At a glance
The outlook for the built environment continues to be mixed. The major drivers of population growth and climate change pose significant challenges in relation to housing location and infrastructure, although this report suggests that per-capita reductions and improved efficiencies are beginning to occur in some areas. Between 2011 and 2031, almost three-quarters of Australia’s population growth will occur in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Projections show that our biggest 4 cities will collectively need to accommodate 5.9 million more people. Increasing urban land use at our cities’ fringes remains an area of concern, as does traffic congestion in our big cities, despite growth in public transport. Increased densification and urban infill need to be carefully planned and managed to maintain adequate green space and green infrastructure as city populations increase.
On the positive side, energy and water efficiency for sections of the built environment have continued to improve during recent years, resulting in little or no overall increase in consumption in these resources associated with the built environment, despite increasing population growth. There have also been reductions in per-person car use, as well as reductions in waste to landfill.
However, there is a lack of coordination and integration of planning across and between levels of government, as well as between the various cross-cutting themes that are relevant to management of the built environment. This adds to the challenges faced by our built environments. Recently, the Australian Infrastructure Audit reported that ‘major reforms are needed to improve the way we plan, finance, construct, maintain and operate infrastructure’.
Encouragingly, the Australian Government has established a portfolio for Cities and Digital Transformation in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and has established a Cities Agenda that will focus on improved access to quality local jobs, housing affordability, and the sustainability and amenity of our cities.
It is clear that more and more people are moving to urban environments. As the urban population continues to grow, the physical size of our towns and cities—and hence consumption of previously nonresidential land—will grow as well. Despite metropolitan and strategic plans for our capital cities to move towards higher-density housing, these growing cities continue to develop quickly at the urban fringes, requiring management of habitat loss and infringement on agricultural land, and appropriate transport and infrastructure solutions for these developments to meet high standards of efficiency and livability. Higher-density housing is increasingly making up more of the new residential dwellings in the most populous cities, and concerns remain about strategic and integrated planning of these new developments, including location, amenity, early access to transport and green space.
Despite some recent increases in public transport use and reductions in car use per person, private motor vehicle use continues to dominate our urban transport mode, and road transport continues to increase across all capital cities, albeit at a fairly slow rate. Future increases in Australian capital-city traffic volumes are expected to lead to increasing aggregate social costs because of road network delays, at least in the medium term, unless interventions or disruptions occur.
The livability of Australia’s cities will be affected by how their environment is managed. Many cities are making significant progress in introducing vegetation (including small plants, trees, open green spaces and even forests) at various scales across cities—from buildings to districts and metropolitan regions—to reduce the urban heat island effect. This increases livability and reduces energy use (DITMCU 2013).
Climate change and its associated consequences, such as increased extreme weather events (floods, bushfires and heatwaves) and rising sea levels, continue to pose significant challenges for human health, our built infrastructure and our planning authorities.
Although our smaller cities and urban centres fare better in relation to many of these issues, housing and water quality issues remain in smaller and remote settlements.