Outlook and impacts


As our urban environments move into post-pandemic norms, it is expected that population growth rates will return to pre-pandemic levels, as will the associated pressures on our urban environment: consumption, pollution, congestion and waste.

The extent to which positive changes during the pandemic will become embedded in our future lifestyles remains uncertain. How will greater rates of working from home, walking and cycling, e-commerce and digital interactions more permanently change our travel patterns within and between urban areas?

How will our renewed focus on local amenities result in the need to retrofit our neighbourhoods, streets and services for better physical, social and mental health outcomes and create more ‘complete’ neighbourhoods? How will our greater appreciation of access to green spaces and desire for larger homes translate into demand for more suburban, urban fringe and regional development in the longer term? What does this mean for urban planning and infrastructure strategies that have relied on infill development to optimise capacity?

And can we accelerate a move towards new technology and innovations that support a zero-carbon, circular economy on the back of the economic shocks created by the COVID-19 global pandemic?

Amid these questions, there are many things we do know.

We know that the urban environment is an intricate ecosystem of human-created and natural factors that coexist within urban areas. This means that key drivers and changes in one part of the ecosystem (such as population growth or consumption levels) can have a noticeable impact on another (such as air quality or land available for biodiversity).

We know that shocks and stresses to our urban environments are forecast to continue and indeed increase in frequency and severity. Our progressively hotter global climate will continue to increase urban heat, raise sea levels, increase urban flooding and speed up the loss of native biodiversity. These pressures will result directly and indirectly in increased rates of death, morbidity, illness and infrastructure failure. They will have significant cumulative impacts that can be exacerbated when they occur simultaneously or are coupled with existing trends such as population growth and increasing consumption and generation of waste.

Smart technology has allowed 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 improvements in urban technology are also leading to growing challenges in the equity of digital access as well as challenges associated with cyber security.

We know that urban environments have not meaningfully reflected the custodianship and belonging of Indigenous peoples. They have also not often incorporated the perspectives, values and cultural knowledge of Traditional Owner groups into management structure or actions:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are continuing to assert their ongoing presence, connection to and responsibilities for their traditional Country. It is inherent in their culture and an integral part of who they are and their wellbeing for present and future generations. The problem is, these realities have barely penetrated the conventional planning systems in Australia. (Wensing 2018)

But we also know there is hope.

To counter the adverse implications of these trends, urban citizens, planners and governments are responding and recognising that our urban environments must change and adapt. There is growing recognition that we must build greater resilience into our urban environments at the same time as reducing the factors that are driving these shocks and stresses – the generation of greenhouse gases and the unsustainable use of our natural resources. This is also recognition that we must move from siloed, service- and sector-based thinking to more collaborative, whole-of-government and place-based outcomes that do not just sustain but regenerate our urban areas and support their communities.

This refocus is creating opportunities to replan our cities. Opportunities include increasing our access to green spaces, urban ecology, jobs and services through more sustainable methods and concepts such as the 5-minute neighbourhood and the 30-minute global city.

To manage urban heat and increase our safety and wellbeing, we will be looking to re-establish more natural environments within our urban environment, empower Indigenous peoples and their knowledge, create new programs of tree planting, reintroduce biodiversity, renaturalise our waterways and use biomaterials to construct our built environment. This must occur concurrent with our reduction in energy consumption and as we reconnect our green and blue urban infrastructure into a quality network for people and urban biodiversity.

Recognition of the intricate urban system and its inherent relationship with nature and citizen wellbeing are driving a renewed appreciation and recognition of Indigenous knowledge that enables us to better understand the unique features of our environment and sympathetically coexist. There has also been increased public interest in, and awareness of, Indigenous connection to Country and the need to care for Country.

Indigenous knowledge has been embraced in many major cities and larger regional centres. Here, improved appreciation and understanding of the traditional culture of the area, informed by Traditional Owners and custodians or by Indigenous residents, has resulted in design of place, space and built form that is mindful of the needs and ‘voice’ of Country and its custodians. Indeed, there is a burgeoning cultural shift in thinking, demonstrated by inclusive planning legislation, policy development and processes. Similarly, academic institutions have taken on board the demand for Indigenous content within their curriculum for environmental and planning qualifications. However, many attempts to ‘incorporate’ Indigenous knowledge fail to empower Indigenous peoples, communities and aspirations. Our rush to incorporate, ‘celebrate’ and include must not reinscribe harmful extractive modes of engagement that have been highly damaging.

