I heard a disturbing statistic the other day in relation to the world’s population growth, which said that the amount of food we will consume globally over the next 40 years will be equivalent to all the food consumed by the human race in the previous 10,000 years.

Most of the major global issues facing our generation, including crime, war, pollution, access to clean water, starvation, and deforestation (to name a few) are all directly or in-directly caused by non-sustainable population growth. Our resources are diminishing and the environmental implications resulting from global warming are becoming more apparent every year.

We are lucky enough to live in a country where many of these problems do not significantly affect our day to day lives, and where access to essential resources is taken for granted. Maybe because of this fact, we express a gluttonous desire to take what we want, and then worry ourselves about the consequences later (hopefully not within our life-time).

To quantify this statement, the most recent State of the Environment Report prepared by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA, 2007) for WA reports among other disturbing facts, that vegetation cover has decreased by 64% in the south west region between 1996 and 2004, and wetland vegetation on the Swan Coastal Plain is being lost or degraded at the rate of about two football ovals per day.

The idea of a sustainable development is still relatively in its infancy in Western Australia. Some aspects are expensive to implement upfront and with limited precedence, it can be difficult to sell the idea of sustainable initiatives up front to a budget-conscious development industry, especially in an uncertain market.

It can also be difficult for developers to ensure sustainable measures are implemented in private households following title handovers, which is an unfortunate disconnect in the development and building industries.

However if undertaken in the right way, sustainability and development together can be a beneficial symbiotic relationship, increasing profit margins and image for the developer, reducing our footprint on the environment and creating a closer sense of community.

What is Sustainable Development?

A report prepared for the World Commission on Environment and Development, entitled, Our Common Future, defined sustainable development as the “ability to make development sustainable—to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (WCED, 1987)

In urban development, sustainability has many facets and can be implemented across a range of disciplines, from high level planning to on the ground landscaping works. The natural features of the site will also guide the appropriate sustainability response for each development. While this opinion piece is focussed on the environmental benefits of sustainable urbanism, the concept is much broader and also considers factors such as the social benefits associated with better connected, community focussed developments. This in turn promotes greater interaction, accessibility and a generally a healthier and happier population.

EnviroDevelopment, an initiative administered by UDIA, breaks sustainability in development into six disciplines – ecosystems, waste, energy, materials, water and communities. Each of these disciplines has a wide range of sustainable measures that can be implemented depending on the type, scale and location of the development. The opportunities are abundant and diverse, and do not necessarily need to be a significant burden on the developer.

Why urban development?

Australia, relative to the rest of the world, exudes wealth and prosperity. We truly are the lucky country when it comes to work opportunities, lifespan and social infrastructure. However we seem to be lagging behind other developed countries when it comes to implementing measures to reduce and manage our environmental footprint.

To highlight this fact, a report entitled ‘Sustainable Cities’ prepared for the House of Representatives – Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage highlighted some confronting statistics on the impact Australian households are having on the environment and how this rates in comparison to other developing countries (SCEH, 2005):

  • Greenhouse gas emissions are 27 tonnes per capita per year. This puts Australia’s per capita rate as the world’s highest.
  • Water consumption is 1540 kilolitres per capita per year. This is also the highest per capita rate (North America is 1510; Europe 665; Asia 650; World 670).
  • Energy use in the residential sector has increased 60 per cent since 1975, despite population increases of nearly half this (35 per cent). Commercial sector energy use is forecast to double between 1990-2010 under business-as-usual scenarios.
  • Travel (vehicle kilometres travelled) has increased by almost 60 per cent in cities such as Sydney between 1980 and 2000. This increase adds significantly to congestion and air pollution.
  • Material consumption, at 180 tonnes per capita per year, is the highest of all developed countries.
  • Domestic waste stream is 620 kilograms per capita per year. This rate is second only to the United States of America.

To add local insult to injury, the latest Sustainable Cities Index Report rated Perth the least sustainable of Australia’s 20 biggest cities (ACF, 2010).

As a result it is more important than ever to look to the future growth of our cities, and ensure that this growth is managed in a way that prioritises sustainable development and strongly encourages measures to improve community and social benefits as well as reducing environmental impacts. This is particularly critical in WA, where growth is expected to surge over the next 10-20 years.

