease outbreaks and cyber-attacks … Resilient Cities has developed the city resilience framework to provide a lens to understand the complexity of city systems and the drivers that contribute to their resilience.

The Resilient Cities Framework is one of several frameworks that have been developed to help urban areas prepare for and better manage the physical, social and economic shocks and stresses facing our urban environment. This framework has been moved forward by some of Australia’s most influential local councils, including the City of Sydney and City of Melbourne in partnership with 100 Resilient Cities – a group of like-minded international cities pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. Australia’s first resilience strategy was produced in Melbourne in 2016 with input from more than 1,000 individuals from 230 organisations, Melbourne’s 32 local councils and the Victorian Government (City of Melbourne 2016). The strategy sets out a series of actions to make Melbourne a more viable, livable and prosperous city. A Chief Resilience Officer supports its implementation.

The Resilient Sydney Strategy was prepared in 2018 in consultation with local communities, the New South Wales Government and the 33 local councils of Greater Sydney. It established a city-led network of chief resilience officers, bringing together knowledge, practice and partnerships to fund and mobilise communities, city governments, urban practitioners and partners to deliver impact-driven resilience strategies and projects (City of Sydney 2021).

A survey of all local councils in Australia for this report found a strong focus on urban resilience to respond to climate change and improve sustainability. When asked whether their council was addressing these pressures through a specific plan, 74% of survey respondents answered yes, 22% answered no and 4% were not sure. The nature of the plans included climate action, response and emergency plans and strategies; resilience, adaptation and urban sustainability strategies; and net zero targets. Many of these plans and strategies were supported by coastal management, biodiversity, energy and tree canopy or urban forest strategies. Most were less than 5 years old, with the oldest prepared in 2010 and the most recent in 2021.

Infrastructure resilience

The effective function of our built environment and our quality of living increasingly relies on the quality and extent of urban infrastructure. Accordingly, significant investment is occurring or planned to occur in health, transport, utility, education and digital infrastructure across Australia. For example, in the 2020–21 Budget, the Australian Government delivered a 10-year, $110 billion investment in transport infrastructure. This provided up to $5 billion towards the Melbourne Airport Rail and up to $1.05 billion towards the Perth METRONET. It built on the 2017–18 Budget commitment to the $10 billion National Rail Program, which is a major, long-term commitment to invest in passenger rail networks within and between our cities and their surrounding regional centres.

The National Rail Program includes contributions towards:

  • the Western Sydney Rail (St Marys to Bringelly) ($3.5 billion)
  • a fast rail between Geelong and Melbourne ($2 billion)
  • upgrades the Beerburrum to Nambour line in Queensland ($390 million)
  • the electrification of the Gawler line in Adelaide ($220 million)
  • the Gold Coast Light Rail Stage 3A ($112 million).

Contributions have also been made to the first stage of Brisbane Metro, a 21 kilometre network of electric vehicles connecting 11 locations in Brisbane (Brisbane City Council 2021c).

The 2020–21 budget also included a new $4 billion Urban Congestion Initiative to target urban road congestion. It also committed to providing $10 billion for the Bruce Highway Upgrade Program from 2013–14 to 2027–28 to better connect urban areas from Brisbane to Cairns. These budget commitments support broader infrastructure investment programs for roads and rail, including the Roads to Recovery Program, the Bridges Renewal Program and the Black Spot Program.

State and territory governments are also making large investments into infrastructure pipelines in their 2020–21 budgets, including:

The significant value of these new investments also points to new methods of managing demand and making the most of what we have through new technologies (e.g. the application of the internet of things (IOT); see New technologies and the future city) and more effective system operations.

The Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience & Safer Communities estimated that $17 billion would need to be spent on rebuilding critical infrastructure because of natural disasters affecting Australia by 2050. With climate change, extreme events will increasingly affect our environment, including our urban areas. This will require not only investment in new fit-for-purpose infrastructure, but retrofitting existing infrastructure to tolerate heat, flooding and other extreme events while supporting essential services to the community, businesses and government (see the Extreme events chapter). This is becoming a growing challenge in sectors such as water, where some infrastructure, located below well-established urban areas, is reaching the end of its economic life.

