Management of specific pressures

As our urban areas expand and increase in complexity, there is a growing need to break the nexus between growth and negative impacts. This is a significant ambition, but our governments and citizens are working to reduce their environmental impact through more strategic and forward planning, increased efficiencies, new technologies and changes in lifestyle to reduce consumption.

Travel management

The need to travel across and between our urban areas has a direct and adverse impact on the natural environment because we build roads and generate pollution. It also has significant impacts on our health and wellbeing by reducing the livability of our urban areas. To manage and reduce these impacts, city and transport planners are not only reshaping how we get around our urban areas, but the extent to which we need to travel.

Two key policy approaches are being applied:

  • The first approach seeks to reduce the need to travel by creating more complete local neighbourhoods and centres of activity near where people live. Australian cities are managing this through various strategies such as the 20-minute neighbourhood (Plan Melbourne 2017–2050) or the 30-minute city (Greater Sydney Commission 2018) and the ACT Transport Strategy 2020. These plans would allow people to live within 20 or 30 minutes of the jobs, services and educational opportunities they need by bringing a mix of services and opportunities closer to suburban areas (Reid 2020).
  • The second approach seeks to encourage and enable people to live closer to existing services and infrastructure. This increases brownfield or infill development through greater urban densities, thereby reducing urban sprawl and the associated implications for the natural environment surrounding our urban areas. This approach is often referred to in town planning terms as the creation of polycentric urban environments – that is, urban areas with multiple centres of activity that bring services closer to where people live.

The success of policies such as Melbourne 2030, developed and released in 2002 (Victorian Department of Infrastructure 2002) and the subsequent Inner Melbourne Action Plan – adopted in 2005 (IMAP Councils 2005) – are now recognised as having transformed Melbourne by increasing the success of existing activity centres, creating more centres, and enabling higher urban density. Similarly, Fortitude Valley in Brisbane was identified for urban renewal by the Brisbane City Plan 2014 (Brisbane City Council 2014, Brisbane City Council 2021b), transforming it from a primarily commercial district to a mixed-use area, resulting in a 54% increase in population density between 2014 and 2019.

To support these approaches, Australian urban planners are investing in the design and delivery of record levels of city-shaping public transport (see Infrastructure resilience). New public transport is being planned to better connect existing centres of activity to improve access to jobs (see City deals).

Greenfield and fringe areas often have the lowest levels of livability because of their poor level of accessibility to services and open spaces, particularly by more active forms of transport such as walking and cycling. Despite urban policies such as the 20-minute neighbourhood and 30-minute city, a 2015 study by Deloitte predicated that the 200,000 people that had to leave Western Sydney daily for work each day would increase to 340,000 by 2041 (Deloitte 2015). Furthermore, the Grattan Institute found that outer suburbs of Greater Sydney had poor access to the most attractive jobs and needed to travel well over the 30-minute target now established for Greater Sydney (Figure 36).

As Australia shifts into recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be important to support the retention of working from home to reduce the load on our transport systems (see COVID-19 pandemic). But it will also be important to ensure that it does not exacerbate the social divide. Given that not all jobs are available locally, particularly in urban fringe locations and regional areas, many citizens will need to continue to travel. Investment in digital as well as transport infrastructure will be key components of a more equitable response.

Figure 36 Percentage of jobs that can be reached in 45 minutes by car in Sydney, 2011

Waste management

Population and economic growth have translated into more waste. When the value we put on our time grows faster than the price of material goods, waste production increases further (Pickin et al. 2020). New management approaches are now seeking to break this link and turn the waste we generate into a resource that is not an inconvenience, but rather a valuable part of our economy. Ultimately, the aim will be to create a fully circular economy (see The circular economy).

Research shows that, by improving Australia’s recycling rate by 5%, an additional estimated $1 billion could be added to Australia’s gross domestic product (GDP) (Schandl et al. 2021). Analysis by CSIRO found that, in 2016, only 2% of lithium batteries were collected in Australia with the remainder sent to landfill. This lack of collection and processing infrastructure equates to an estimated lost economic opportunity of up to $2.5 billion by 2036 (King & Boxall 2019).

Australia has committed to reducing waste generation by 10% per person by 2030. There has also been a move towards the concept of a waste hierarchy that ranks options for management based on environmental impacts (Figure 37). The most important of these options is avoidance – that is, not producing waste in the first place, followed by reduction and re-use. The National waste report 2020 identifies methods to support these changes including better product design, repair, sharing and thoughtful consumption.

