Built environment: 2011–16 in context


Australia’s growing population—particularly in our major cities—increasingly places pressure on livability (urban amenity, housing, transport, air and water quality). It also negatively affects our air, land and water resources through increased consumption and pollution—although declining consumption and pollution per person might offset this growth.

Australia’s consumption levels are high by world standards. Since 2010–11 (generally considered to be the end of the millennium drought in southern Australia, which lasted from 2000 to 2010, although in some areas it began as early as 1997 and ended as late as 2012), Australian households have slowly been increasing their water consumption, with water restrictions easing across many regions. However, water use by both manufacturing and service industries has decreased since 2010–11. Improved energy efficiency of appliances and machinery, uptake of household solar panels driven by significant cost reductions (including taxpayer subsidies), and reduced consumption in response to a general increase in electricity prices have decreased demand for electricity and household electricity consumption to 2013–14. Energy use per household, which has been steadily decreasing since the early 2000s, continued to decrease from 2010–11. Despite this, overall energy use by the built environment has continued to increase during the past 5 years.

An increasing population also puts pressure on land, the natural environment and infrastructure. Since 2011, despite significant urban redevelopment and population increases in inner urban areas, land on the fringes of major capital cities continues to be developed at the expense of agricultural land and Australia’s biodiversity.

Integrated urban policy is complex because it crosses many areas and levels of government. In April 2016, the Australian Government released the Smart Cities Plan (DPMC 2016). The plan outlines the Australian Government’s vision for cities—metropolitan and regional—and how policy, investment and technology can deliver integrated long-term planning, targeted investment and urban policy reform.

In addition, cities, and some regions, have strategic metropolitan strategies in place, in various stages of review and/or implementation, such as Plan Melbourne (Victorian Government 2014) and A plan for growing Sydney (NSW DPE 2014). The Western Australian Government’s Directions 2031 and beyond (WA DoP 2010) includes a strategic plan to create a compact and consolidated Perth and Peel during the coming decades. These plans typically look towards balancing new greenfield developments with a shift towards urban infill and higher-density housing.

Since 2011, a variety of national inquiries, reviews, reports, programs and policies have been undertaken relating to various aspects of Australia’s built environment, such as:

  • Smart Cities Plan (DPMC 2016)
  • Council of Australian Government’s review of metropolitan planning strategies to ensure matching and orderly infrastructure provision (2012)
  • Productivity Commission inquiries into planning, zoning and development assessments (2011), and public infrastructure (2014), and the Harper review of competition policy (2015), all highlighting the need to reform land-use planning
  • the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council report, Investing in cities (ASBEC 2015), aimed at ‘maximising the benefits created by the world’s most urbanised nation’
  • state of Australian cities reporting
  • National Australian Built Environment Ratings System
  • Australian Council of Learned Academies report, Delivering sustainable urban mobility (Armstrong et al. 2015)
  • Australian Infrastructure Plan (Infrastructure Australia 2016)
  • Cooperative Research Centres Programme in Low Carbon Living and Water Sensitive Cities
  • National Clean Air Agreement (Australian Government 2015a)
  • National Energy Productivity Plan.

These were conducted against a background of existing legislation. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cwlth) assesses the impacts of urban planning decisions on matters of national environmental significance, with a view to looking at both conservation and planning outcomes on a much larger scale than can be achieved through project-by-project assessments. Strategic environmental assessments (SEAs) consider the cumulative impacts across a planning horizon of 50 years or more, using a broad approach to a large land area. SEAs have been used across Australia, including 2 fringe areas of Melbourne and Sydney, and are also being applied to the Perth and Peel green growth plan (WA DPC 2015). The longer-term success of these strategic assessments across time and place will need to be determined, with continued monitoring and measurement of the long-term impacts on Australia’s biodiversity and other values.

Coleman S (2016). Built environment: Built environment: 2011–16 in context. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/built-environment/topic/2016/built-environment-2011-16-context, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65a5037ed8