Australia’s population is highly urbanised, and population growth is largest in our major cities. Because our built environments affect the natural environment and their residents, it is important that we balance the needs of both. We need to ensure that our cities maintain their livability for residents (urban amenity, housing, transport, air and water quality), while delivering efficiencies that will reduce their impact on the natural environment. Per-person impacts of consumption and pollution need to be significantly reduced if the overall impact of population and economic growth is to be accommodated. The first signs of reduction in per-person consumption are now occurring.
Australian cities are increasing the density of development through infill but are still expanding overall, consuming more rural land at their fringes. Population increase is greatest in the inner city and outer suburbs. Although urban infill can relieve pressure on surrounding rural land, it can also increase pressure on the existing green spaces within cities. Green space has been shown to be important to resident wellbeing, and the replacement of private green space with residential development can affect this.
Population and economic growth are driving increased traffic, and increased water and energy consumption. However, for the built environment, consumption of these resources in recent years has not kept pace with population or economic growth in some sectors, resulting in increased water and energy efficiency by some elements of the built environment. Consumption generates waste and pollution. Australia’s waste generation is high, but recovery rates are on the rise, with reduced waste going to landfill. Air and water quality of our cities is considered generally good, although pollution issues can occur for particular regions and affect certain populations (e.g. young and older people, remote Indigenous communities). Although there is increased traffic, car use per person in capital cities is also showing a decrease.
The outlook for the built environment is mixed. Aspects of our cities are currently in good shape. But if we are to ensure that the generally good conditions continue and improvements are made, we will need to:
- continue the decline in per-person use of land at the urban fringe, energy use, water use, waste generation and car use
- improve urban green space
- reduce the urbanisation of areas at high risk from climate change
- reduce the diverse and varied pressures facing the built environment.
However, effective management is made difficult by the various arrangements involving the Australian, state and territory, and local governments, and the private sector. The lack of coordination and integration is acknowledged, and recent initiatives by the Australian Government are designed to provide additional frameworks and processes to improve coordination and leadership.