The roundtable’s estimations did not factor in emerging risks to our critical infrastructure, such as cyber attacks and extremist acts. The former presents a growing risk to the function of our urban areas, given the growing reliance on a digital economy including online working, shopping, health services, education and socialising. Cyber security is a growing issue given the relative ease with which disruptors significantly affect the function of our urban areas (i.e. our ability to turn on a tap for water or flush a toilet) through cybercrime. The Australian Government Department of Home Affairs seeks to achieve ‘a more secure online world for Australians, their businesses and the essential services’ through the investment of $1.67 billion over 10 years to deliver Australia’s Cyber Security Strategy 2020 (Australian Government 2020).

Infrastructure Australia found that, compared with other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, Australian infrastructure networks have proven to be resilient under pressure and open to innovation (Infrastructure Australia 2020b). Despite this, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for us to rethink how, where and what we build infrastructure. For example, we may need to better consider the health implications of our infrastructure by allowing for greater ventilation, physical distancing and cleanliness; or the shape of our urban areas given social changes in where we work and how we travel (see Travel management). These changes will most likely result in changes to the cost–benefit analyses of new and retrofitted urban infrastructure, increasing operating costs and contributing to more waste generation.

A new approach to supporting effective decision-making regarding the infrastructure needs of an area is known as a Place Infrastructure Compact (PIC). Successfully piloted by the Greater Sydney Commission, the PIC methodology identifies scenarios for growth, and assesses the capacity and cost of all existing and future infrastructure that may be needed (including transport, roads, schools, community and green infrastructure) to service the anticipated level of growth within an area. The growth compact can be used to recommend to relevant government departments the development sequencing that should occur within a defined area to most efficiently and cost-effectively deliver a complete community outcome, as well as the likely proportion of funding that could be sourced to fund it.

The growth compact is now being applied to the greenfield areas of the Western Sydney, allowing for a direct comparison of the true cost of developing inner-city to greenfield areas on a per-person and per-job basis. This is important analysis because, while infill development can reduce pressures to expand our urban areas into greenfield areas, it can also increase pressures on existing inner-city infrastructure. The PIC concept is helping to highlight these challenges and the true cost of infill development to local and state governments.

Reducing disaster risk and improving recovery

Disasters generated by extreme weather events and climate change are now occurring at rates beyond our historical experience. Population growth, expanding urban areas and the increasing frequency and severity of these events now increases the vulnerability of more Australians and urban environments (National Resilience Taskforce 2017). The 2019–20 catastrophic bushfire season claimed 33 lives, destroyed 3,000 homes and an estimated 13 million hectares while severely impacting local communities. Such events test the limits of capacity and capability in Australia (National Resilience Taskforce 2017).

In addition to the significant safety and wellbeing implications of disasters are the stresses they place on the economy. ‘In 2017, Deloitte Access Economics estimated that disasters cost the Australian economy approximately $18 billion per year over the past decade. This is predicted to increase to $39 billion a year by 2050 if current development patterns and population growth remains unchanged’ (Littleproud 2020:3) (Figure 34). At least 50% of these costs come from the impacts of disasters on health and wellbeing, education, employment and community networks (National Resilience Taskforce 2017).

Figure 34 Forecast of the economic cost of extreme events, 2015–50

On the global scale, Australia is an active contributor to initiatives to increase our resilience to extreme events. These events include the World Humanitarian Summit and the New Urban Agenda. Australia also works towards the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Building on these initiatives, standards and goals, the National Resilience Taskforce mapped the vulnerability of Australia, which led to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) endorsing the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework in March 2020.

The framework identified a common agenda for collective action and 3 immediate disaster risk reduction strategies to pursue:

  • improved resilience of the telecommunications network
  • adaptation of the built environment
  • improved national natural hazard data and intelligence.

