Data and monitoring

There is growing recognition of the need to collaboratively agree to urban management strategies and policies. We also need to measure and monitor their effectiveness, so we can adjust, refine or change approaches over time to ensure that they are effective.

New technologies are supporting new data capabilities. For example, geographic information systems and 3D modelling are presenting our urban systems more clearly and in real-time, together with scenarios for change and testing including growth scenarios and land-use planning.

However, there are challenges with the consistency and availability of data, because state and territory data systems have evolved largely independently. Issues with information sharing, common data assumptions, agreed population, employment projections and accountability for issues are exacerbated by the number of local (537), state (5) and territory (2) governments across Australia, together with the respective state, territory and federal departments responsible for managing issues within our urban areas. Current approaches result in inconsistent data collection by type, definition and time across states, cities and regions. Similarly, some data are difficult to measure and manage across large areas, as it is collected by individual authorities and not always widely shared (e.g. household water consumption). Another challenge relates to the frequently changing quality of data because of collection difficulties and costs.

This creates management challenges in comparing major urban areas across states and territories. It can also be an issue when comparing major urban areas with smaller ones, as governments and research organisations tend to focus on areas of greatest population and business investment. Failure to effectively secure and integrate data sources across the nation is most likely leading to double counting (e.g. overestimating population growth or employment generation) or, potentially worse, undercounting (e.g. failing to plan for the full scale of immigration).

How and what we measure is critical. The Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019 argues that ‘Australia’s slow progress towards the SDGs (UN Sustainable Development Goals) may be explained by a lack of integration of these types of measures into broader government decision-making processes’ (Infrastructure Australia 2019). It is argued that Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries that have broadened the scope of their decision-making by developing livability and wellbeing frameworks, in addition to more traditional GDP measures and cost–benefit analysis processes (e.g. France, New Zealand, Sweden and the United Kingdom), have achieved SDG scores above the OECD average (Sachs et al. 2018:94–95).

Attempts to address these challenges include the city deals’ approach to measuring outcomes including annual progress reports and 3-year reviews, and the Greater Sydney Commission’s approach to the Pulse of Greater Sydney. The latter approach highlights the systems thinking now being applied to urban areas. In systems thinking, there is no one indicator, but a complex set of interactions within urban areas that influence outcomes.

Case Study Measuring what matters – the pulse of our urban areas

Urban areas are intricate ecosystems that can present challenges in measuring and monitoring their performance. The Greater Sydney Commission has recognised the importance of measuring the impacts of the Greater Sydney Region plan – a metropolis of three cities to allow for benchmarking and continuous improvement.

In developing its approach to the metrics, the Greater Sydney Commission engaged with citizens via panels to determine what was important to them and how to measure and monitor outcomes in the city most effectively. Of greatest importance to citizens were:

  • jobs being closer to where they live
  • more affordable education and more high-quality education opportunities
  • better access to, and reliability of, public transport, including more opportunities to walk and cycle safely across the city
  • more trees and open space for place making and climate resilience to improve quality of life
  • improved housing choice and affordability, to be able to live close to family and friends within local areas
  • feeling safe and socially connected with local access to shared community facilities and events.

On this basis, the Commission found that what mattered to citizens could not be captured in any one metric. Rather, the best approach was a combination of metrics that spoke to livability as distinct to any one aspect of the urban environment. Four metrics were subsequently agreed and used to measure how planning in Greater Sydney was achieving the 10 objectives or directions of the Greater Sydney Commission’s plan:

  • access to jobs and education opportunities and housing diversity
  • the need for a 30-minute city
  • walkability
  • urban heat.

These 4 metrics were subsequently applied to the 10 directions of the Greater Sydney Region Plan in a matrix format to create an integrated and systematic approach to monitoring outcomes. In its second year, the Pulse of Greater Sydney measured the outcomes of the 3 cities model (Greater Sydney Commission 2019).

Figure 39 Greater Sydney Plan performance indicators

Community engagement

To effectively manage the threats and pressures to our urban environments, we must look to the very people that experience them the most – our citizens. Whether they are residents, workers, businesses or interest groups, there is a growing recognition by the community of the need to get involved to address these challenges. This is particularly true of younger generations, as reflected in a 2019 UNICEF Australia report that found Australian children were increasingly aware of the threat of climate change, supporting the greater application of renewable energy sources (UNICEF Australia 2019).

While most governments have an array of statutory consultation requirements and best-practice approaches for engaging the community, the value of more genuine engagement and co-design, as distinct from an advisory role, is being recognised. These approaches can be challenging because of the tension often experienced between the speed of planning and government processes and the ability of citizens to become involved. Indeed, there will continue to be pressure for faster development assessment determinations to support economic outcomes or to react to urgent shocks and risks to the urban environment, but the intent is to act from a more informed basis thanks to prior citizen engagement.

