Human Settlements Theme Report

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Lead Author: Professor Peter W. Newton, CSIRO Building, Construction and Engineering, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06747 7

Urban stocks and processes (continued)

Population, households and human capital (continued)


  • Rate of population growth and immigration
  • Short-term arrivals and tourism growth
  • Redistribution of population
  • Population density and urban form
  • -->
    Rate of population growth and immigration

    At 1.2% per year, Australia's rate of population growth is high compared to the OECD. When coupled with high consumption (see following sections), this has significant environmental implications. Australia's future population will be influenced strongly by government policies that effect the two principal contributors to population growth: fertility and immigration. In relation to the former, rates of fertility among Australian women have been falling since the early 1990s, a trend that has been strongly influenced by policies classed by McDonald (1999) as anti-family which fail to harmonise work and family pressures, as well as market-based pressures of housing affordability and work-based pressures related to investment in career versus family (see working hours).

    What constitutes a desirable level for immigration is also hotly debated, and has tended to be dominated to date by those who link economic growth to population growth. The logic of this nexus is open to challenge, however:

    Part of the problem pertaining to the population debate is that economic growth depends on population growth under the current sectoral structure and function of the Australian Economy. Bruce Bacon from the Treasury's 'Retirement and Income Modelling Unit' decomposes the annual growth rate of 3.9% for the last 15 years in population effect (1.7%), participation rate (0.1%), employment rate (0.2%), average hours (0.3%) and productivity (1.6%). Thus without population growth, a Treasurer of whatever persuasion on Budget night would be scorned as she/he lauded an anticipated growth rate in GDP of 2% for the next financial year. The real challenge for those who desire to partake in the promise of the new economy, rather than repeat the lessons of the last 50 years, is to develop the concept of a new national economic structure and function which lifts productivity to say 3.3%, while ensuring adequate employment and social equity. If this happened population growth could become optional rather than obligatory and thus open to disinterested and rational debate (Foran and Cocks 2000, p.1).

    Short-term arrivals and tourism growth

    Short-term overseas arrivals to Australia have increased from 40% to 56% of all arrivals between 1981 and 1999 (ABS 2000c). Australia receives about 4.65 million international visitors per year, and it is forecast that the numbers will increase by an average annual rate of 7.3% between 2000 and 2008 (Tourism Forecasting Council 2000).

    In addition to international tourism, domestic tourism involves the movement of Australians to a relatively narrow range of tourist destination regions each year, generating 'pressure spots' in unique environments such as the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree Rainforest, Uluru and Kakadu (see the Natural and Cultural Heritage Theme Report). Tourism is one of the few Australian industries that has largely avoided scrutiny in relation to a number of negative externalities associated with its undertaking, which range from transport and energy costs through to waste generation and disposal.

    Redistribution of population

    The distribution of the Australian population is changing via internal and intra-urban migration. This change carries with it a range of environmental challenges. For some areas, such as the fringe of cities, the challenges relate to the pressure of growth on natural environments, arable farming land and natural waterways (PPCLPB 1998a, 1998b, 1998c, 1998d). For municipalities which line Australia's high-growth coastal margins, a range of ecological challenges is evident, including: loss of mangroves; spread of environmental weeds from residential areas into coastal vegetation; and pollution of the marine environment from stormwater discharges containing litter, dog droppings and other pollutants (GBRMPA 1998, 2000; Davis and Froend 1999). In other areas, notably around rural and rangeland settlements in decline, the environmental challenges relate to such issues as weed control, while liveability is diminished by the withdrawal of services and jobs (Garnaut et al. 2001). In more remote regions, withdrawal of Indigenous traditional settlement and land management has and is still altering broad-scale biodiversity (Bowman 2000).

    Population density and urban form

    The population density of Australian settlement is low compared to other countries. In recent years significant debate has emerged in Australia around this issue, with a range of opposing positions (e.g. Troy 1996; Newman and Kenworthy 1999). The key questions are:

    • in what way does the urban form and density of the city influence its environmental performance and its liveability?
    • are the characteristics required for ecological sustainability at odds with the characteristics required for liveability?

    Density is a crude measure for answering these questions. Density is also a complicated issue because definitions vary according to the type of measurement being undertaken, because some components of the city (e.g. parks, industrial and commercial areas, arterial roads) are little affected by different residential densities, and because residential density is very difficult to measure consistently (since it is often difficult to define accurately the areas on the fringe that are built upon and not yet built upon). There are arguments that denser cities tend to have more effective and better-used public transport, and lower automobile use and dependence, and that transport energy use and emissions are lower compared to less dense cities (Newman and Kenworthy 1999). Furthermore, there are very large differences between the total operating cost of passenger transport in cities of different urban forms (Newman and Kenworthy 1999). Urban form also seems to significantly affect energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and airborne pollutants. A more compact city, regardless of its particular form, is likely to produce significant environmental improvements, as is illustrated by the research carried out by Newton et al. (1998) for an inquiry into urban air quality in Australia.

    However, there are disadvantages to denser cities: they reduce the space available to residents for gardens, vegetable growing and all the backyard uses of suburban blocks; housing, unless carefully controlled, may increase in cost; and noise levels and other intrusions on privacy may increase. The urban design of suburban residential areas and the way that housing is integrated with effective transport and community planning are, therefore, of great consequence. The transit-oriented development and the new urbanist movements have attempted to wrestle with these issues. Few good examples of developments planned and designed according to these principles have, however, been built in Australia, so it is difficult as yet to make assessments of their ecological performance and attractiveness to their residents.

    An urban form which meets both ecological and liveability criteria could be posited as one which:

    • provides excellent accessibility for personal and commercial uses, while strongly encouraging effective public transport services and usage;
    • encourages bicycle usage, reduces car travel, and provides a road network supportive of these aims;
    • provides good and attractive access on foot to local shops, transport stops, parks, open space and recreational facilities;
    • provides an attractive setting for and encourages the active use of the public domain and thereby increases surveillance over and the security of public activity;
    • provides a variety of housing opportunities for all sections of the community and all household types without cost penalties for low-income households;
    • provides accessible and well-planned and designed open space for all residents which also acts as an effective means of protecting urban biodiversity;
    • uses the existing infrastructure and stock of the city with maximum efficiency and effectiveness; and
    • provides satisfying emotional experiences of natural and tranquil environments, spatial variety and well-designed urban settings.

    There are as yet few indicators that can be used to assess the degree to which Australian cities or parts of cities meet these criteria.

    The importance of these characteristics extends beyond the environmental and cultural. Joel S. Hirschhorn from the National Governor's Association, Center for Best Practices, has recently argued, in a USA context, that growth in the new economy is also related to such ecological and cultural qualities. Only quality growth, he says, can keep the engine of prosperity running in a sustainable mode. As a consequence, for state governors, 'the question is not whether to grow but how to grow. In general, this means channelling more growth into areas already developed, principally urban centres and older suburbs. 'Smart growth' does not mean no growth or slow growth, but rather quality growth that supports quality of life and place' (Hirschhorn 2000).