COAG subsequently tasked emergency management ministers to develop a national action plan to implement the framework.

The first national action plan to implement the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework highlights the actions the Australian Government is taking to enable the nation to reduce disaster risk. Consistent with the framework, it recognises that no single jurisdiction, agency or organisation has the capacity to identify or address risk, and build community trust and confidence.

The action plan has a series of priorities, including:

  • raising public awareness and providing hazard risk information, particularly in the priority areas of land use and development, building and infrastructure, and finance
  • making climate and disaster data and information available and accessible to support accountable decision-making and investment through the work of the Australian Data and Digital Council. For example, the Australian Flood Risk Information Portal enables flood information (flood maps, studies and satellite imagery), currently held by different sources, to be accessible from a single online location
  • mainstreaming disaster and climate risk requirements into standards and codes, particularly in the priority areas of land use and development, building and infrastructure, and finance
  • reviewing how investment decisions for infrastructure are informed by avoided losses (tangible and intangible) and how broader benefits are assessed through cost–benefit analyses. For example, in the Australian Capital Territory, improved analysis of risks will improve management of processes during power outages while strengthening the resilience of the territory’s traffic network
  • considering how to adapt the built environment to future climate and hazard conditions through research and changes to the National Construction Code (by the Building Ministers’ Forum), and learning from comparable experiences in Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

The national action plan also identifies relevant commitments in the city deals (see case study: Darwin Living Lab) for climate and disaster risk reduction initiatives. For example, in Townsville, an intergovernmental water security taskforce, convened as part of the Townsville City Deal, provided several recommendations to improve the security of Townsville’s water supply. These are now being implemented across 3 levels of government – the Australian Government, Queensland Government and the Townsville City Council.

The national action plan is being implemented by a new National Recovery and Resilience Agency, which will support local community responses to large-scale natural disasters. It will advise government on policies and programs to mitigate the impact of future major disaster events, while drawing on advice from the scientists of the Australian Climate Service to help better anticipate, manage and adapt to climate (Prime Minister of Australia 2021).

Case Study Darwin Living Lab

The future looks hot for Darwin. The city is already experiencing the kind of increase in hot days that were predicted for the year 2030. Climate projections suggest a significant increase in the average number of days per year ≥35 °C, with actual measurements showing a new record of 45 days ≥35 °C during 2019, compared to an average of 18 days per year that reached at least 35°C between 1991 and 2020. In 2019, the City of Darwin declared a climate emergency, recognising the escalation of climate impacts in the city. The Darwin Living Lab is responding to this sense of urgency.

The Darwin Living Lab was established in 2019 to help Darwin develop into a thriving cool capital of northern Australia. A 10-year collaboration between CSIRO, the Australian and territory governments, and the City of Darwin, the lab is testing and evaluating urban innovation ideas from the territory and around the world in ‘real world’ experiments to improve the city’s livability, sustainability and resilience.

By taking a collaborative approach with local, interstate and overseas practitioners, planners, developers, governments and scientists, the first phase of the Living Lab has 3 focus areas:

•       Smart City Initiatives, which use data and digital innovation to stimulate innovation and learning by bringing together leading experts to exchange ideas for a more connected and livable Darwin

•       Heat Mitigation Initiatives, which support urban cooling trials that enable a cooler and greener, climate-adapted city. This includes monitoring and benchmarking outcomes to provide an accessible resource for Darwin on ways to cool streetscapes, adopt climate-sensitive approaches to building design, and use living infrastructure strategies appropriate to the dry tropical climate

•       Energy-Efficient Home Design, which looks at trialling new approaches to deliver cooler and more energy-efficient buildings in the tropical north.

CSIRO is developing a monitoring and evaluation approach to track the changes made through the Living Lab while translating the knowledge and experience gained into products and services for other tropical cities in Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region.

