Livability' is a term that can have many meanings, but for the purposes of this chapter it relates to those aspects of the quality of urban life that are determined predominantly by the physical nature of the built environment. Aspects of livability that arise more generally from social and economic conditions, while important, are not assessed. This means, for example, that housing conditions, amenity and access to transport services are included, whereas house prices, access to social services and crime are not. However, the boundary between these aspects is innately grey; for the exclusions just mentioned, the form of the built environment may indeed have some impact, but wider economic and social forces typically have a far greater impact. Health issues are considered to the extent that they are directly affected by the built environment; for example, the impact of the quality of urban air and water on health, and the contribution that the built environment might make to 'healthy lifestyles' by encouraging (or discouraging) exercise through walking and cycling.

By world standards, most Australian cities have relatively low population densities. Sydney is Australia's most densely populated city, with a population density exceeding 2000 people per square kilometre (Table 10.2). North American cities have population densities similar to Australian cities. In comparison, many cities in Asia have densities more than 10 times this; higher densities than in Australia are typical in cities in Europe, South America and Africa. Population density within a city can also vary significantly—some parts of Australian cities have densities of more than 10 000 people per square kilometre.

Calculation of a city's population density depends on the land area that is considered to be occupied by the city, which changes over time. For this reason, comparable historical estimates of population densities are difficult to obtain. Also, trends in the average population density of a city might mask trends in particular parts of the city. There is some evidence that the overall population density of Melbourne has fallen since World War 2 (based on Australian census data). However, in recent years, certain parts of inner Melbourne have experienced significant increases in population density, and this trend is also evident in the other large Australian cities (e.g. see Newman & Kenworthy5).

Table 10.2 Population densities for Australian capital cities, 30 June 2006

People per km2
Sydney 2058
Melbourne 1532
Adelaide 1295
Perth 1090
Canberra (includes Queanbeyan) 1005
Darwin 926
Brisbane 918
Hobart 895

km2 = square kilometre
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics4

There are mixed views about the impact of density on the livability and efficiency of urban areas. On the one hand, higher densities might lead to more recreational and employment opportunities and better access to public transport and other services, as well as more 'vibrant' cities. Higher densities also make more efficient use of land. On the other hand, higher densities may be associated with a loss of open space (both public and private), more crowded public parks and public transport, and more congested traffic, unless improvements are made to accommodate the growing needs. Also, there is no strong evidence that higher densities lead to more efficient use of resources such as water and electricity. This is a contentious issue; some experts claim that higher densities lead to more efficient use of resources, whereas others hold a different view.

Urban amentity

Access to recreational opportunities and open space is an important aspect of the livability of the built environment. There is a paucity of national datasets relating to these aspects. However, in 2010, the Property Council of Australia commissioned a survey to measure Australians' attitudes towards their cities, with the focus on capital cities.6 One of the questions asked was 'Do residents believe their cities have a wide range of recreational outdoor environments?' (Figure 10.2). All Australian cities rated well on this measure, with an average score of 79 out of 100. Melbourne rated the highest, with a score of 83, and Hobart and Sydney were equal lowest, with a score of 76.

The look and design of a city is another aspect of its livability. Residents' views on this were sought in the Property Council of Australia survey. The capital cities rated only moderately well, with an average rating of 52. Melbourne rated the highest, with a score of 64; Darwin rated only 39 (Figure 10.3).


The structure and condition of housing affect the livability of cities. The vast majority of Australian dwellings are separate houses (77% in 2008). Flats make up 14% of dwelling structures, and semidetached dwellings 9%. The proportion of separate houses fell slightly (by 1.4%) between 1998 and 2008, offset by a commensurate increase in flats. Australian houses are typically brick — about 69% of houses (78% in capital cities) are brick veneer or double brick. About 13% of houses are timber, and about 8% are fibrocement.7 The trend over time has been towards greater use of brick veneer. Australian houses are becoming larger on average; the proportion of houses with four or more bedrooms increased from about 23% to about 37% between 1994 and 2008.

For the most part, overcrowding is not an issue in Australian houses. In 2008, only 2.6% of houses were considered to have insufficient bedrooms, as assessed using the Canadian National Occupancy Standard, which is widely used internationally as an indicator of housing use.8 In contrast, the 2006 census found that 41% of all occupied private dwellings in Australia had two or more bedrooms above minimum household requirements, up from 34% a decade earlier.