Advancements in technology will help us change the types and quantity of waste we generate. Recent shifts from paper to digital communications is one significant example. Other examples include changes in packaging so that it is stronger yet lighter, reducing the weight of our recycling bin contents.

Technology and financial incentives are driving changes in industry, leading to less waste in machinery and system upgrades, just-in-time purchasing, smart packaging systems, light-weighting, and inventory controls (Pickin et al. 2020). A ‘smart city’ approach is also growing, including the use of ‘smart bins’ that tell operators when they are full, and robotic and optical sorting equipment that improve material recovery facilities (see Smart cities).

Figure 37 Waste hierarchy

Government policies

State and territory governments have the main responsibility for managing waste through legislation, policy, regulation, strategy and planning, as well as permitting and licensing waste transport, storage, treatment and disposal operations. One of the challenges facing the sector has been the diversity and inconsistency of approaches across jurisdictions (DAWE 2013). This challenge, combined with the lack of a requirement for the re-use and recyclability of materials, has limited economies of scale and the identification of new markets for recyclable material.

To help manage these challenges, the Australian, state and territory governments, together with the Australian Local Government Association, updated the National Waste Policy in 2018. The policy has a strong ambition to move towards a circular economy. The subsequent National waste policy action plan 2019 established targets and actions to implement the policy, and noted that the National Waste Report would provide both baseline and ongoing performance data for the 7 national targets (Tomaras 2020):

  • ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres, commencing in the second half of 2020
  • reduce total waste generated in Australia by 10% per person by 2030
  • achieve an 80% average resource recovery rate from all waste streams, and in agreement with the waste hierarchy, by 2030
  • significantly increase the use of recycled content by governments and industry
  • phase-out problematic and unnecessary plastics by 2025
  • halve the amount of organic waste sent to landfill by 2030
  • make comprehensive, economy-wide and timely data publicly available to support better consumer, investment and policy decisions.

The 2019 action plan’s targets are supported by recent Australian Government announcements of financial support under the Recycling Modernisation Fund, to be applied in conjunction with state and territory funding programs. Another key initiative is the development of national standards and common definitions for waste and resource recovery data and reporting. Importantly, the Australian Government is leading this initiative, with collaboration from all state and territory authorities.

Other initiatives include the legislation of:

  • the 2025 National Packaging Targets
  • mandatory procurement targets
  • mandatory recycling labelling
  • a new Centre of Excellence to mentor and drive best-practice product stewardship schemes
  • the Australian Recycling Investment Fund, provided through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Private sector and community action

The National waste report 2020 provides examples of where changes are occurring in the private sector, including community-led repair initiatives across Australia such as:

  • Repair Cafes and Men’s Shed workshops
  • selling second-hand goods through community shops
  • collecting and redistributing excess food goods
  • new sharing platforms.

Construction sites are increasingly re-using excavated soils and rethinking building design so buildings can be purposefully deconstructed to maximise re-use and recycling (Pickin et al. 2020).

Private sector interest is also growing in taking the methane-rich gas generated in landfills and turning it into energy that is sold to the grid (Pickin et al. 2020). This market will be explored through facilities under construction in Western Australia, with others planned in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia. However, the National waste report 2020 identified that the development of these facilities is subject to the successful resolution of several factors with notable lead times, including establishing long-term supply contracts, accessing large capital investments and commissioning new technology in Australia.

Water management

For many, safe, reliable and affordable water is largely taken as granted (Infrastructure Australia 2019). However, it is projected that, by 2050, 25% of the world’s population will suffer severe water shortages (UNDP 2015) and Australia will not be an exception. If we do not think about water management now, our urban areas will be left unprepared for another major drought, the cost of delivery will increase and urban livability will fall.

To meet the challenges of water security in a changing climate, there is a need to move to more sustainable and integrated water management practices. This means a move from a ‘capture, use and dispose’ approach to one where we use, recycle and re-use water resources (Infrastructure Australia 2019). This approach is starting to be applied in some areas in Australia (see case study: Integrated water management). However, to be truly effective, we require a nationwide and fundamental shift in how we think about and value water, how we govern our water systems (from catchment to retail) and how we consume water.

In this regard, Infrastructure Australia cautions against investment decisions being made in times of crisis, using the $10 billion investment in desalination plants made during the millennium drought as an example. While these plants provide an effective form of insurance against drought, the Productivity Commission’s analysis found that most of the investment in desalination capacity was potentially unnecessary or ill-timed as the plants have largely remained unused (the exception being Perth). The Perth desalination plant supplies around 48% of the city’s water supply needs. Victoria’s desalination plant has provided 76 gigalitres (GL) of potable water over the past 3 years, and the Victorian Government has ordered a further 125 GL for 2019–20 in response to dropping water storages. The Sydney desalination plant also entered ‘restart mode’ in January 2019 and provided the first delivery of desalinated water in March 2019, as Sydney’s combined dam levels dropped below the 60% trigger.