The unveiling of a building in central Melbourne that claimed to celebrate Aboriginal presence but without the meaningful involvement of Indigenous community members is an example of the problem of celebrating Indigenous peoples and culture in a way that provides little benefit to them or their communities:

When the enormous drapes that had been covering a new building in central Melbourne were thrown off in early 2015, an extraordinary sight was revealed: a colossal image of a face staring down the city’s civic spine. This moment of unveiling marked a fascinating moment for Indigenous–settler relations in Australia, but especially urban, densely settled Melbourne. For the face is that of William Barak, ancestor and leader of the Wurundjeri people, whose Country was stolen and remade into what we now know as Melbourne. That an early land rights champion is represented in the built form at such a pivotal location in the city that dispossessed his people offers an opportunity to consider the forms of violence, appropriation and misrepresentation that are perpetually constitutive of settler–colonial cities. (Porter et al. 2019)

The implementation of Indigenous knowledge and values as a means to improve our collective knowledge of and caring for Country responsibilities must happen in tandem with empowering Indigenous peoples and communities to lead (Cumpston 2020b).

Cultural mapping projects are increasingly being used in Australia, and particularly within urban areas, to inform biodiversity actions and land-use planning, and to forefront Indigenous knowledge, ongoing custodianship, and cultural, historical and contact stories. Cultural mapping is far more than just naming sites of cultural significance. It is a means through which Indigenous ways of seeing and doing are empowered to underpin a living record of the landscape alive with law, language, ethics, activity, traditional practices and culture (Jackson et al. 2018). An example of the value and richness of cultural mapping projects can be seen in Gnarla Boodja Mili Mili (Our Country on Paper), created by the WA Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries Aboriginal History team, working together with Noongar-Whadjuk Traditional Custodians. The initiative documents the traditional names of Noongar places throughout the Perth metropolitan area and is designed to assert the continuation of the deep cultural and spiritual connection of Noongar people, their continuing role as custodians of the Perth region and their continued belonging to their ancestral Country (DLGSCI 2021).

A more collaborative and coordinated approach to planning our urban areas at the national level will help to focus growth in areas that are resilient, redirecting it from areas that are environmentally sensitive and resource strained. Using materials that are more sustainable will result in healthier buildings for citizens and our urban biodiversity. The application of new technologies, ancient knowledge systems and smart cities will allow us to better monitor our activities and adapt our approaches. Empowering Indigenous communities to lead, and embracing traditional knowledge of our ecosystems and climates, will allow us to better understand and manage the challenges our cities face in the future.

Looking forward, the aim will be to break the correlation between growth and its impact. That is, bigger does not have to be worse. Rather we must care for the natural and urban environment so that it can care for us.

The ultimate aim is a more sustainable coexistence between the built and natural environments in our urban areas. As we grow, we need to contain our environmental impact and actively regenerate, restore and bring nature back into our villages, towns and cities. As a result, the urban planning profession has called for greater collaboration and a shared national strategy for how and where our urban environments will change and how to best manage the outcomes.


Impacts on livability

The combined built and natural components of the urban environment form the foundations of our standard of livability. As our urban areas grow and expand, this standard will decline without a collective and concerted effort to build better, greener and more resilient urban environments. This will become increasingly important given that 43% of projected urban growth across Australia will occur within Australia’s 2 largest urban areas (Greater Sydney and Greater Melbourne).

Renewed efforts to redesign our neighbourhoods to have better access to jobs, retail and community services will reduce the need to travel and increase access to opportunities, making our urban areas more equitable and livable. At the same time, greater community awareness and investment in urban green and blue spaces will enhance community connection, and human and animal wellbeing.

While the impacts of climate change will grow over the next 5 years, a new focus on designing and planning our built environment will help to reduce the impact of urban growth and potentially help to address existing urban risks.

Climate change and extreme events disproportionately impact Indigenous communities, as these pressures will continue to contribute to declining employment, health and wellbeing, which are already tenuous. In a recent submission from the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) to the Senate Inquiry into the Australian Government’s response to the drought, NACCHO identified housing as an area of great importance in mitigating the effects of drought and climate change, stating that (NACCHO 2020):

Better housing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remains a critical issue. Housing issues are amplified in extreme weather. It is vital that state and territory governments, with leadership and assistance from the federal government, play a greater role in developing, administering and enforcing design standards for housing - to not only meet household needs and predicted drought and other climate change conditions, but to allow for heightened flexible and locally responsive housing design approaches.

A number of recommendations we have previously made to the federal government are particularly pertinent in light of the impacts of drought and climate change in general:

  • Expand the funding and timeframe of the current National Partnership on Remote Housing to match at least that of the former National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing.
  • Establish and fund a program that supports healthy living environments in urban, regional, rural and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, similar to the Fixing Houses for Better Health program. This must ensure that rigorous data collection and program evaluation structures are developed and built in, to provide the federal government with information to enable analysis of how housing improvements impact on health indicators.
  • Update and promote the National Indigenous Housing Guide (FaCSIA 2007), which is a best-practice resource for the design, construction and maintenance of housing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Impacts on resource availability and security

Urban areas will continue to affect the availability and reliability of our water and energy resources as populations grow and the impacts of climate change increase. These impacts need several approaches to be managed, starting with managing levels of demand for resources. Then, more sustainable built environments must be built by choosing suitable building materials and using big data to manage the efficiency of operations. At the same time, we must be more conscious of how we think of and use water and energy. We also need to rethink and redesign how resources that are traditionally considered to be ‘waste’ are redeployed.