The Darwin Living Lab is complemented by other CSIRO urban living labs across Australia, including Western Sydney and a proposed third lab in Canberra. These place-based collaborations address sustainability and resilience issues, and test ideas in different climates and urban contexts.

Figure 35 The Darwin Living Lab

Buildings and infrastructure efficiency

A key factor in achieving greater urban resilience, sustainability and a circular economy relates to the design of our buildings and urban infrastructure, and the materials we use to construct them.

Australia’s built environment is a major energy consumer, accounting for more than 50% of Australia’s electricity demand and 23% of our national greenhouse gas emissions (PCA & GBCA 2021). However, there is significant potential for our buildings to be more efficient. To achieve this, existing policies and programs must evolve and expand to ensure a more consistent approach across all building types. Australian Government leadership will also be critical to driving sustainability gains.

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) recognises the significant opportunity for building design, materials and development to make pragmatic and cost-effective reductions in emissions (PCA & GBCA 2021). Data presented by ASBEC from the Office of the Chief Economist at the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Australian Government’s role in the development of cities showed that:


Energy efficiency measures targeting residential buildings implemented between 2005 and 2015 had already driven a 15% reduction in energy usage, compared to projected energy usage. It also noted that improvements had been driven, in large part, by increases to the National Construction Code’s minimum energy performance standards. (Parliament of Australia 2018a)

Role of standards and policies

Despite the potential for significant improvements, many contend that current building efficiency and sustainability guidelines do not provide enough support for the scale of change required across Australia. The Green Star System, developed by the Green Building Council of Australia, and the National Australian Built Environment Rating System are not statutory requirements. They are therefore not consistently applied across or within jurisdictions for new buildings, resulting in significant missed opportunities for more efficiency and sustainability. Their application also raises concerns about the cost implications of applying these standards, with Green Star ratings, for example, often relating to higher-end, larger or premium developments (Parliament of Australia 2018a).

The National Construction Code (NCC), managed by the Australian Building and Construction Board (a Council of Australian Government standards body) also has challenges. The code focuses on building safety, yet includes energy-efficiency standards for residential properties. These standards can be lower than those required by the state and territory governments that administer the code. Therefore, states such as New South Wales supplement the NCC with their own regulations such as the Building Sustainability Index.

Submissions to the 2018 Parliamentary Inquiry into the role of the Australian Government in the development of cities from the ASBEC and the Green Building Council of Australia argued that the residential building performance standards required by the NCC are outdated and fall short of best practice. There is little market incentive for developers or investors in residential properties to go beyond the performance standards required by the NCC (Parliament of Australia 2021). The NCC requirements have been tightened since the Parliamentary Inquiry, but the impact of this is still to be seen.

CSIRO shared research with the Parliamentary Inquiry (2018) indicating that, like developers, investors have little incentive to improve the sustainability of their residential assets. As a result, low-income renters were often left vulnerable to accommodation that is poorly adapted for climate. The Property Council of Australia also urged the Australian Government to develop ‘a nationally consistent approach to residential rating’ (SCITC 2018), pointing out that individual jurisdictions are implementing a patchwork of different rating schemes in the absence of a national approach.

Improvement of existing buildings has also been slow because of various barriers, including awareness and financial disincentives. Accordingly, energy intensity has only improved 2% across the commercial sector and 5% in the residential sector from 2005 to 2015 (ASBEC 2016).

ASBEC identified that broader improvements outside the market leaders in Australia have and should continue to be driven by government programs and regulations, including improved minimum energy performance standards for buildings and appliances.

The Parliamentary Inquiry concluded that, although substantial sustainability gains had already been made, particularly among top-tier commercial office buildings, more could be done to facilitate ongoing improvement to the environmental sustainability of Australia’s buildings. Opportunities included:

  • the expansion of successful programs such as the Commercial Building Disclosure Program to smaller commercial office buildings
  • market incentives for sustainability measures beyond the standards of the NCC through the introduction of a building rating and disclosure scheme, like the Commercial Building Disclosure Program.

