Thematic findings: Human settlements

Independent Report to the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Australian State of the Environment Committee, Authors
CSIRO Publishing on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06745 0

Thematic findings (continued)

Human settlements

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Human settlements are where most Australians live and work. Their design, planning, construction and operation are fundamental to the productivity and competitiveness of the economy, the quality of life of all citizens and the ecological sustainability of the continent.

Human settlement in Australia dates back at least 60 000 years to an Indigenous population engaged in hunting and gathering. With the arrival of Europeans just over 200 years ago, the first of a series of major societal, economic, technological and settlement transitions occurred.

There have been several improvements in recent years. Examples include cleaner air in our cities, reduced use of water by households on a per household basis, increased recycling of some materials, improved efficiency in the use of energy by households and improved streetscapes in many parts of Australia. Nevertheless, many problems remain. Most problems occur as a result of the very high level of material and energy consumption, which shows no sign of abating and continues to increase at a high rate for many materials.

In considering the condition of human settlements in Australia, there are seven key issues, discussed below:

  • the pattern of human settlements
  • infrastructure, particularly for Indigenous communities
  • material and energy consumption
  • urban water use
  • transport use
  • indoor air quality
  • management of waste.

A summary is presented in Key findings at the start of this report.

Key issues

  • Environmental pressures are accentuated by the pattern of human settlements
  • Inadequate infrastructure, particularly for Indigenous communities
  • High material and energy consumption
  • Urban water use
  • Increased transport use
  • Indoor air quality
  • Management of waste
  • -->
    Environmental pressures are accentuated by the pattern of human settlements

    Australia's population is estimated to be 19.3 million. The pattern of settlement is characterised by high rates of urbanisation but low density cities. Most Australians (about 60.7%) live in the five largest cities. Significant coastal non-metropolitan urban growth is also occurring, particularly in New South Wales, southern Queensland and south-west Western Australia.

    Over the next 10 years, the population growth rate is expected to decline slightly from 1.1% to 0.9% per annum. The pattern of human settlement is not expected to change greatly although urbanisation is expected to increase. The five largest cities are expected to contain 61.6% of Australia's population in 10 years.

    The main contributor to population growth continues to be natural increase (births minus deaths) but net immigration is also important. Its contribution is more variable (Figure 37).

    Figure 37: Components of population growth, Australia, 1986 to 1999.

     Components of population growth, Australia, 1986 to 1999

    Source: ABS (2000d)

    The effect of this growth on human settlements is variable. Australia continues to experience very significant levels of population growth associated with the mega-metropolitan regions centred on the state capitals. The major component of this growth is continuing suburbanisation and the extension of urbanised area into the regions surrounding the officially designated metropolitan areas. These may develop further in prominence as high-speed ground transport (i.e. freeways, but more particularly high-speed rail) transforms provincial cities, such as Ballarat, Traralgon, Newcastle, the Gold Coast region and Toowoomba, into commuter areas of their respective state capitals because of reduced journey-to-work travel times.

    The continued growth of these mega-metropolitan regions, particularly in the coastal margin, raises significant issues for policy and planning. For example the effect on often fragile coastal environments is substantial and in some jurisdictions, such as New South Wales, there are steps to regulate coastal development (see Premier's statement on Coastal-Package, 26 June 2001). The implications for the supply of water, provision of transportation infrastructure, management of waste outputs and loss of biodiversity at the urban fringe present major challenges.

    Increased residential construction activity is one of the consequences of population growth. The decline in the average size of households (2.6 persons in 1996 compared with 3.3 persons in 1976) and the increase in average floor space (3% per annum over the last 7 years) add to the pressures.

    Suburbanisation of both population and jobs post-World War II has been an important, indeed dominant, process shaping the development of big cities, with settlement pushing further out into the urban fringes and peri-urban regions. The general pattern of development had been of population growth in outer metropolitan areas and a decline in the population of the inner city suburbs. In the 1990s, a new trend is counteracting some of the push to further suburbanisation. Population numbers in inner-city suburbs have begun to increase in all five of the nation's big cities (Figure 38). After decades of decline, many of the older sections of the inner cities have taken on a new lease of life. The rates of population growth in the inner-city suburbs are, however, still well below those occurring in the outer suburbs and fringe areas. Thus, the relatively small aggregate effect of reurbanisation in redistributing population growth patterns in the big cities needs to be put in its proper perspective, as there is a tendency to exaggerate the overall impacts of the inner-city renaissance on growth patterns.