Increasingly, other countries will not accept waste from Australia. Current landfill and waste strategies have unacceptable impacts on our land through soil and water pollution. Illegally dumped waste also has a significant impact on land through its direct effect on soils, biota and habitats. In the future, this could be partly mitigated by moving to a circular economy, eliminating single-use plastics, and preventing microplastics and other persistent agricultural and industrial toxins permeating water supplies and food chains.

In this way, a more sustainable, resilient and circular ecosystem can be created.

Impacts on greenspaces and bluespaces

While pressures relating to urban growth and associated pollution and waste generation will continue, growing recognition of the value of our urban greenspaces and bluespaces will help to reduce the degree to which our urban biodiversity will be affected. Increased expenditure and resources directed to creating and protecting green links and corridors within urban areas will help wildlife and the habitats to connect and survive. A better understanding of how to manage important ecological systems through Indigenous knowledge systems will also allow for a more careful and effective means of balancing our impact on the urban environment and protecting urban biodiversity.

For example, Indigenous communities and their ability to participate in, and pass on, cultural practices are significantly affected if water is considered to be simply a resource. Reframing the discussion to consider water as a living entity – recognising its spiritual and cultural value as well as that of a commodity – can help to restore balance to river ecosystems in urban areas.

This can create:

  • structural elements that respect unique cultural landscapes and inform spatial structure of land use and infrastructure
  • restored and protected landscapes underpinned by a wider strategy for integrated land use, water management and cultural connection
  • connected spaces in riparian corridors that provide ecological protection and enhancement, as well as regionally significant networks of public access, active transport, recreation and cultural uses
  • a lasting, valued and managed asset which supports community participation, custodianship and connection to Country.

Impacts on wellbeing

A new focus on designing our urban areas to be more walkable, green, proximate to services and jobs, and resilient to extreme weather events including heat will enhance the wellbeing of urban citizens. Consistent cross-jurisdictional methods to measure and benchmark wellbeing will also assist in guiding urban policies to continuously improve outcomes and keep the wellbeing of our urban citizens and biodiversity at the forefront of urban planning and development.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (UN 2021) are also important to consider in all aspects of managing our environment. The Australian Government has committed to the SDGs:

Australia has long recognised the role of sustainable development in ensuring the wellbeing of the Country and its people. Government legislation, regulation and policy already drives us towards many of the environmental, social and economic outcomes enshrined in the SDGs. As approaches and circumstances evolve, the SDGs provide a framework through which governments, businesses, organisations and individuals can conceive of a problem or objective and devise collective action through partnership to drive progress. (UN 2021)

Impacts on Indigenous wellbeing

At the beginning of European colonisation, our urban environments were created by the newcomers as safe places for people to meet, live, work and be protected from the effects of the Australian environment. This was often at the exclusion of Indigenous people, who were pushed to the edges of these ‘settlements’, and consequently the knowledge systems that had sustained Country for many thousands of years were suppressed.

The occupation of this ‘new’ landscape was undertaken within the paradigm of European understanding of land use, seasons and ecological systems based on the Northern Hemisphere experience. Over time, however, there has been increased understanding of the need for a Southern Hemisphere approach to environmental management, which incorporates the appreciation and application of Indigenous knowledge and its value in understanding and caring for Country:

In terms of urban areas in Australia, it is important to understand that there is no place in Australia whether urban or remote, that is not on Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Country. There is no place in Australia that does not have one or several Traditional Custodian groups whose communities hold many, many millennia of knowledge embedded within that specific Country. Today in Australia, around one-third of Indigenous Australians live in major cities and satellite urban areas (ABS 2018b). And yet, urban areas are often not understood as ‘Country’ – that is, places of cultural significance, active custodianship and belonging to Indigenous peoples.

Many of the histories of Australia’s First Peoples have been erased by the ongoing march of colonisation, which continues to do damage when Australia’s Indigenous peoples’ stories and culture are subsumed, often denied, not seen, and actively silenced. Across Australia there is very little acknowledgment in urban areas of the connection these places have and have had to Indigenous peoples over thousands of generations.

We are very much still here. And yet, if we look around Australia’s urban areas there is very little that attests Indigenous presence, custodianship, our deep knowledge of Country, our voices, our histories and belonging. Our culture is often represented as fixed and stagnant, negating our efficacy and capacity to continuously adapt and innovate: foundational to our longevity as the oldest living culture on Earth.