By international standards, Australia ranks well in civic engagement, with the OECD Better Life Index 2017 ranking Australia the leading country out of 36 OECD countries.

Indigenous knowledge

There is growing recognition of the importance of Indigenous knowledge of the environment in helping to address some of the issues of effective planning and management, and to improve the quality and resilience of our environment. However, Indigenous knowledge should not be viewed in an extractive framework – for example, what it can ‘give’ or what can be ‘taken’ – and used to augment western systems. It must been seen as imperative to the empowerment of Indigenous peoples and to their right to self-determination (Cumpston 2020c).

The empowerment of Indigenous people and Indigenous knowledge is important for rural and regional areas, and our cities. Research on urban areas and their ecology has traditionally relied on non-Indigenous rather than Indigenous knowledge (Pauli et al. 2020). But, before European arrival in Australia, these important ecological systems were managed by Indigenous knowledge systems that carefully balanced and cared for these spaces (Porter & Arabena 2018).

A survey of all councils in Australia for this report asked whether Indigenous advisers were engaged in council policy and strategy development. Of those that responded to the question, 60% answered yes, 30% answered no and 11% did not know. Of those that answered yes, various methods were identified to receive this advice, including regular meetings with Indigenous consultants and the establishment of specific committees or First Nations people advisory groups. Many councils engaged Indigenous consultants for specific projects, and some had a dedicated Indigenous officer to advise on Indigenous matters and engage with community groups.

Respondents advised that Indigenous advice was used to inform many council policies, strategies and development activities near important identified Indigenous sites. It included running community education programs and recording oral history, identifying sensitive sites in geographic information systems, improving protection of heritage and preparing reconciliation action plans. Indigenous knowledge was used to inform signage on nature trails, place names, coastal management measures, land-use strategies and traditional firestick approaches to managing bushland areas and bushfire hazard reduction.

Although councils are venturing more often into working with Indigenous communities, there are few monitoring, evaluation or reporting activities that have been put in place to quantify or articulate the impacts that these activities are having on improving outcomes for Indigenous populations or the wider population.

Examples of council engagement with Indigenous peoples include:

  • Port Hedland Council, where 16% of the population are Indigenous, have prepared a reconciliation action plan that includes targets for consultation, communication, cultural awareness, identification of cultural sites, employment, economic development and enhancing inclusion. The town regularly consults with the local Kariyarra, Ngarla and Nyamal people, and has recently appointed an Indigenous community engagement officer to facilitate partnerships. For example, the Port Hedland Spoilbank Marina development had a community reference group, which included representatives from the Kariyarra Traditional Owners, and traditional artwork, spaces and lookouts were included in the design. Port Hedland Council is currently establishing a Public Art Advisory Panel with Indigenous representation and a memorandum of understanding with Hedland Aboriginal Strong Leaders.
  • Lake Macquarie City Council employs a full-time Aboriginal Community Development Officer (ACDO) to consult and communicate with local communities and organisations. The ACDO also delivers programs in accordance with the council’s Aboriginal community plan 2019–2023 Bayikulinan (to act in the future). The council regularly undertakes cultural awareness training for internal and external people. It provides up to $15,000 in National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) grant funding with the Aboriginal Grants Committee. The ACDO sits on the committees for the 2 major NAIDOC Week events, and hosts an annual flag-raising ceremony and morning tea at council for staff and community. Lake Macquarie City Council also engages the Miromaa Language & Technology Centre to translate English to the Awabakal language (e.g. the welcome plaques across council facilities, and each library is named in 2 languages).

Naming is one aspect of the urban environment that has recently been a focus, with an increased interest in the use of Indigenous languages in naming and dual naming of places (including cities, suburbs, landforms, streets, or even street art and monuments). One of the social injustices that stems from the historical legacy of colonisation is the racist and offensive naming of geographical locations. This is a longstanding issue that Indigenous people have highlighted, along with the need to articulate the ongoing cultural links between Country, culture and language in an urban environment. Recently, this has led to much public discussion about the significance of place names and the need for acknowledgement or change (see the Dhawura Ngilan: a vision for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage in Australia section in the Heritage chapter).