The number of people per dwelling has an impact on resource efficiency. In 2006, the number of people per occupied private dwelling was 2.6, down from 2.7 a decade earlier.8 The size of houses in Australia has increased; a 2005 Australian Bureau of Statistics study found that the average floor area of new residential buildings increased by 37.4% between 1994-95 and 2002-03 (from 149.7 square metres to 205.7 square metres).9 More recent analysis suggests that the trend is continuing, with an average new house size of 215 square metres in 2008-09, purported to be the biggest in the world.10 However, block size appears to be falling; the average site area of new houses in Australian capital cities decreased between 1993-94, when it was 802 square metres, and 2003-04, when it was 735 square metres.11

Residents of capital cities generally felt that their cities had a good balance of housing types, with an average satisfaction rating of 62%. The spread of responses was not very large, ranging from a rating of 52% in Sydney to 68% in Adelaide (Figure 10.4).

A 2011 Grattan Institute study, The housing we'd choose, found that Sydney and Melbourne had a demand for a wide range of housing types, 'with shortages of semidetached homes and apartments in the middle and outer areas of both Sydney and Melbourne'.12


Family houses on the hills, Tasmania

In some parts of Australia, however, the quality of housing is poor. This is particularly the case in Indigenous communities (see Box 10.1).

Box 10.1 The built environment—remote Indigenous communities

The built environment in Indigenous communities differs significantly from other Australian urban environments, with many aspects rating quite poorly.

In 2006, more than 80 000 people lived in 1112 discrete Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in remote areas of Australia. This represented about 15% of Australia's Indigenous population. Fourteen of these communities had more than 1000 people, accounting for 26% of the population in remote Indigenous communities. A further 41% lived in communities with between 200 and 999 residents, 20% lived in communities with between 50 and 199 residents, and 13% lived in communities with a population of less than 50 people.

Not all people in remote Indigenous communities had a permanent dwelling as a home — 3400 people (4%) lived in temporary dwellings such as sheds and humpies.

A significant number of people living in permanent homes in Indigenous communities experienced problems with the condition of their homes. In 2006, one-third of dwellings needed either major repair (24%) or replacement (9%). This was slightly higher than in 2001, when 31% of homes needed major repair or replacement.

Overcrowding is an issue of concern. In 2006, Indigenous people were 4.8 times more likely than non-Indigenous people to live in overcrowded housing. At the time of the 2006 Australian census, 57% of all Indigenous people in remote areas (including Indigenous communities and other locations) lived in households in need of at least one extra bedroom to adequately accommodate all residents, down slightly on the 2001 result. In the Northern Territory (where the greatest proportion of Indigenous people live in remote communities), 66% of Indigenous people lived in overcrowded housing.

Access to essential services such as water, electricity, sewerage and waste collection is something that most Australians take for granted. However, in remote Indigenous communities, the standard of these services is generally below that enjoyed by Australians in most other locations.

In 2006, only 28% of people living in remote Indigenous communities had access to town water, and the majority (54%) relied on bore water. The proportion of people using town water had increased significantly from 2001, when it was only 12%. In communities with populations of 50 or more, 59% of people in 2006 had experienced interruptions in their water supply in the previous 12 months, with about half of these people experiencing five or more interruptions.

The majority of people (62%) in remote Indigenous communities obtained their electricity from town generators; only 29% obtained power from the state grid. These proportions were similar to those five years earlier. Service interruptions are of concern, with 81% of people in 2006 experiencing at least one interruption in the previous 12 months, and 19% experiencing 20 or more disruptions.

In 2006, waterborne systems were the most prevalent form of sewerage (used by 38% of people) in remote Indigenous communities, followed by town systems (30%) and septic tanks (28%). The proportion of people using town water had increased significantly from 8% in 2001. In 2006, 40% of people experienced sewerage overflows or leakages.

The livability of the built environment and community viability are affected by access to public facilities and sporting facilities. In remote Indigenous communities with 50 people or more, 95% of people had access to some type of public facility, most typically an administration building, store or hall/meeting area. Only 36% of people had access to a library. Nearly 9 in 10 people (89%) had access to some type of sporting facility, with 81% having access to a sporting ground. However, only 21% of people had access to a swimming pool.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics13


Transport-related issues are a significant factor in the livability of cities. Relevant aspects include the state of the road network, traffic congestion and access to (and use of) public transport.


Sydney city traffic, New South Wales

Road congestion is seen to be an increasing problem in many of Australia's urban areas. This is caused by both the growth of the populations of cities and the increasing propensity of people to use private motor vehicles as the dominant mode of motorised transport (although this trend has flattened off in the past few decades). Figure 10.5 shows how the use of motorised transport modes have changed over time, as well as a base-case projection from 2008.

In 2007, the Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics calculated that the avoidable social cost of congestion in the capital cities was about $9.4 billion in 2005. (Avoidable social cost of congestion includes extra travel time and the accompanying loss of productivity; increased vehicle operating costs; and poorer air quality — because vehicles under congested conditions emit more noxious pollutants — leading to higher health costs.) This was projected to increase to $20.4 billion in 2020. On a unit cost basis (cents per kilometre), the cost in 2005 ranged from less than two cents (in Darwin) to about eight cents (in Sydney), with a metropolitan average of about seven cents (Figure 10.6).14

The impact of congestion, particularly in Australia's largest cities, is causing concern. In Sydney, satisfaction with the road network and traffic congestion had a very low rating of 13%, and low ratings were also recorded in Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth (Figure 10.7). Only in Canberra and Darwin were satisfaction ratings of more than 50% recorded.