We are a powerful people. Our knowledges, held and transmitted through our communities and our cultural practice, remain strong. The efficacy of our holistic approaches to systems of management are not lost. Our interactions with Country, both today and over time, are highly valuable in all aspects of environmental management, whether urban or remote. These knowledges and practices are undoubtedly a key part of the arsenal of scientific knowledge we need to empower in meeting the environmental challenges we together face.

Together we must continue working to dismantle barriers and heal the psychological damage that colonisation and its continued circumstance inflicts on us all.

Many, many Indigenous people live in an urban circumstance in Australia today and it is vital for our wellbeing, and the wellbeing of Country, that we see ourselves and our culture in our urban environments. Most especially, for the health of Country and for all Australian peoples, it is imperative that we are empowered to meaningfully partner with decision-makers to bring our knowledge and aspirations into mainstream systems of planning and management. While we are diverse, there are some aspects of our cultures as the Indigenous peoples of Australia that are overarching – the understanding that Country is our Mother, a living relative who must be cared for and actively loved, sits at the core of all of our interactions. We have so much ‘skin in the game’, it is prescient to expand and empower our involvement in management of Country, both in urban areas and across Australia.

By Zena Cumpston (Barkandji), from Cumpston (2020a), Mata et al. (2020)

The ability to adapt, central to the longevity of Indigenous cultures in Australia, can be evidenced in the strong continuation of culture central to the lives of Indigenous peoples in urban areas, despite the many barriers to connecting to Country within the built environment (Peters & Andersen 2013, Page et al. 2021). The cohesive and culturally resilient circumstance of urban Indigenous peoples is also shown by the strong and long history of community-led services that have been central to the lives and wellbeing of urban Indigenous peoples, such as health and legal services. During the COVID-19 crisis, community-led health services in particular have shown their efficacy in strongly advocating and caring for Indigenous communities (Follent et al. 2021) Resourcing of Indigenous-led services and dedicated gathering places is integral to the health and wellbeing of diverse Indigenous communities in urban areas, self-determination, respect of culture, sustainability and strong governance (Kingsley et al. 2021).

However, the ‘invisibility’ of Indigenous peoples in urban environments is still evident in the paucity of available data that can be used to measure Indigenous peoples’ wellbeing, experiences and circumstance within urban contexts. It must also be understood that urban Indigenous communities are melting pots of many Indigenous communities and identities. This includes Traditional Owners, but also those who may not have ancestral belonging, but have deep multigenerational connections to place through family and community connections over time.

The need for more research and understanding of Indigenous peoples living in urban areas is elucidated in the 2016 research paper ‘Indigenous in the city: urban Indigenous populations in local and global contexts’:

Urbanisation has been a historical reality for a number of Indigenous groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. Yet the perception remains that large proportions of world’s Indigenous peoples live in rural and remote areas. Both the UN and global Indigenous organisations have raised concerns over the danger of conflating Indigenous identity with rural connections, as it risks ignoring the reality of large urban Indigenous populations. The stereotype also carries with it certain notions about the validity of urban Indigenous identities.

For urban Indigenous peoples, this misconception of discord between cities and Indigenous communities often has negative policy implications of service misdirection. It also plays out in the challenge of ‘Indigenous invisibility’. Here, governments often struggle to recognise Indigenous urban communities due to ‘abstract and non-geographically clustered nature of the community’ (Langeveldt & Smallacombe 2010). Yet arguably this also stems from the persistent assumption about ‘real’ Indigenous peoples living only in rural regions. This has significant ramifications for funding allocation and service mainstreaming. It is critical, then, that researchers and policymakers move to deepen their understanding of urban Indigenous populations’ (Brand et al. 2016:4).

Assessment Wellbeing related to the urban environment
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, and the situation is stable.
Somewhat adequate confident

Based on social and economic indicators, most urban residents experience a high level of wellbeing in relation to their environment, especially compared with international examples,. However, this varies with location and socio-economic circumstances. Climate change may affect the wellbeing of urban residents directly by increasing the impacts of heatwaves, and of storms for coastal cities.
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 3.9, 6.1, 7.1, 11.7

Assessment Liveability
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, and the situation is stable.
Medium confidence

The livability of Australia’s largest cities is increasing with improving access to urban services, and a broader choice of jobs and housing.
Livability continues to be good in smaller urban areas that impact the environment less. However, citizens in these areas have poorer access to jobs, services and facilities.

Assessment Resource availability and security
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in poor condition, resulting in diminished environmental values, and the situation is deteriorating.
High confidence

Larger urban areas place more strain on demand for water and energy and resources while increasing overall consumption. Despite some efficiency gains, all urban areas are facing resource security challenges, particularly in areas of high population growth and greater vulnerability to climate change.