There is also growing interest in recognising the seasonal knowledge of Traditional Custodians (see the Indigenous chapter). Seasonal knowledge is often interdependent with ecological knowledge, such as certain flowers blooming or animals appearing, to signal transitions between seasons. This is why seasonal knowledge is often incorporated when establishing Indigenous gardens. Schools, early learning centres and councils are increasingly using Indigenous knowledge of ecology and seasons within their landscape designs to promote cross-cultural learning opportunities that are place-specific. An example of one such project that incorporates plants and seasonal knowledge can be seen in Jandakot, Western Australia, on the lands of the Noongar people. Muminbulah Wilak (‘spirit of the land’) Six Seasons Garden showcases plants and seasonal knowledge as well as creation stories and ecological knowledge (Turner et al. 2017, Cumpston 2020d, Welch & Briggs 2020).

Case Study Understanding climate with Indigenous knowledge

Source: Beaupark (2020)

The 4 seasons of summer, winter, autumn and spring are applicable to a European context. But Indigenous knowledge is teaching us that this does not fit the pattern of seasons in Australia. Through discussions with the Darug people of Greater Sydney, researchers from the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes (CAUL) Hub identified a more appropriate pattern of seasons and weather cycles.

This knowledge, initially thought to have been lost after European colonisation, correlates with the changing flora and fauna informing food availability. The CAUL researchers applied this knowledge to decadal-scale records of meteorological records measurements to create a set of 6 quasiseasons for the Western Sydney Region (CAUL Hub 2019).

This approach is the first step in designing an Indigenous seasonal calendar for Greater Sydney. It is also helping to inform broader research concerning air quality fluctuations through the year, and could be used to inform the management of biodiversity, heat and land in urban areas.

Figure 40 IKALC seasons of Western Sydney, based on weather and time of year

Citizen science

Along with citizen engagement in development processes, there is the growing recognition of the value of engaging citizens in urban research and experiments. Commonly referred to as citizen science, this process can benefit both the research community and the citizen. It can effectively increase the reach and effectiveness of the research and the influence of the citizen on their urban area.

Examples of citizen science include community mapping programs such as the Canberra Nature Map. This online spatial resource allows thousands of citizens to upload sightings of plants, animals and fungi, and have them identified. The data are subsequently used in planning and conservation management. Other examples include FrogWatch, which engages urban citizen science groups in monitoring and managing biodiversity across urban reserves (e.g. the Orchid Society of Canberra, the Canberra Ornithologists Group), and TurtleSAT, which is an online resource for citizens to help map freshwater turtles in their local area.

Waterwatch is another successful model powered by citizen scientists to monitor waterways. This collaboration between the ACT Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate and community-based catchment groups prepares a report based on 1,872 water quality surveys, 184 water bug surveys and 219 riverbank vegetation assessments collected by more than 200 volunteers.

New technologies and the future city

Frequently termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the growth of digital technologies is allowing new ways of working using artificial intelligence, machine learning and greater automation. These new technologies, combined with new ways of thinking around a shared economy, will redefine and reshape the livability and state of our urban environments. Importantly, these changes are also occurring quicker than ever before. While the past century has seen notable technological change, what is different today is the rate and significance of change (Figure 41).

CSIRO’s Australian National outlook 2019 identifies the digital economy as still in an ‘installation phase’ – that is, the phase where technologies are just emerging and are localised to certain industries and companies. The CSIRO argues that the benefits of these new technologies and their productivity gains may not become visible until the ‘deployment phase’, where widespread adoption enables their full potential to be realised.

In addition, these changes are often occurring before regulations have been designed or adopted by government, and in some cases even conceived as necessary. For example, the ridesharing company Uber was launched in Australia in 2012, but was not formally recognised as a legitimate service across all jurisdictions until 2017 (Uber 2018:1). It now operates in 29 Australian cities servicing 3.8 million regular riders (Uber 2018:1).

It is argued that many of these changes will be accelerated as a consequence of innovation achieved during and following the economic shocks created by the COVID-19 pandemic (Newman 2020). The case is made that the next wave of innovation will be away from greenhouse gas technologies towards a new zero-carbon economy. This new economy will focus on mainstreaming climate change mitigation measures such as:

  • solar photovoltaics with batteries
  • electromobility
  • smart city technology, especially sensors, apps and information and communications technology focused on localised distribution and efficient demand management.

The next agenda would be towards grid stabilisation, to be achieved through localised, community-scale batteries. At the same time, new industries such as hydrogen, the circular economy and biophilic urbanism are requiring further research and development to fully replace fossil fuels in heavy industry (Newman 2020).

Communication and information

Smart technology is allowing us to engage with urban citizens better and more equitably. The COVID-19 pandemic also accelerated our acceptance and use of online communications. However, these examples also point to growing challenges in the equity of technology access and challenges associated with cyber security (see Population growth forecast).