To achieve better environmental outcomes, the committee identified the need for 3 strategies:

  • strengthening the NCC minimum standards for environmental sustainability
  • establishing a national plan towards zero-carbon buildings by 2050
  • extending mandatory disclosure schemes for buildings’ sustainability ratings and rating schemes in general.

Potential improvements

The technology already exists today to achieve zero-carbon buildings. Distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) systems can eliminate remaining emissions, resulting in zero-carbon buildings by 2050. Furthermore, better use of building data and autonomous controls can significantly improve building efficiencies to reduce operational emissions (i.e. energy used to heat, cool and light buildings).

Several organisations are now preparing roadmaps towards net zero construction. One example is the Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment that challenges business, organisations, cities, states and regions to reach net zero carbon in operation for all assets under their direct control by 2030, and to advocate for all buildings to be net zero carbon in operation by 2050 (WGBC 2021). Signed by 28 city governments worldwide, including the City of Sydney, the collaboration includes the Green Building Council of Australia, the World Green Building Council and C40 Cities.

Emissions from buildings can also be reduced by using existing technology and smart design to suit the climatic region (DISER 2021b). The ‘passive design’ approach has the potential to not only reduce household costs but improve the quality of living, making homes and work environments more comfortable and quieter with better indoor air quality. These features also boost resilience to the adverse effects of extreme weather. ‘Parramatta City Council is mandating minimums of 5 or 6 Green Star Ratings as part of the design specifications for its urban renewal projects. Similarly, the Queensland State Government has set Green Star Rating targets to improve the sustainability of its building portfolio’ (Parliament of Australia 2018a).

Major infrastructure also has a critical role to play given the significant materials they use, including steel and concrete manufacturing, which make up more than 14% of global emissions. Projects such as the $16-billion Sydney Metro City & Southwest Project are implementing measures to achieve at least a 20% reduction in carbon emissions associated with construction when compared to business as usual (Sydney Metro 2019), driving major signals to market through their procurement.

Increasingly, the urban environment is turning towards buildings and infrastructure being producers of energy (e.g. solar panels) and food (e.g. vertical farms or roof gardens) rather than consumers. Building materials are being redesigned to reduce the energy required to produce them and the level of waste they generate through the construction or demolition process (see Waste and pollution). New materials can also make the built environment more eco-friendly. New plastics can replace current building materials (CSIRO 2019b), and modular buildings can be designed that can be adapted over time to improve their use and sustainability.

Case Study Indigenous roof gardens

In some cases, urban gardens are providing both food production and connection to culture.

Waraburra Nura rooftop garden, University of Technology Sydney

Source: Aryton (2020)

The Waraburra Nura (Happy Wanderer’s Place) Indigenous rooftop garden at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) provides valuable localised Indigenous cultural curriculum. Waraburra Nura features many indigenous plants and showcases Indigenous knowledge associated with these plants, including:

  • understandings of relationships between plants through combination planting and how these relationships inform their efficacy as medicine and for nutrition
  • information related to Indigenous cultural practice and agriculture, showcasing their uses for technologies, nutrition and medicines.

Providing a biodiverse haven for insects and birds and a calming and relaxing environment for students and staff in a heavily built-up environment, this garden is complemented by extensive educational offerings specifically aimed at growing students and staff understandings of Indigenous people, culture and knowledge. The garden has been used to connect to Country on campus, and features in the curriculums of UTS subjects in art, Indigenous studies, medicine, education, science, Indigenous political history, design studies, the Graduate School of Health and more.

Yerrabingin rooftop garden, Redfern, Sydney

Sources: Yerrabingin (2021), van Egmond (2020) and Green Magazine (2021)

Yerrabingin (‘we walk together’) is an Indigenous-led group delivering cultural landscapes within urban areas, undertaking projects aimed at delivering environmentally conscious native landscapes based on Indigenous knowledge and design principles.