We also need to learn how to manage water in the landscape better, thereby avoiding the substantial energy cost of transporting it. This requires the adoption of water-sensitive urban design principles and approaches including mimicking natural hydrological processes in the catchment. This approach can protect people and property from flooding and inundation while preventing and reducing water pollution downstream. For example, for the Western Australian Drainage for Liveability Program, the Water Corporation WA and Department of Water and Environmental Regulation worked with interested community groups, local authorities and industry to rehabilitate stormwater drains into ‘living streams’. This increased community access to green open spaces and improved water quality, biodiversity and drainage.

A better understanding of the climate and water in the landscape is achieved by using Indigenous knowledge together with improved monitoring, testing and reporting across all urban environments, and will help manage pressures. One model is the establishment of partnerships between environmental water managers and Indigenous communities. For example, the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017 (Vic) identifies the river and its corridor as a single living and integrated natural entity for protection. It also prescribes the Yarra Strategic Plan to give effect to Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples place-based management (DELWP 2020) (see case study: How empowering Indigenous values in urban areas promotes better outcomes for people and country).

Case Study How empowering Indigenous values in urban areas promotes better outcomes for people and country

‘Gambu gulinj Narrm, Wurundjeri Gulinj nuringianith biik baambuth: The First People of Melbourne, the Wurundjeri people, have been caring for Country since the beginning of time’ (Melbourne Water & Victorian Government 2018).

The Birrarung (re-named by the colonialists as ‘the Yarra’) has always been central to the cultural, spiritual and ceremonial lives of the Traditional Owners of Melbourne. Today it provides 70% of Melbourne’s drinking water, and 2,450 hectares of urban parklands and green space surround the Birrarung – it is the lifeblood of Greater Melbourne (Melbourne Water & Victorian Government 2018).

In 2017, the Victorian Parliament passed the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017, the first legislation in Australia specifically designed to recognise the Birrarung (Yarra River) as a single, living and integrated natural entity for protection purposes. Recognising the Birrarung as one living entity, despite its traversal across many boundaries and disparate mechanisms of management, reflects the holistic management practices of Traditional Owners. Further, naming the act in the Woi Wurrung language of the Wurundjeri people was aimed at foregrounding Indigenous custodianship of the river.

The conceptualisation of Traditional Owners not just as stakeholders, but also as rightsholders, is also effected through the establishment of the Birrarung Council, a new statutory body comprised of Traditional Owners and others designed to ‘give voice’ to the Birrarung, a living entity. The bill specifically enables Indigenous governance through the establishment of the Birrarung Council while making specific reference to Aboriginal cultural values, heritage and knowledge of the Birrarung being recognised, reflected, protected and promoted – it is titled the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017, (Parliament of Victoria 2017, DELWP 2020).

The foreword from the Wurundjeri people in the Yarra River 50-year Community Vision reflects the care and custodial responsibilities to the Birrarung their people have held and enacted over many millennia. It also exemplifies the need to empower Traditional Owner groups and their custodial responsibilities as an effective means to empower Country:

The Wurundjeri believe that we need to change how all Victorians think about and actively respect the Birrarung. We believe we need to see not a resource to be exploited but rather to recognise the complex, living system that is sensitive to its surrounds and a uniquely Victorian treasure. By engaging with those partners with whom we now share the river we, together, are capable of turning around the damage of the past and acting to restore the river and its environment for the future use and enjoyment of all. Wurundjeri invites all people to see the Birrarung through our eyes, to talk with us to understand our values, and to partner with us to re-energise the river as we fulfil our cultural duty in bringing the Birrarung back to environmental, cultural, ceremonial and spiritual health. (Melbourne Water & Victorian Government 2018)

Reducing demand

Reduced demand through lifestyle choices and more efficient household and industry infrastructure can take immediate and significant load off urban systems. These demand-led approaches have been successful in Melbourne, Perth, Sydney and many regional areas. They have included formal water restrictions as well as support for water-smart household and commercial equipment (e.g. shower heads, hoses and washing machines). A systems-based approach also allows for using grey water and stormwater sources in gardens, toilets and other activities, further reducing demand.

Recycling water

Even with reduced per-person consumption, population growth in many urban areas will necessitate additional water sources or re-use through a variety of means including direct potable re-use, decentralised recycled water schemes and desalination.

