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
State of the Environment reporting is an important step in the essential process of refining the knowledge base on which decisions about the environment are made. That base is currently inadequate. (State of the Environment Advisory Council 1996, p.ES-5)
Five years later, an initial set of indicators for SoE reporting on human settlements has been identified (Newton et al. 1998) and are employed in this report. A significant amount of SoE activity is also occurring at state and municipal level (see Appendix). Yet we remain some distance from the knowledge base and analytical capability that will adequately support the nation's planning for and management of environmentally sustainable urban development. The issue is broader than data gaps. It relates more significantly to issues of data custodianship, harmonisation of definitions, and harnessing GIS as a conceptual framework and technology platform for linking the spatial dimensions of environment, economic and urban development, and addressing issues of goals and standards.
Custodianship of data relevant to SoE reporting on human settlements is highly fragmented, as the sources of information listed in this report attest (see Appendix). Data will of necessity continue to be collected by different organisations, but the Federal Government can take a lead by developing its key collections (ABS census, Environmental Resources Information Network, National Land and Water Resources Audit etc.), with a view to their involvement in integrated analyses such as SoE reporting (where primary data on environment and economy can be linked for a more plausible analysis than is possible when data sets are merely compared at a secondary level, as is typical in reports to date). Environment Australia is well placed to take a lead in establishing protocols for linking data from federal, state and local government jurisdictions, and in championing the harmonisation process.
Harmonisation is necessary at two levels. At a spatial level, an accepted method for defining spatial units and their aggregations is needed. The most recent ASGC presents an important step forward and should be used as a basis for SoE reporting on human settlements in 2006. When data is being recorded by a particular organisation (e.g. health data), the geographic coding of individual records is often inadequate. Where spatial identification is attempted, it is often at a scale (e.g. postcode, municipality) which limits subsequent spatial analysis. The preferred level is street address, which can then be assigned to a geographic coordinate.
At a data level, there are significant variations between bureaucracies in their definitions of key information relevant to this report. Prime among these are the different definitions of land uses (e.g. open space, green space, residential density) used by state planning organisations, which preclude national comparison. State environmental planning agencies and health departments also develop statistical collections based on definitions that vary across Australia and limit comparative analysis. National umbrella organisations such as the Water Services Association of Australia also have difficulty in assembling comparable data from its 50-plus water authorities.
GIS provides the best possible platform for future SoE analysis and reporting. It has the potential to make geographic knowledge available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. It is the only analytical platform currently available to handle the complexity, the dynamics and causal linkages inherent in national settlement systems. A majority of SoE indicators are capable of being represented as layers of spatial data covering an entire metropolitan region and beyond (e.g. residential density, traffic congestion, air quality, household energy use) which can be analysed in an integrated manner in a search for causal linkages (population > environment; environment > population) - a key objective of SoE reporting. A good example of GIS capability is shown in Figure 51. More complex settlement concepts such as spatial segregation, local amenity, remoteness and accessibility, which have been found to be significant determinants of several dimensions of liveability such as social and economic well-being and human health, can be appropriately integrated diagnostically with a full set of human settlement indicators via GIS.
Higher levels of GIS functionality will also make it easier to create geographically based indicators which can be seamlessly standardised in order to facilitate more insightful comparative analysis. SoE reports will cover a range of scales, from an individual municipality to an entire metropolitan region with a population of several million. Standardisation by population size permits comparative analyses, which can be used to search for variations between cities that reflect differences in human behaviour (e.g. energy consumption per capita, housing space per capita, air pollution per capita). Standardisation by area (km2, hectares) provides insights on variability in city performance based on the scale of city and urban form (i.e. compact versus dispersed). Both are keys to charting a way forward for sustainable urban development, given that they represent two of the fundamental avenues for change: changing individual behaviour, and changing the form or 'shape' of cities.
Ultimately, SoE reporting will be Internet-based, with online data which is spatially referenced to common base layers. Analytical tools, such as GIS, would be accessed to interpret and explore this layered data.
Thresholds are those points or levels where a particular pressure is of significant intensity or impact to begin to produce a change in the state of a particular system (human, physical or built environment) which, if maintained would threaten the sustainability of that systems. Figure 90 illustrates diagrammatically the importance of being able to identify, measure and monitor the environmental thresholds by different domains and indicate at what point an environmental condition shifts from being sustainable to unsustainable to uninhabitable. In a number of domain areas, such as ambient air quality, water quality, noise and thermal performance, knowledge is accumulating to a point where it is becoming possible to advance performance standards. In other areas, such as access to services, indoor air quality, future population and transport, we are still some distance from achieving the required level of understanding. Here the need is to be visionary and goal-orientated, advancing strategic objectives considered desirable by panels of experts and community groups committed to sustainable development.
Figure 90 also illustrates the importance of time series data in order that trends can be monitored in tracking towards key goals, standards or thresholds. There is a deficiency in this area for many indicators.
Figure 90: Significance of thresholds in mapping sustainability trajectories for individual SoE indicators.
In striving for best practice, greater significance should also be given to benchmarking Australia's core settlement indicators against a set of international indicators.
The trend towards international benchmarking as an urban performance tool is a corollary of globalisation and competition between cities, and can be expected to increase. International benchmarking should be a key feature of the 2006 SoE Report, drawing significantly upon key global indicator initiatives such as:
- the Global Urban Observatory (http://www.unchs.org/guo/ ),
- Cities Environment Report on the Internet (http://www.ceroi.net ; or http://www.grida.no ),
- Construction and City Related Sustainability Indicators.