Yerrabingin provides employment opportunities for many Indigenous Australians. It also creates intercultural opportunities for the broader public. Although they have delivered many projects, perhaps their most famous is the urban rooftop farm located in South Everleigh, Sydney, also named ‘Yerrabingin’.

This farm, set on top of an office building, covers around 500 square metres and is home to more than 2,000 edible, medicinal and culturally significant indigenous plants being farmed and shared through commercial relationships. The farm also incorporates educational offerings that centre on Indigenous knowledge of plants. The social and cultural outcomes of Yerrabingin projects are positive, and the biodiversity benefits of converting roof space in a heavily built-up industrial area are significant.

Bringing nature and green back

With growing recognition of the health and wellbeing benefits of being close to green spaces and biodiversity (see Liveability), many communities are turning to new approaches to bring nature back into our urban environments. Green and blue spaces are now recognised as critical urban infrastructure, with urban planners and governments increasing the extent and network of such spaces.

These approaches range from urban forest strategies and the mapping of the green and blue grids across urban environments, to the design of new infrastructure such as roads, bridges, drains, seawalls and piers to support ecology. Many approaches also recognise the importance and opportunity of involving Indigenous people in efforts to bring nature back: ‘Bringing nature back into cities has the potential to become an environmentally just and culturally inclusive dimension of the 21st urban sustainability agenda upon which future generations of city-dwellers rely’ (Mata et al. 2020).

By mapping existing green and blue networks, local and state governments can better plan for and connect small fragmented ecological areas (including wetlands) to allow for the better movement of animals, and their feeding and breeding needs.

Given the pressure on land availability in urban areas, there is also a growing recognition of the need to cohabitate our urban green spaces for mutual benefit. By considering ecology in the design phase of infrastructure and buildings (known as ‘biodiversity-sensitive urban design’), the urban environment can make a more positive contribution to biodiversity conservation. Rather than restricting it to fragmented remnant habitats, biodiversity can be incorporated into the built form by applying a range of approaches such as:

  • bird-friendly windows
  • roof-cavity roosting spaces
  • nesting bricks
  • wall crevices
  • porous pavement
  • bioswales
  • rain gardens
  • green streets, roofs, walls and parking lots.

Garrard et al. (2017) proposed a framework that moves away from the concept of ‘offsetting’ to one that values the place-based value of nature. The 5 principles of this framework are:

  • maintain and introduce habitat – plan and build new developments in areas of low ecological value so they maintain and introduce habitat rather than destroy it
  • facilitate dispersal – connect habitats via private and public land or green lanes; reduce weeds and exotic predators via landscaping with indigenous plants, and establish pet containment programs
  • minimise threats and anthropogenic disturbances – reduce run-off and nutrient loads by using vegetated swales and rain gardens, which also deliver biodiversity benefits; minimise noise and light pollution with sound barriers; implement temporary road closures; and dim or reconfigure streetlights
  • facilitate natural ecological processes by reducing disturbances such as fire and flooding
  • improve potential for positive human–nature interactions through better-quality urban design and community stewardship, and addressing conflicts between biodiversity and safety objectives.

Increasingly, communities are playing a key role in managing the green and blue networks in their urban environments by working collaboratively to reintroduce native species and plants. Communities are restoring bushlands and changing gardening practices to encourage wildlife back into backyards, on verges and in remnant areas. Simple acts such as the introduction of subtropical rainforest plants into suburban backyards has, for example, significantly increased the number of brush turkeys in the Greater Brisbane region since the 1970s (Jones et al. 2004).

Policies such as the Action plan for listed migratory species (Australian Capital Territory) also play an important role by managing the impacts of residential development on wetland sites. As part of the plan, noise and lighting impacts from residential or recreational development must be considered in development plans near wetland sites.