Direct potable approaches inject recycled water directly into the supply distribution system, either downstream of the water treatment plant, or into the raw water supply immediately upstream of the water treatment plant. A key challenge with this relates to the stigma of drinking recycled water and citizen perceptions that this approach could lead to poor health outcomes.

Decentralised recycled water schemes can be more politically palatable because of their smaller scale, but they can result in a higher capital cost from duplicative distribution and reticulation networks. While desalinated water has gained political acceptance, these facilities are not viable for smaller urban areas and those located away from the coast. Furthermore, direct potable re-use is cheaper to produce than desalination (the difference in costs stems from the higher energy costs to treat sea water) and a more flexible part of water networks than decentralised schemes (Infrastructure Australia 2019).

The viability of each of these options will benefit from advances in technology but will also depend on changes in state laws, regulations and, critically, community perceptions. To achieve a more integrated approach to our water, wastewater and stormwater systems, we also need governance that better facilitates a more holistic approach to whole-of-system management.

A model is needed that also works for regional and remote urban environments. This will necessitate lower-cost solutions such as adaptive pricing, more customer-responsive water meters to provide accurate data for users, and new approaches to governance and service delivery. Ageing assets will also need to be managed through technology such as sensors that cost-effectively identify the works needed to make the system more adaptable to future trends and shocks.

There is also growing recognition of the value of irrigation to keep our open spaces green to help reduce heat and promote recreational activity. While this increases demand for water, it can be an effective use of recycled water and stormwater run-off. Advancements in stormwater harvesting technologies allow for greater use of stormwater for nonpotable applications in urban areas, such as water for sporting fields, gardens and plant nurseries.

Case Study Integrated water cycle management

Source: Infrastructure Australia (2019)

Across Australia, urban areas are piloting and managing a range of integrated water cycle management approaches to produce potable water and provide an alternative source of water to preserve higher-quality water for households.

Such schemes can also recharge groundwater, provide environmental flows and start to manage public perception of recycled water use. Examples include Kwinana, Western Australia, for industrial use; the Virginia Scheme, South Australia, for agriculture; and Gippsland, Victoria, for both the industrial and agricultural sector.

There are also a few dual-reticulation recycled water schemes for residential uses operating across Australia, including:

  • Rouse Hill, New South Wales, which connects a third pipe to allow for grey water to be used for gardens and toilets
  • South East Water, Victoria, which provides recycled water to 11,000 residents and agricultural users
  • Water Corporation, Western Australia, which treats waste water to a drinking standard to supply 2% of Perth’s drinking water at the same time as using recycled water to replenish Perth’s deep aquifers as Australia’s first Groundwater Replenishment Scheme.

Heat management

The significant health, environment and social implications of urban heat (see Urban heat) have led to various measures to proactively reduce and manage the potential for impacts. In many cases, this has required a collaborative approach by governments and communities to address this issue through physical improvements to our urban environment. Approaches include:

  • cool materials – changing what our urban environments are made of can significantly reduce heat absorption. Cool materials are those of high diffuse solar reflectivity and high emissivity value. They can be applied to roofs, pavements and all other horizontal surfaces. A recent study by Sydney Water and the Cooperative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living found the large-scale application of cool materials and water-based technologies could reduce average air temperature in cities by 1.5 °C, with local reductions close to the water reaching 10 °C (WSROC 2018)
  • designing with water – water is one of the most effective ways to cool an urban environment because of the cooling effect of evaporation. Recent research finds that waterways such as fountains, ponds, lakes, wetlands, rivers and reservoirs can create ‘urban cooling islands’, resulting in a notable decrease in urban temperature (WSROC 2018). International research is testing the benefits of more interventionist cooling methods such as evaporative wind towers, sprinklers and water curtains in public places (WSROC 2018)
  • more trees and green cover – increasing tree and vegetation cover provides shade, increases rates of evapotranspiration, and regulates air movement and heat exchange. These factors greatly decrease in ambient temperatures in adjacent urban zones, while helping to mask urban noise, filter urban pollutants, prevent erosion, stabilise soil and improve amenity with associated health benefits for citizens. Government programs across Australia are identifying resilient tree species to provide shade more effectively; implementing new planning standards requiring larger backyards in new residential developments to ensure a tree can be planted and its roots accommodated; and conducting education programs regarding the value of trees, to offset concerns regarding falling tree branches and leaf litter (Figure 38). These measures are being complemented by local councils focusing on tree-planning programs in public open spaces and streets (Phelan et al. 2018).

Figure 38 Educational material supporting tree cover, Melbourne