    Figure 38: Change in population density, Sydney, 1981 to 1996.

     Change in population density, Sydney, 1981 to 1996

    Source: Baker et al. (2001)

    The previous Commonwealth government commissioned an Urban Design Task Force which published a report in 1994 on urban design in Australia. Subsequently, the current government decided to leave issues of urban design to the states and territories. There has been considerable research into good urban design but little in the way of programs apart from a few notable exceptions.

    Outside the metropolitan areas there is significant growth along the coast, particularly in New South Wales and Queensland. The pattern of inland regional and rural settlement in Australia is characterised, however, by periods of growth and decline as the fortune of regions and their associated cities and towns rise and fall with demographic, social and economic change. There has been growth in several inland regions, mainly the larger provincial towns, but the population of smaller towns and rural areas has declined.

    An important issue affecting the viability of many smaller towns is the impact that surrounding larger centres can have on economic and social activity. Over several decades many small inland towns have declined as a result of their rural hinterland populations bypassing them. A wider range of goods and services are available in the larger regional towns. This decline is expected to continue. This reduces the capacity of smaller settlements to deal with environmental and heritage issues from their own resources.

    Another important influence on human settlements is the significant increase in short-term visitors. The lure of Australia as a tourist destination since the mid-1980s is reflected in the continuing increase in the numbers of short-term visitors; the annual growth rate has been nearly 10%. This increase affects Australia's cities and regions in a variety of ways and it is also spatially selective. Often it is responsible for significant growth in service-based industry and employment and can provide an important economic stimulus, especially in regions that have declined as a result of the downturn in traditional industries. Overall, non-metropolitan locations attract fewer numbers of international tourists, the exceptions being the Whitsunday (Great Barrier Reef) coast in Queensland and the Uluru-Alice Springs area in the Northern Territory.

    In summary, the particular pattern of human settlement in Australia accentuates pressures on the environment. The population in most of Australia's major cities will continue to increase. We need to plan for this increase. Good urban design is one way of reducing the environmental impact. But little is being done in the way of real change in urban design. There has been considerable research on the topic but there is no agreement on preferred urban form, taking account of environmental considerations; although there is growing evidence that developments with a more concentrated form of settlement deliver environmental benefits of lower VKT, energy consumption, carbon dioxide emissions and urban water use. Other factors such as improved streetscapes, noise, access and security are also important.

    Trend: Form of human settlement
    Pressures on the form of human settlements have remained constant since 1996 while responses have been inadequate in most respects.

    The Green Games

    The Sydney Olympic Games of 2000 (see ) provided an opportunity to showcase sustainability of a human settlement. The main benefits of the Green Games were:

    • hazardous waste site remediation into a world-class sporting, residential, business, recreational and conservation precinct
    • water conservation through on site rainwater collection and irrigation, recycled water for toilet flushing, environmental flow enhancement for Boundary Creek
    • energy conservation measures which include: passive cooling to reduce air-conditioning loads; one of the world's largest solar-powered suburb; and natural-gas-run buses. These measures considerably reduced greenhouse gas production
    • waste management measures which included: 90% reuse and recycling of construction waste; recycled cardboard furniture and food and beverage packing; biodegradable cutlery and serviettes to maximise the utilisation of organic waste into saleable compost; excess seating provided with relocation and reuse prearranged.
    Inadequate infrastructure, particularly for Indigenous communities

    Indigenous demography and settlement patterns differ from the rest of Australia in several important respects (see Growth in the number of Indigenous Australians). Proportionately, Indigenous peoples are more likely to live in rural and remote areas and are less likely to live in major urban centres than other Australians. Problems of isolation and access compound problems of these types of settlements. There are several Commonwealth and state programs aimed at improving the living conditions of Indigenous communities. Although some progress may have been made, a lot more needs to be done as many communities still have inadequate housing, power and water supply, sewerage and road access. Such developments may contribute to improved health outcomes and other benefits.