Applying Indigenous knowledge brings plant and other species back into the urban environment and improves the sustainability of our urban areas. It also recognises Indigenous cultures and their connection to Australia’s natural and urban environments. A key starting point is applying Indigenous knowledge of the climate to better understand the characteristics of a particular urban area (see case study: Understanding climate) to enable better built environment design, plant selection and management measures to improve livability outcomes.

Research projects such as the Which Plant Where program have been exploring where current species may or may not thrive under the more extreme climates that Australian cities face. The project is an example of effective collaboration and joint funding between research, government and industry organisations to better manage our environment. Other programs such as Gardens for Wildlife are encouraging residential gardeners to use indigenous plant species known to attract insects to increase biodiversity (Mata et al. 2021). Indigenous-owned and operated nurseries, such as IndigiGrow in La Perouse, New South Wales (IndigiGrow 2021), and the Dalki Garringa Native Nursery (Barengi Gadjin Land Council 2021, Dalki Garringa Native Nursery 2021) are using traditional knowledge to support environmental projects and caring for Country initiatives, as well as better understanding of native plants and their role in the environment.

Case Study Urban forest strategies

Source: GA NSW (2020b)

Over the past 10 years, there has been growing recognition of the importance of urban forest strategies to both improve livability and better manage urban environments. Local and state governments are increasingly preparing policies and standards to address this through metropolitan and local government strategies or programs for planting trees, and creating open spaces, green corridors and networks, and green walls and roofs.

A recent survey by the Horton Innovation found that 88% of 131 councils surveyed across Australia had an urban forest strategy or were developing one, 61% had an endorsed tree canopy target on public land and 26% had a target relating to private land (Hurley et al. 2020).

There is also extensive activity at the Australian Government, and state and territory levels, including:

  • The Australian Government’s $37 million investment to plant 20 million trees by 2020.
  • One of the Australian Capital Territory Government’s key goals is to develop an urban footprint that secures a 30% tree canopy cover and 30% permeable surfaces as part of its Living Infrastructure Plan. The plan sets the direction for maintaining and enhancing trees, soils and waterways to keep Canberra cool, healthy and livable in a changing climate. This direction is supported by changes in the Tree Protection Act 2005 (ACT) to protect the mature trees while making room for new ones.
  • In Victoria, the Nature in the City Strategy (2017) and Greening the West program aim to increase green space by 20–25% by 2030 and double the urban tree canopy by 2050. The Victorian Government has prepared a draft Open Space Strategy for Metropolitan Melbourne in response to action 93 of the 5-year implementation plan for Plan Melbourne 2015–2017, which seeks a whole-of-government approach to cooling and greening Melbourne and supports local urban forest strategies. The Victorian Planning Authority’s Precinct Plan Guidelines also set a 30% tree canopy target in growth areas.
  • In New South Wales, the Greater Sydney Region Plan sets an overall target to increase tree canopy from 23% to 40%. This is supported by the premier’s priority to plant 5 million trees across Greater Sydney and the appointment of the first Minister for Planning and Public Spaces. Further details on the green and blue network along more refined targets by place and development type are provided in the Greener Places Design Guide (i.e. 15% for central business district areas, 25% in medium- and high-density and light commercial areas, 40% in suburban areas).
  • In Western Australia, the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage, in partnership with the Western Australian Local Government Association, has developed a comprehensive guide to assist local governments manage their urban forests and enhance urban tree canopy. The department has also prepared a comprehensive online mapping tool in collaboration with CSIRO, which can track tree canopy cover and growth over time.

Table 22 Australian and international tree canopy targets


Existing tree canopy cover (year)

Urban tree canopy target

Target date


22% (2017)




27.8% (2017)

>30%: 20% increase; <30%: no net loss



19% (2016)



Toronto, Canada

27% (2008)



Washington, DC, USA

35% (2009)



Detroit, USA

22% (2008)



New York, USA

24% (2006)



London, UK

20% (2008)



n/a = not available; UK = United Kingdom; USA = United States of America

  1. City refers to local government area.

Source: GA NSW (2020b)