The Western Australian Planning Commission (WAPC) population forecasts in the ‘WA Tomorrow report’ indicate that the projected total population of Perth and Peel will be approximately 2.2 million by 2031 (WAPC, 2005), adding more than half a million new residents to the city.

The Directions 2031 document (WAPC, 2010) indicates that an additional 328,000 homes will be necessary to support this population growth. This number of additional dwellings will place significant stress on an already strained physical environment across the greater Perth metro area, and result in an additional 6 million tonnes of GHG emissions per year (EPA Victoria, website undated).

An increase in infill housing is part of the solution, and there is certainly more of a move towards higher density living in Perth, though the targets set by the State Government in this regard are still the lowest of all Australian capital cities. Regardless, urban growth at the outskirts is still considered necessary by Government to cope with the increasing population, and will continue to expand significantly beyond the current metropolitan boundaries.

What are the advantages of a sustainable urban development?

Understandably, the focus is often placed on the social and environmental benefits of sustainable urban development. Ultimately these benefits are the objective, however we should also recognise that sustainable urbanism can be economically beneficial, which is essential to be considered viable by private development.

A study undertaken by the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment on the ‘Value of Urban Design’ (2005) examined evidence relating to the economic advantages attributed to (among others) elements relating to sustainability in urban design, as detailed below:

  • Distinctive local character can help in the promotion and branding of cities and regions, potentially adds a premium to the value of housing, and reinforces a sense of identity among residents, encouraging them to actively manage their neighbourhood.
  • Well-connected cities, towns and neighbourhoods can enhance land values.
  • High quality public realm leads to enhanced urban economic performance by attracting people and activities, encourages greater participation in community and cultural activities, and supports associated businesses.
  • The study also found that considerable evidence points to well-designed projects have the potential to generate higher returns to developers.

Further, and most importantly, there is growing evidence that the biggest market for housing is now in the kind of centres where people have access to the amenity and services of a city and the option of quality, sustainable transport modes with all their health and productivity benefits (Kelly, 2011; Newman and Matan, 2012). Sustainable development will generally offer the aesthetic and community feel of a well-considered and liveable development. In turn, this will increase the appeal and offer a point of difference for purchasers in a competitive market.

An example of this can be quantified by a recent study undertaken by the University of Western Australia (UWA), which analysed the economic implications of broad leaved trees on a suburban street within a 92 square kilometre region of the Perth metropolitan area. The study found that generally both trees on private property and on the streets have a positive impact on property price. However established broad leaved trees in verges had a significant effect on property sale price, increasing the median property value by $16,889 (Pandit et al., 2012).

In addition, well established street trees can affect the micro-climate of individual households and the broader neighbourhood, reducing temperatures on hot days, and thereby reducing air-conditioning use.

More generally, successfully implemented sustainable cities and developments globally and locally have demonstrated a number of measurable benefits assisting in improving the commercial viability of sustainable urban development. Some of these more universally applicable benefits include:

  • The planning and environmental approval timeframes can potentially be improved.
  • Many of the sustainability initiatives, such as UDIA’s EnviroDevelopment offer marketing opportunities for those developments that have received certification in the program. EnviroDevelopment also publishes details of certified developments on their website.
  • Residents living in the development may take greater pride in the community, and may be more likely to take care of their private space, as well as community infrastructure. Crime is also likely to be lower. This will increase the aesthetic appeal of the development, and reduce maintenance costs to public areas (TPF, 2007).
  • Ongoing household running costs are a key concern for prospective purchasers, and new urban development’s offering demonstrable energy and water savings will warrant increased land and building prices as consumers can see the long term benefit. This has been successfully demonstrated in Western Australian developments.


With increasing population pressures on our urban areas along with diminishing global resources, the need to develop more sustainable lifestyles and urban form is snowballing. This coupled with advancements in technology to reduce the economic burden, makes it difficult to ignore the concept of sustainable development.

By promoting sustainable urban form, function and development, cities become healthy, viable places for people to live, work and play. There are numerous advantages to sustainable urban development including a better quality of life, more availability of green spaces, lower levels of crime, better accessibility and transport for all, lower levels of environmental pollution and impact, and (if done right) increased profitability!


The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Coterra Environment or the Urban Development Institute of Australia.
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