One way of reducing traffic congestion is to encourage the use of public transport and nonmotorised forms of travel. Public transport can improve urban amenity and reduce the land needed for roads and parking — land that may be put to more attractive uses. Public transport is also more energy efficient than car transport. The Census of Population and Housing , conducted every five years, asks all Australians about their means of travel to work. On census day in 2006, 79% of people travelled to work by motor vehicle, 11% took public transport and 12% rode a bicycle, walked, worked from home or took some other form of transport.2 The proportion of people travelling by public transport was greatest in Sydney; very few people in smaller cities tended to use public transport (although these cities are less likely to suffer congestion problems). Use of nonmotorised travel to get to work was highest outside the major cities. However, the proportion of travel using public transport is increasing in most capital cities (Table 10.3).

Table 10.3 Percentage of adults using public transport as the main form of transport for usual trip to work or full-time study

City 1996 2000 2003 2006 Change between 1996 and 2006a
Sydney 23.4 25.0 25.9 26.3 12.4
Melbourne 13.1 15.9 15.3 17.7 35.1
Brisbane 14.3 11.6 15.7 17.5 22.4
Adelaide 12.2 10.6 13.4 14.4 18.0
Perth 10.5 11.3 10.5 10.7 1.9
Hobart 12.8 5.2 6.9 10.3 -19.5
Canberra 11.4 8.2 8.1 7.9 -30.7
Total capital citiesb 16.3 17.2 17.9 19.1 17.2
Other areasc 2.7 1.9 2.4 1.7 -37.0
Australia 11.9 12.2 13.0 13.5 13.4

a Represents the change in the proportion of adults using public transport for their usual trip to work or study
b Excludes Darwin
c Includes Darwin and all other places outside capital cities

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics15

By March 2009, the proportion of adults using public transport as the main form of transport for their usual trip to work or study had increased to 14.0%. For day-to-day trips other than to work or full-time study, the proportion of adults using public transport was 18.7%, rising to 26.0% in state capital cities. It should be noted that these figures relate to any use of public transport and not whether it was the main form. The main reasons given for not using public transport for usual trips to work or full-time study were lack of availability, and the convenience, comfort and privacy of a private vehicle.16

The use of public transport is influenced by both personal preference and the quality of the available public transport service. Australians have a poor view of the quality of public transport in the capital cities, with an average satisfaction rating of 36%. Brisbane is considered the best (with 45%), while Canberra is regarded as the worst (24%). Sydney, which rates very poorly on traffic congestion, also rates relatively low (32%) on the quality of public transport (Figure 10.8).

Box 10.2 Gold Coast light rail

The council area of Gold Coast City is Queensland's second most populous and one of the fastest growing regions in Australia, with a population of 528 000 that is increasing by 13 000 each year.

The Australian Government is investing $365 million in the Gold Coast Rapid Transit system. This involves constructing a 13-kilometre light-rail system to link key activity centres from Griffith University (Gold Coast Campus) to Broadbeach via Southport. This is the first stage of a system that will connect Helensvale with Coolangatta. The capital cost to governments of the project is expected to be $949 million; the final cost will be determined through a tender process for the Operator Franchise Public Private Partnership. The Queensland Government and Gold Coast City Council will meet the balance of costs.

The project is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 114 000 tonnes (net) over 10 years. In addition, it is expected that the project will significantly reduce the number of daily car trips to key activity centres along the light-rail corridor. As a result of the rapid transit system, the wider public transport network will be improved, with 4 million bus service kilometres to be redirected across the city.

The rapid transit system will support the Gold Coast City Council's 'Our Living City' urban planning scheme through new urban planning opportunities. The council plans to upgrade precincts around key stations and provide for transit-oriented developments along the corridor.

The first section of the Gold Coast Rapid Transit system is expected to be completed in 2014.

Photo - An artist's impression of theGold Coast light rail

An artist's impression of theGold Coast light rail

Despite concerns about traffic congestion, there is emerging evidence that car travel in Australian cities may have levelled off. After growing for many years leading up to 2003–04, total private vehicle passenger travel (measured in kilometres travelled) in the capital cities has since remained stable (Figure 10.9). In terms of kilometres per person, capital city car travel has fallen since 2003–04. Meanwhile, the use of public transport is increasing, albeit from a low base.