    Australia has experienced considerable reductions in mortality in the 20th century, largely as a result of improvements in many social and environmental amenities and conditions (e.g. hospitals, sanitation, health education, quality of food and water supply). However, these improvements are not uniform. Indigenous peoples, and those living in rural and remote areas have higher death rates than the general population.

    Although environmental hazards are increasingly seen as important factors influencing health, there is no strong evidence that morbidity rates due to these factors are increasing. The quality of drinking water is good as outbreaks of waterborne diseases are few. Although there has been some increase in reported outbreaks of foodborne diseases, our food contains low levels of chemical residues and metals. There has been some increase in vectorborne diseases (e.g. encephalitis) in recent years, although they are still at low levels. Some believe global warming is a factor but there is no hard evidence.

    However, the decline in spending on public sector infrastructure could have environmental consequences. For example, ageing sewer pipes are considered a major problem, with many between 50 and 100 years old. A report from the Institution of Engineers Australia (see on infrastructure rated the condition of the roads, bridges, railways and water and sewerage networks as relatively poor.

    Trend: Urban infrastructure
    The condition of some urban infrastructure is deteriorating, pressures on it are increasing and responses have not been fully adequate.

    Growth in the number of Indigenous Australians

    The official estimate of the number of Indigenous peoples has been increasing rapidly. Between 1991 and 1996, the population grew by around one-third to almost 353 000. This increase in numbers is influenced strongly by the change in the propensity for individuals to identify as Indigenous.

    About half of the net increase can be explained by births, deaths or migration. Factors which may help to explain the remaining increase include changes in the rate at which children with only one Indigenous parent are identified as Indigenous; changes in the propensity of Indigenous peoples to record themselves as such on the census form; and improvements to census counting procedures.

    The age distribution for Indigenous Australians differs markedly from that of the rest of the population. About 60% of Indigenous Australians are aged less than 20. The corresponding figure for all Australians is 35%. This is also reflected by the substantial differences in median ages - 20 for Indigenous Australians compared with 33 for all Australians.

    High material and energy consumption
  • Materials
  • Energy
  • -->

    Australia's level of per capita material flows is very high by world standards and continues to grow rapidly. Australia generates material flows of almost 180 t/person per year and there has been little progress on decoupling economic growth and material consumption. The current trend is not sustainable and the pressure to achieve dematerialised economies will require much more attention to, and analysis of, material flows in urban areas.

    Studies of metabolic flows in European cities (e.g. the study of the urban metabolism of Vienna) show that it is not only important to measure flows of energy and materials into and out of urban areas, but also that it is important to look at accumulations of materials. Accumulations can be a significant potential source of both future pollution and stocks of materials for future recovery and use (Figure 39).

    Figure 39: Components of total material flow per person, exports and domestic consumption each disaggregated into direct material input and hidden flow.

     Components of total material flow per person, exports and domestic consumption each disaggregated into direct material input and hidden flow

    Source: Foran and Poldy (2000)

    The use of most materials is largely set at the design stage of products and processes and therefore the focus for reduced material use should be at this stage. Ecodesign and cleaner production can reduce material consumption in production of products and services. However, gains from these type of initiatives have been more than offset by increases in per capita use of these products and additional features included with the products. Ecolabelling and product declarations have been used to try to drive consumer behaviour toward selecting products with recycled material, water and energy efficiency, or low toxicity in production or disposal, but have had limited success.

    A lack of regulatory and financial pressures (i.e. relative prices of ecoefficient energy and materials) limits the penetration of ecodesign and cleaner production technologies.

    Trend: Material use
    Material use per capita has continued to increase since 1996 while responses have been adequate to some extent.


    Australia's per capita energy use is also very high by world standards (Figure 40) and continues to grow rapidly. Total energy use has doubled over the last 25 years and, unlike most other developed countries, at a faster rate than the GDP. With one of the highest rates of growth in energy use in the world, and the associated increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, energy usage is increasing at an unsustainable level. The main contributor to the growth in energy use is the generation of electricity to support the needs of a range of end users.

    Figure 40: Comparison of Australian energy use per capita in 1995 with selected countries.

