Human settlements: The condition of human settlements

Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Beeton RJS (Bob), Buckley Kristal I, Jones Gary J, Morgan Denise, Reichelt Russell E, Trewin Dennis
(2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee), 2006

3.3 The condition of human settlements

The condition of Australia’s human settlements is closely connected to the broader environment. In Australia, the overall condition is good. Most Australians live reasonably well, enjoying clean air and water, more than enough to eat, and ready access to employment, housing and a range of high quality services such as health and education. There are some notable exceptions, such as in many remote Indigenous communities. These require continuing and positive attention.

Community wellbeing

Wellbeing is a broad concept that includes factors such as family and social networks, neighbourhood amenity, access to services, as well as more individual issues such as employment , economic resources  and health  (OECD 1976, ABS 2001, Eckersley 1998). Wellbeing is not spread evenly through Australia’s human settlements.

The most disadvantaged group in Australia is remote Indigenous communities, in terms of almost every measure of wellbeing, including health, disability, housing, employment and education (ABS 2005c). For example, infant mortality in remote Indigenous communities is double the Australian average and average life expectancy is around 17 years lower (Productivity Commission 2005). Housing conditions for 9 per cent of Indigenous households do not support good health, largely because of overcrowding. Despite modest gains in some aspects, such as employment and education levels (ABS 2005c), it is patently obvious that much more needs to be done before some settlements will meet minimally acceptable standards for human settlements. In this context, governments have a lot more to do to support the capacity of Indigenous communities to be able to take a more active role in stewardship of Australia’s natural and cultural heritage.

The disparity in wellbeing across the rest of Australia is less significant, but it does exist. For example, rural and remote areas in general are poorly served in terms of health outcomes. Compared with the major cities, the number of deaths per thousand people is on average 10 per cent higher in regional Australia, and 50 per cent higher in very remote regions. Access to health services is of increasing concern because of a shortage in the number of health practitioners, which is worse in outer metropolitan, rural and remote areas and especially in Indigenous communities (Figure 8). Areas of special need such as mental health, aged care and disability services particularly suffer significant shortages in the face of growing demand (Productivity Commission 2005). Major regional centres and inner city areas have not experienced the same shortage in the supply of health professionals.

Continuing disparities in the wellbeing of urban Australians are seen in wealth in the last two decades. Some 20 per cent of households in Australia control almost 40 per cent of the nation’s total disposable income. One consequence of this gap is the concentration of welfare recipients in areas where housing is more affordable, but where there is little chance of finding work, such as in some areas in Melbourne (Birrell et al 1999, Borland et al 2001). The concern is that an intergenerational pattern of welfare dependency could be reinforced by a combination of poor family and neighbourhood experiences in relation to employment.

Computer literacy  is a key skill that is required to access the growing knowledge economy, but the availability of the resources needed—computers and Internet access—varies with income and geography (Figure 9). There are significant concentrations of information and knowledge workers within cities linked to high income-high amenity suburbs (Gipps et al 1996, Florida 2002, Newton 1991, Reich 1991).

Liveability: urban design and planning

Concerns with the growth of Australia’s larger cities have led to a greater attention to urban design and planning in the past five years, with most state governments producing strategic plans for their capital cities. These include policies that are designed to minimise the sprawl of outer suburbia and to encourage higher density residential development around key activity centres and routes served by public transport. Despite this, billions of dollars have been spent on freeway construction in Sydney and Melbourne in recent years (Newman 2006), and relatively little has been spent on improving public transport infrastructure, particularly to connect new outer suburbs.

As urban sprawl continues, the lack of integration of residential development, employment location and transport systems across capital cities could result in two city types: service rich, higher income inner and middle suburbs; and service poor, lower income outer urban areas. The type and location of sprawling residential areas will inevitably lead to increased car use, particularly across town. Inner city areas experience a decline in liveability due to the replacement of open space  with built form, increases in traffic , parking difficulties, noise and air emissions. Communities in inner-urban areas are now recognising the character of their neighbourhoods as a value to be protected; this is in addition to historic heritage. New developments, including ‘urban consolidation’ or ‘urban renewal’, are often resisted if they are seen to impinge on these values. If not managed well, these factors combined will inevitably cause strategic city plans to fall short of their goals.

Open space is increasingly seen as a major issue for the liveability of cities, but there were no national data available for this report. The amount and quality of public open space affects both mental and physical health. People are more likely to walk or cycle in areas with areas with well-designed and accessible public open space. In Australia, a disproportionately large amount of public open space is allocated to organised sport rather than to informal activities such as walking. Neighbourhoods characterised by low-density, poorly connected street networks and poor access to shops and services are associated with low levels of walking (Giles-Corti 2006).

With increases in the extent and density of urban areas, there is a concern that some open space has been lost, particularly in areas of infill and in smaller-lot greenfield developments. A planning approach that incorporates aspects of the natural environment into the evolving urban form would not only improve urban liveability and wellbeing, but it may also broaden and heighten the experience of the relationship between urban change and its effects on the natural environment.

A shift in governance is needed, with more cooperation between all levels of government, to be more involved in planning processes and work with large housing companies, road planning agencies and construction companies to determine the shape and functioning of Australian cities. Only then will the potential of changes to urban form lead to more efficiently functioning cities in Australia. That sustainable urban design and development is possible, has recently been demonstrated in Rouse Hill (New South Wales), Christie Walk (Adelaide) and Aurora (Victoria). The New South Wales BASIX (Building Sustainability Index) scheme has also achieved some performance improvements on issues such as energy and water, by requiring developers to achieve sustainability targets as a condition of gaining development approval.

The Sustainable Cities report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage provides useful guidance (HRSCEH 2005). Recommendations cover a broad range of urban sustainability issues, including that the Australian Government take a strong leadership role in urban sustainability issues in the areas of policy and governance, planning and settlement patterns, water, building design and management, energy, and research.

Sustainable human settlements require a reduction in resource consumption. A stronger emphasis on environmentally responsible behaviour by developers, governments, producers and consumers is needed to achieve this. Intervention by governments, at all three levels, can foster changes in behaviour. The development and implementation of an Australian Government policy on cities would provide leadership and guidance to the other two levels of government, as well as to developers, producers and consumers, so as to achieve a common approach to the creation of sustainable settlements.

Key points

  • Population growth and urban expansion, particularly in coastal areas and capital cities, are placing increasing pressure on the environment.
  • In the ten years to the last census (2001), there was a small but significant increase in the amount of high density housing in capital cities and regional cities.
  • The quality of human settlements is generally good, with remote Indigenous settlements being the notable exception.
  • In the past five years, the per capita consumption of energy has increased, with only a slow take-up of renewable energy.
  • The design of urban areas has a significant impact on their efficiency and environmental impact and some progress has been made towards recognising this fact in new developments, but the legacy of past urban and building design will continue to impact on the environment.
  • The rate of population growth is expected to slow, so pressures on the environment from this source may also grow at a slower rate, but this will be affected by future producer and consumer behaviour.