Building sustainable cities

Matthew James, Science, Technology, Environment and Resources Section

Balancing the impacts of urban development for an expanding population gives rise to issues of energy use, land availability, transport systems and infrastructure planning.

Planning infrastructure: an urban myth?

The past year has seen ‘an elephant enter the room’ of our cities with the sudden increase of Commonwealth interest in the planning of our major urban metropolitan areas. The Rudd Government established a Major Cities Unit (MCU), within the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government portfolio. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed last December that by 1 January 2012 all states will have in place plans that meet defined criteria for the future strategic planning of Australia’s capital cities, and that Federal Government decisions on infrastructure funding will be linked to meeting these criteria. In May 2010, the Federal Government requested the Productivity Commission to undertake a benchmarking study into Planning, Zoning and Development Assessments.

Given these federal intentions the Council of Capital City Lord Mayors released in May 2010 a submission to the Government on the development of a national urban policy Towards a City Strategy aiming to secure the productive, sustainable and livable future of their cities. In December 2009, the Local Government and Planning Ministers’ Council endorsed purpose, issue and system principles in their document National Planning System Principles. These joined such declarations as the 2003 National Charter of Integrated Land Use and Transport Planning and the May 2007 Planning Institute of Australia statement on Integrated Land Use and Transport Planning.

Meanwhile, under review, is the planning of new developments around airports, where a relaxation of commonwealth control saw a rise in commercial buildings development. The Australian Greens in November 2009 announced a policy for sustainable planning and transport. This includes the establishment of:

  • a national report card for development targets and building standards
  • a Sustainability Fund, and
  • national urban planning standards.

Energy use in buildings: how many stars?

The Commonwealth has worked with the building industry and the states and territories on sustainable housing to make new and existing homes more energy-efficient and water-efficient through new provisions in the Building Code of Australia. These came into effect in all states and territories on 1 May 2010.

COAG signed in April 2009 a Memorandum of Understanding for a National Strategy on Energy Efficiency followed in July 2009 by the National Partnership Agreement on Energy Efficiency. COAG agreed that the energy efficiency requirement of residential buildings would be increased to a minimum of six stars or equivalent in 2010. This included energy efficiency requirements for hot water in new houses and lighting in new houses and apartments.

There has been some concern expressed at the rating software systems used to assess star efficiency levels and the differences between actual household energy usage and building energy efficiency. Industry bodies commissioned studies into the rating system, finding the software tools unreliable. However, the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency released a statement (13 August 2010) disputing this.

The issue of the sustainability of energy supply to our cities and transport systems is discussed in the brief on Powering Australia from Renewable Resources.

Future transport systems… for flying pigs?

During the 2010 federal election campaign, the Greens, the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal National Party Coalition all announced policy commitments to a feasibility study into an east coast, very fast train system. As well, plans were advanced for completion of an inland rail route to serve freight transport. Both systems have been the subject of prolonged previous studies and proposals that have mainly stalled.

The Australian Rail Track Corporation’s July 2010 report on The Melbourne-Brisbane Inland Rail Alignment Study found that an inland route from Victoria, through central and north west New South Wales, then into Queensland (through the towns of Albury, Parkes, Narromine, Narrabri, Moree and Toowoomba) has the potential to reduce the time it takes to move freight from Melbourne to Brisbane by rail, and to increase the capacity of freight rail paths between the two cities. Its economic value remains unclear, but there is demand for the $4.7 billion railway that would result in a freeing of capacity through Sydney, with a portion of freight continuing to need and use the coastal railway. The study suggested re-examining the inland rail project from 2015 to 2020 to reassess its viability.

The former Very Fast Train proposal and later High Speed Train plans for passenger services along the east coast have been well studied since the mid 1980s. So far, no proposal has proven commercially viable without a significant public sector funding contribution and/or other forms of financial concession such as for lands. The last major report was the 2002 East Coast Very High Speed Train Scoping Study commissioned by the then Commonwealth Government in December 2000, to conduct a comprehensive examination of options for a very high speed train network connecting Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne with major regional centers along the way. In 2010, the Cooperative Research Centre for Rail Innovation released a study to synthesise the current knowledge of High Speed Rail in the Australian context and to provide directions for further investigation.

There have been various party policy commitments made to urban light rail transit (LRT) systems, electric vehicle and ‘green car’ programs, as well as vehicle fuel efficiency and emissions reduction strategies. The actual appearance of new LRT and alternative vehicle prototypes in Australian cities seem few and far between.

Library publications and key documents

Australian Building Code Board (ABCB), Building Code of Australia, 2 vols, ABCB, Canberra, 2010,

Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC), The Melbourne-Brisbane Inland Rail Alignment Study, ARTC, Canberra, July 2010,

Infrastructure Australia, State of Australian Cities 2010, Major Cities Unit, Canberra, 2010, http://dpl/Books/2010/InfrastructureAust_StateAustCities2010.pdf

M James, The (Green Car) of the Future, Background note, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2009,