In Brief | Built environment

State of the Environment 2011 Committee. Australia state of the environment 2011.
Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
Canberra: DSEWPaC, 2011.

In Brief

This is a summary of Australia state of the environment 2011, which is an independent report presented to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities by the State of the Environment 2011 Committee

Built environment

Main messages

Australia's built environment is diverse.

Our built environment ranges from capital and regional cities to small towns in our coastal, rural and remote regions. Almost two-thirds (64%) of Australians live in the eight capital cities. In 2006, the proportion of Australia's population living in urban areas was 87%, up from 85% a decade earlier.

Australia's built environment faces many pressures and is only in a fair shape.

There are significant pressures on our built environment driven by population and economic growth, and climate change. An increasing need for space and buildings (our urban footprint), increasing traffic congestion and increasing consumption are affecting the livability and environmental efficiency of the built environment. Traffic congestion, in particular, is of growing concern. However, growth in traffic may be levelling, and use of public transport is increasing. Residents are also concerned about the look and design of their cities; in the biggest cities, there are concerns about whether the cities are clean, well maintained and unpolluted. Climate change is creating new risks by increasing the likelihood of weather events such as mega-storms.

The Australian built environment consumes significant natural resources, although this may be improving.

The residents and industries of the built environment consume natural resources, including water, energy and land. Waste generation within the built environment also has an impact on the natural environment. However, emerging evidence suggests that increases in the use of energy and water may be slowing due to improved technology, and better understanding and recognition of the need to reduce human environmental impact.

Recent government initiatives aim to improve the uncoordinated management of the built environment.

Management of the built environment is characterised by complex arrangements involving all levels of government, as well as the private sector, and these arrangements lack effective coordination. Recent initiatives of the Council of Australian Governments to reform capital city planning, as well as the recently released National Urban Policy, seek to address this issue. There are also concerns that insufficient investment has been made in infrastructure.

The outlook for the built environment is mixed.

The expected increase in the physical size of cities and increased traffic congestion will have negative impacts, but these may be offset by improved management and more efficient use of natural resources.

State and trends

The built environment is the human-made surroundings where people gather to live, work and play. It encompasses both the physical structures where people do these activities and the supporting infrastructure, such as transport, water and energy networks.

Significant parts of Australia's built environment have aspects that are considered poor. In the largest cities, traffic congestion is a significant concern. In Sydney, satisfaction with the road network and traffic congestion had a very low rating of 13%, and low ratings were also recorded in Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth. There are also concerns about whether our cities are clean, well maintained and unpolluted. The attractiveness of Australian cities is considered to be only fair. In the smaller capital cities and other urban centres with populations of more than 100 000, traffic concerns are far less significant and the quality of the natural environment is higher. For smaller settlements, waste management is a concern.


The major challenge facing our built environment is population and economic growth, which can lead to an increase in the physical size of cities, higher population densities, greater demands on natural assets within cities and increased congestion. These are impacting on the livability and environmental efficiency of our cities and towns. Climate change is also creating increased risks to the built environment through the greater likelihood of weather events such as mega–storms.

The built environment also puts pressure on natural resources, mainly through the use of land, water and energy resources. There is also significant waste generation, although there is emerging evidence that growth in the use of natural resources and waste generation may be slowing. Household energy use per person increased in the first part of the decade, peaking at 48.0 gigajoules per person in 2005–06. Since then, household energy use per person has fallen by about 5% to 45.5 gigajoules, reflecting more efficient use of energy.

Effectiveness of management

Urban policy and planning in Australia have varied with time and in different jurisdictions and institutions. The complexities of arrangements for managing the built environment in Australia have a negative impact on management effectiveness—in particular, because of challenges in coordination. Understanding of issues is good, but planning processes to date have only been partly effective, and the budget is often inadequate to deal with issues. There are concerns about the level of investment in infrastructure, particularly public transport. This leads to only a partially effective achievement of outputs and outcomes.

Recently, the Council of Australian Governments identified the need for reform to ensure that capital cities are better placed to meet the challenges of the future. The recently released National Urban Policy seeks to provide national leadership and guidance for states, territories, local authorities and the private sector in planning, managing and investing in cities.


The outlook for the built environment is mixed. On the one hand, the increasing pressures on the built environment resulting from population and economic growth and climate change pose significant challenges. Increasing urban land use and traffic congestion are two areas of concern; however, congestion will be less of an issue if the recent levelling off of motor vehicle travel continues and if there is growth in public transport. Waste generation continues to grow. On the other hand, there is emerging evidence of more efficient consumption of water and energy. Furthermore, recent initiatives to improve urban planning should lead to greater capability to deal with emerging challenges.