There are apparent and potentially growing inequities in access to technology between larger and more regional or rural urban environments. This relates to the economies of scale and favourable business cases that can be developed for denser urban areas. This may exacerbate disadvantage in smaller, more-remote urban areas, affecting school children, health facilities and businesses that do not have reliable internet access.

Infrastructure Australia makes the case that although costs to establish new technologies in remote and regional areas can be higher than for cities, the potential benefits can be greater. For example, internet connections allow regional producers to participate in metropolitan and even global markets without intermediaries. Remote diagnostics and telehealth services can save long trips for patients and assist existing services such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service (Infrastructure Australia 2019).

It is estimated that just over 90% of Australians own a smartphone (world average should reach 90% by 2036) (Deloitte 2018). This has supported the growth of the concept of the internet of things (IOT). Defined as the collection of connected devices, particularly sensors, the IOT allows everyday objects to connect through the internet. The IOT could enhance the operations of objects and services, such as predictive and on-demand maintenance of infrastructure assets and networks. Examples include using smartphones to manage on-demand transport services or control energy use.

New technology is creating new industries for Australia that will have a notable influence on what we learn about our environments and how we manage them. Space technology in particular is a growing area that plays a key role in many day-to-day activities, including weather forecasting, emergency management, internet access, online banking GPS. Worth more than US$350 billion today ($1.1 trillion by 2040) (DISER 2019), the space sector is growing rapidly. The Australian Space Agency was established to optimise this potential, coordinating and sustaining the conditions necessary to grow Australia’s space sector.


New technology and fuels for transport such as battery electric vehicles (EVs), hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and biofuels will have a significant impact in terms of emissions reduction, fuel security and air quality benefits. EVs currently make up only 0.75% of new car sales in Australia, less than nearly all comparable countries. However, hybrid vehicle sales almost doubled in the last year, increasing from 31,191 vehicles in 2019 to 60,417 vehicles in 2020 (DISER 2021a), and the Australian Government forecasts that battery EVs will make up 26% of new car sales by 2030 (DISER 2021a). Climate Council modelling found that 75% of new car sales by 2030 needed to be electric for Australia to achieve net zero emissions by 2035.

The urban environment presents some barriers to the growth of these technologies, including the limited public charging network for EVs. In response, the Australian Government plans to coordinate private and public investment to enable the efficient rollout of charging and refuelling infrastructure, as one of its 5 priorities for future fuels (DISER 2021a).

In some cases, technological changes will be rapid and unforeseen, while in others they will be foreshadowed and welcomed. Autonomous vehicles fall into the latter category and are expected to evolve from the self-driving features available today (such as steering, parking and braking) into vehicles requiring no human interaction by 2035 as they independently sense their environment via sensors such as radar, sonar, GPS and odometry. What this means for our urban environments is, however, uncertain.

Encouraged because of their environmental, safety and congestion benefits, there is the potential for autonomous vehicles to reduce the need for as many roads, larger roads and parking spaces. This could have significant benefits in terms of reduced urban footprint (roads and car parking currently account for about 33% of our urban land) and the repurposing of roads and car parks into greenspaces or community facilities. As car parking spaces are also a key determinant of development feasibility, the reduced need for this space (including basement car parking) could also result in reduced building costs. The savings may potentially be passed onto the end user, improving the affordability of new homes and workspaces.

In South Australia, the first laws were passed in 2016 allowing for the on-road trials and testing of driverless vehicles and other advanced automotive technology on South Australian roads (SA DIT 2021). This has facilitated autonomous bus trials in popular areas such as the Glenelg Foreshore (SA DIT 2019).

Production and ownership

New technologies in additive manufacturing and 3D printing are changing how we can competitively produce complex, low-volume and high-margin products. We are also seeing the development of new materials that are lighter, stronger, more conductive or self-healing. These advances can improve construction practices while reducing energy consumption and waste generation.

New horizon technologies such as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, envirotech, medtech, agritech, biotech and renewable energy may address many of the urban challenges we have today, such as food security, waste production and urban heat.

The growing adoption of concepts such as the circular economy, combined with new technologies within our urban areas, are also challenging how we think about ownership and consumption. For example, instead of ownership and overusing resources, consumption will be based on using services, sharing, renting, co-working and recycling. A sharing economy that seeks to optimise resources is foreshadowed.

This is increasingly referred to as ‘prosumption’ – the integration between production and consumption. Examples include short-term accommodation (e.g. Airbnb), ridesharing (e.g. Uber), educational services (e.g. Coursera) and financial services (e.g. Zopa). In the case of ridesharing services, 30% of Australians use these services, and a further 16% are likely to use them in the next 5 years (JWS Research 2018).