Nonmotorised forms of transport, such as walking and cycling, reduce congestion as well as providing health benefits and potentially other benefits, such as increased social interaction. More people in Australia are cycling than ever before, and 2008 saw the largest ever increase in people riding their bikes.18 Use of cycling for the usual trip to work or full-time study has increased in the past decade, although it is still at very low levels, particularly compared with levels in European cities.16 In certain areas, considerable investment has been made in cycling networks, but this has not had a major impact on participation, suggesting that infrastructure is necessary but not sufficient. Road safety remains a significant barrier to cycling.19

No comprehensive information is available on walking in the Australian built environment, although anecdotal evidence suggests that the design and structure of Australian cities, at least in some areas, has a negative impact on people's propensity to walk. There have been some initiatives to overcome this, such as improving the accessibility of laneways in Melbourne (see Box 10.3). The level of walking has increased in Perth and Melbourne during recent decades 20-21

Box 10.3 Opening the laneways, Melbourne

Accessible and active laneways in Melbourne city centre have increased from 300 metres (1994) to 3.43 kilometres (2004). Of these, 500 metres are completely new lanes or arcades, while the rest are previously inaccessible service laneways that have been opened up with active facades, various functions and art installations. The lanes offer an alternative route through the city centre, with a more human-scale atmosphere. Opening of the lanes, along with other investments in the public realm, have contributed to a remarkable increase in public life in the centre of Melbourne, which is documented in public space—public life surveys in 1994 and 2004.






Nightlife at Hardware Lane

Lanes used for art illustrations

Source: Institute for Transportation and Development Policy & Gehl Architects22

Air quality

The quality of natural assets—such as air, water and biodiversity—in the built environment is an important aspect of livability, for both health and aesthetic reasons. Air quality, in particular, can have significant health implications. Air quality in Australian cities is generally good, but can be variable. In the three largest cities, the annual number of days on which average concentrations of PM10 (particulate matter equal to or less than 10 micrometres in diameter) exceeded the National Environment Protection Measure standard was generally less than 10, although in some years it was significantly higher (Figure 10.10; see also Chapter 3: Atmosphere).

Air quality is affected not only by human-made pollution, but also by natural pollutants, such as dust, and by weather patterns.

Water quality

There is no national information on the quality of natural waterways within the urban environment. Melbourne Water rates urban water quality in Melbourne as poor, particularly with regard to heavy metals and nutrient pollution. Point sources of pollution are considered largely under control; diffuse sources (including nutrients, sediments, toxicants and pathogens) are the largest threat to the health of waterways and bays.24 Similar findings might be expected in other large Australian cities.

The quality of urban drinking water is, on the other hand, generally considered good. The level of satisfaction with the quality of mains water for drinking has steadily increased across Australia, from 64% in 1994 to 78% in 2010. The level of satisfaction varied between states and territories: the Australian Capital Territory (94%) and the Northern Territory (90%) had the highest rates of satisfaction, and South Australia had the lowest (62%) (Figure 10.11).

Half of those who expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of drinking water nominated taste as the reason. Other common complaints included chorine, dirty water, odour, colour and microbial or algae contamination. South Australian households registered the highest level of dissatisfaction (72%) with taste (excluding saltiness).


Noise pollution is another concern within the built environment. Again, there is a paucity of data, particularly at the national level. The New South Wales state of the environment report 2009 noted that noise pollution was the third most common type of complaint call received by the Environment Line of the New South Wales Department of Energy, Climate Change and Water, although the number of noise incident calls decreased by 20% between 2004-05 and 2007-08.28 These calls, however, represent only a small proportion of noise complaints, as most complaints are made to local councils and police and there is no centralised collection of information.

Natural environment

What do residents think of the natural environment of their cities? The Property Council of Australia asked capital city residents whether they believed their cities are clean, well maintained and unpolluted (Figure 10.12). Although the question is broader in scope than the quality of natural assets present in the city, it provides some insights. Canberra rated highest, with a satisfaction rating of 72%. Sydney ranked lowest, at 34%.

Residents were also asked if their cities have an attractive natural environment. A similar pattern of rankings emerged: Canberra was ranked equal highest (with Hobart) at 85% satisfaction, and Sydney was lowest with 63%.

Little information that is comparable across cities is available on the extent of biodiversity within the built environment. The Australian Conservation Foundation's 2010 Sustainable Cities Index29 sought to rank the biodiversity of 20 of Australia's largest cities according to three factors: habitat connectivity, landscape stress and number of reserves. On this basis, Townsville, Darwin and Wollongong were the top-ranked cities, and Ballarat and Geelong ranked equal last of the cities considered.

Bekessy and Gordon30 provided examples of biodiversity loss in some major cities in Australia, including declining bushland and mammalian species in Sydney's Sutherland Shire, a 23% clearing of remnant vegetation on Perth's Swan Coastal Plain between 1994 and 2003, and a 50% reduction in native grassland in Melbourne between 1985 and 2005.

Harper P (2011). Built environment: Livability. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65a5037ed8