Current urban planning and management


Our growing cities require careful planning and management to ensure that they remain attractive and livable, and that ecosystem services are maintained. The changing patterns of population growth and settlement, and related transport and consumption patterns have been discussed previously. This section looks at some broad-level planning and management strategies that have been—or are being—employed for various aspects of the built environment.

Land-use assessment and planning

Responses to population growth in cities have historically focused on 1 of 2 growth pathways:

  • greenfield development—the release of undeveloped land located on the periphery of cities for the delivery of low-density housing (see also Box BLT13)
  • brownfield or greyfield development—redevelopment in established areas, delivering medium-density to high-density residential development in existing urban areas (see Box BLT12).

Historically, the growth of Australian cities has occurred primarily through low-density housing at the edge of established urban areas. After World War 2, jobs growth moved from the inner city to outer suburban growth areas where the population was also growing (e.g. higher rates of employment in manufacturing areas on the outskirts of cities). Car ownership became widespread, and these factors meant that employment and service centres remained accessible to new suburbs (Infrastructure Australia 2016).

More recently, governments have aimed to increase the levels of brownfield or greyfield development, with targets for infill development (Table BLT17) and an increased share of medium-density housing occurring in many inner-city areas. Containing development within existing urban boundaries allows cities to preserve valuable rural land on the outskirts for other uses, such as agriculture, recreation and environmental preservation (Infrastructure Australia 2016).

Table BLT17 Housing projections and targets for selected Australian cities or regions



Target dwellings (no.)

Percentage from infill









South-east Queensland











Moving from 50 to 70

Sources: Newton et al. (2012), NSW DPE (2014), DELWP (2016b)

However, with sustained population growth, and despite knowledge-intensive industries driving jobs growth in the inner suburbs, our big cities continue to plan and absorb at least half of most urban growth at the metropolitan fringe (DITMCU 2013). The lack of a model for redeveloping middle suburbs has meant that successive governments have preferred to continue to release greenfield land on the fringe of the major cities (Newton et al. 2012) (see Urban sprawl).

To help to manage the impact of greenfield developments, the Australian Government conducts strategic assessments under s. 146 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Strategic assessments enable a big-picture approach to environment and heritage protection by determining the areas to be protected from development and the areas where sustainable development can go, the type of development that will be allowed and the conditions under which development may proceed (DoEE n.d.[e]). Strategic assessments relating to large urban growth areas include the Australian Capital Territory, the Western Sydney Growth Centre, Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary, and the Perth and Peel regions (Table BLT18). The strategic assessments aim to deliver the greatest environmental, economic and social benefits, consistent with the objectives of the EPBC Act.

Table BLT18 Strategic assessments under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 for major urban growth developments




Australian Capital Territory (ACT)

Eastern Broadacre area

Assess the impacts of the proposed urban development on listed threatened species and ecological communities, listed migratory species, Commonwealth lands and any other protected matters that may be triggered


Look at impacts from urban development and infrastructure on biodiversity and matters of national environmental significance at potential developable sites; includes commitments from the ACT Government to avoid, mitigate and offset impacts on the natural environment

Molonglo Valley

Preliminary environmental investigations in the Molonglo and North Weston area identified several matters of national environmental significance, including the pink-tailed worm-lizard, listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 as vulnerable; White Box – Yellow Box – Blakely’s Red Gum Grassy Woodland and Derived Native Grassland, listed as critically endangered; and Natural Temperate Grasslands of the Southern Tablelands of NSW and the ACT, listed as endangered

West Belconnen

Look at impacts from urban development, associated services and infrastructure on matters of national significance. Also includes planned conservation areas, and corridors to protect biodiversity and to contribute to urban amenity

New South Wales (NSW)

Western Sydney growth areas

The NSW Government proposes development of Sydney’s growth centres to accommodate the city’s growing population. Sydney’s population is projected to increase by 1.7 million people by 2036. The growth centres aim to accommodate 181,000 new homes and land for employment for about 500,000 new residents during the next 25–30 years


Melbourne’s urban growth boundary

Prepare a Biodiversity Conservation Strategy for the 4 growth corridors, and accompanying subregional strategies for the growling grass frog, golden sun moth and southern brown bandicoot, and for these strategies to be approved by the minister. On 16 April 2010, the Australian Government minister approved several prescriptions for ecological communities and threatened species associated with the Melbourne strategic assessment. These prescriptions specify requirements for protection of nationally protected measures that must be followed when preparing precinct structure plans and undertaking individual developments

Western Australia

Perth and Peel regions

Focus on the Perth and Peel regions of Western Australia’s Swan Coastal Plain. With the population of the Perth and Peel regions predicted to double in the next 20–30 years, the strategic assessment will focus on the impacts of future urban development activities, infrastructure corridors, transportation and basic raw material extraction

Source: DoEE (n.d.[d])

Complexities in land-use management

Development on the urban fringe is generally more expensive than redevelopment when the costs of infrastructure and transport are considered (Trubka et al. 2008), and often contributes to longer commuting times because of the distribution of housing and employment. Medium-density to high-density development within established urban areas provides a viable mechanism to meet the needs of rapidly growing urban populations; however, densification alone is not enough. There are many challenges in ensuring that higher-density housing offers high-quality design (to address heat stress, energy consumption, risk of fire, etc.), is well connected by infrastructure to jobs and education, and provides access to high-quality public spaces, including parks, community facilities and cultural precincts (Infrastructure Australia 2016).

In Sydney and Melbourne’s housing affordability crisis report 2: no end in sight, Birrell and McCloskey (2016) argue that growth in the supply of infill housing is currently far less than that of high-rise apartments. They also state that there is too much emphasis on the alleged growth in demand from 1-person and 2-person households (who are assumed to be happy to occupy units or apartments), and not enough on the need for dwellings suitable for raising a family (such as detached houses or units with at least 2 bedrooms, 80 square metres of floor space and access to protected outdoor space).

This growth (now and in the future) of intensified urban consolidation across Australian cities provides reason for concern about the adequacy of local open-space planning. Policies of urban consolidation have concentrated medium-density to high-density residential development in inner-ring suburbs, where green space is comparatively scarce.

In addition to high-quality housing and access to green space, workers need high-frequency, interconnected public transport systems to move them efficiently and comfortably. This requires changing the structure, operation and use of our passenger transport to deliver services required by a 21st century population (Infrastructure Australia 2016).

Box BLT12 Brownfield and greyfield development

Photo of Docklands construction, Melbourne (Photo by Woods Bagot)

Docklands construction, Melbourne

Photo by Woods Bagot

Brownfield development

Brownfield describes land previously used for industrial or commercial purposes. Such land may have been contaminated with hazardous waste or pollution.

Examples include the Docklands and Federation Square in Melbourne, Darling Harbour and Barangaroo in Sydney, Newport Quays in Port Adelaide, and Southbank in Brisbane. These areas represent an important contribution to the revitalisation of abandoned urban land and to the net addition of housing stock in growing cities. However, they are insufficient to meet aggregate metropolitan demand for new infill housing.

Greyfield development

In Australia, greyfields have been defined as ‘ageing but occupied tracts of inner and middle ring suburbia that are physically, technologically and environmentally failing and which represent under-capitalised real estate assets’. Unlike brownfields, greyfields typically do not require remediation of pollution.

Greyfields predominantly lie between the central business district and inner-city housing market and the more recently developed greenfield suburbs. They typically provide greater access to employment, public transport and services.

Source: Newton et al. (2012)

Coleman S (2016). Built environment: Current urban planning and management. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65a5037ed8