Smart cities

Advances in technology will be important to how our cities operate. We are already seeing new cities being planned with smart infrastructure at their core. We will see new technology added to old infrastructure and assets to improve efficiencies and capability. The International Data Corporation forecasted that, in 2019, US$96 billion would be spent on smart city initiatives in public transit, public lighting and traffic management – an 18% increase compared with 2018 (Knight Frank 2020).

A smart city uses ‘… smart computing technologies to make critical infrastructure components and services of a city – which include city administration, education, healthcare, public safety, real estate, transportation and utilities – more intelligent, interconnected, and efficient’ (Washburn et al. 2010:2).

A smart city leverages innovative technologies to ‘enhance (the) quality and performance of urban services, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens’ (Parliament of Australia 2018b). Smart cities deploy ‘smart devices, sensors and software’ to equip existing infrastructure with ‘the equivalent of digital eyes and ears’ enabling ‘more efficient and effective monitoring and control of our energy and water systems, transportation networks, human services, public safety operations – basically all core government functions’ (Parliament of Australia 2018b).

As artificial intelligence is developed and machine learning deployed, new housing developments, precincts and settlements can be designed or redesigned to help achieve zero-carbon outcomes. Sensors applied to water, waste, energy and transport systems can provide real-time data and projections to assist management of demand through greater consumer awareness and behavioural change (Newman 2020).

In Australia, our approach to smart city technology is in its infancy. A key issue with which many urban environments are grappling is the social and organisational aspects of smart cities given the complexity of stakeholders involved, questions around data management and ownership and the increasing risk of cyber attack. All have business, citizen and environmental implications. This is an emerging space, requiring the development of new industry regulations, standards and strategies to catch up with innovations.

Despite these challenges, a survey of all councils within Australia for this report found that 69% of respondents were or were considering the use of smart city technology in their urban areas; the remaining 31% were not. When asked what types of technology they had implemented or were implementing, answers ranged from installing LED streetlights, smart parking services and bins, electric vehicle charging and free wi-fi, to implementing smart devices to monitor irrigation and the impacts of temperature, air pollution sensors, sports fields and the use of nature trails.

One example, referred to as Smart Beaches, sought to address a spate of tragic incidents on New South Wales beaches in early 2019 by using smart devices to collect better information on crowd numbers, activity and localised conditions, eliminating the need for time-consuming manual counting by lifeguards. Another example given by survey respondents was smart benches installed across Yarra City Council (Victoria) to provide free wi-fi and device charging to the most vulnerable in the community to support access to critical information, products and services.

Assessment Management effectiveness for urban environments
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is stable.
Medium confidence
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was stable.
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was stable.

Current approaches to managing our urban environments are partially effective. While we are starting to move towards urban sustainability and resilience, and there are excellent examples of progress, planning and management areis still often fragmented. Lack of national approaches and visions, along with a lack of coordination between different sectors and governance levels, also puts progress at risk. The data needed to support progress are being collected but are not yet being used to effectively drive change.
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 11.a, 11.b, 11.3, and 11.6

Assessment Management approaches
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is stable.
High confidence
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was stable.
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was improving.

Management approaches are assessed as partially effective and stable – despite significant shifts in thinking, new ideas and visions have not yet taken root. The negative impacts of vast and increasing expansion at cities’ fringes on natural and agricultural lands still exist. The lack of a national strategy or centralised national commitment is a major hurdle that has kept the management approach unchanged; a shift towards sustainable ways of thinking around place-based planning has been embraced, but not yet fully implemented.

Assessment Management of specific pressures
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is stable.
Medium confidence

Governments have developed well-thought-out plans that address the different pressures faced by urban and natural environments regarding travel, waste, water and heat. However, these are yet to be effectively implemented. Although moving in the right direction, progress is slow and fragmented.

Assessment Resources: data and monitoring, Indigenous knowledge, new technologies and the future city
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is ineffective, meaning that management measures are failing to stop substantial declines in the state of the environment. The trend is unclear.
High confidence
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was stable.
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that management was partially effective, meaning that management measures had limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation was improving.

Overall, the number and diversity of resources – such as big data, censors and other technologies – for managing the urban environment have been significantly improving. There is also increasing acknowledgement and understanding of Indigenous traditional knowledge. However, these are not yet influencing decision-making.
The trend is quite unclear. Much thinking has been done in this sphere, but it has not resulted in action. There is a lack of consistency, as well as whole-of-government capacity and genuine interest in using data and technology to drive policy.