     Comparison of Australian energy use per capita in 1995 with selected countries

    Source: WRI (  )

    One of Australia's responses to global warming has involved increased emphasis on development of renewable energy and stronger policies on energy efficiency. The AGO was formed to stimulate and encourage these types of initiatives. Programs aimed at increasing energy efficiency (particularly in the household sector), and the use of sustainable energy sources are having an effect but are not enough to offset the impact of increasing demand. More efficient electricity generation would significantly improve the situation.

    Schemes such as Green Power tariffs, where consumers voluntarily pay extra for energy derived from renewable sources, have only met with moderate success. We are still well short of the Commonwealth government's 2% renewable target, a mandatory requirement that electricity suppliers buy extra renewable energy.

    Programs run by agencies such as the New South Wales Sustainable Energy Development Authority, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Victoria, agencies in other states, and the Commonwealth government's AGO and Department of Industry Science and Resources are all contributing to the development of sustainable energy products and services, as well as the growth of the industry itself. There has been higher take up in New South Wales than other parts of Australia. There is also an increasing interest at the local government level. Over 85 councils now participate in the Cities for Climate Protection program, which involves them in preparation of greenhouse inventories, action plans and targets, as well as implementation of measures to reduce emissions.

    Despite these initiatives, energy from 'cleaner' renewable sources (Figure 41) is growing at a much slower rate than energy derived from other (non-renewable) sources (e.g. coal).

    Figure 41: Trends in total energy, final energy and renewable energy consumption in Australia 1975-2010.

     Trends in total energy, final energy and renewable energy consumption in Australia 1975-2010

    Source: Newton et al. (2001)

    Reform of the energy market was originally seen as a greenhouse gas strategy, but the lowering of energy prices is encouraging higher use. The reforms have been specifically targeted at lowering energy prices, without internalising the full costs of energy production and use (i.e. the cost of their environmental effects). In contrast, the higher cost of renewable energy sources is discouraging their use and may explain their relatively low growth. Figure 42 compares electricity prices in Australia with other countries, confirming our relatively low energy prices.

    Figure 42: Residential electricity price comparison, January 1999.

     Residential electricity price comparison, January 1999

    Source: ESAA (1999)

    Community awareness of the implications of their high energy use appears to be low. Increased awareness may influence some behaviour. Furthermore, there is little movement towards designing goods and services so that they have reduced energy and material inputs (e.g. by using recycled materials) even though this is technically feasible. Some market intervention that affects relative prices may be necessary to provide the incentives to move towards lower use of the energy sources with greatest environmental impacts.

    Trend: Energy use
    Energy use continues to grow while responses have been inadequate.

    Urban water use

    Residential use of water per household has decreased in most major urban areas in recent years. The urban water industry has changed considerably, largely in response to the COAG Water Reform Framework. There has been an emergence of a more mature water industry with a shift in emphasis from development to management. Pay-for-use price systems have been introduced as well as further organisational restructuring and reform.

    Policy, regulatory, and commercial (operator) functions of organisations have been separated through restructuring and reform in order to clarify accountabilities. For example, urban water businesses are now provided with clear commercial goals of customer service, environmental compliance and sound business operation, free of other conflicting objectives. Regulatory roles have been transferred to regulatory authorities. Overall, these programs are viewed as successful. For example, true cost pricing of water supplies, in line with COAG requirements, has reduced urban water demand in most major areas (Figure 43).

    Figure 43: Average per capita household water use for major urban areas.

     Average per capita household water use for major urban areas

    Source: Water Services Association of Australia (1999)

    Potential utilisation of alternate sources of water, such as stormwater and wastewater, is now being considered. Under the Commonwealth's 'Living Cities' Program, three programs, the Urban Stormwater Initiative, the Industry Partnership Program and Water Watch Australia, together aim to monitor and improve the health of urban waterways. Several state and territory-based programs have been introduced, together with community programs such as Streamwatch and Waterwatch. In addition, stormwater management plans for urban catchments are being developed by local authorities with financial support from state and territory agencies. Stormwater is increasingly seen as a resource to be collected and utilised rather than a waste to be disposed of. Programs to encourage greater reuse of stormwater and wastewater should be encouraged.

    Trend: Urban water use
    Residential water use per capita is decreasing while pressures are increasing and the response is adequate in most respects.

    Increased transport use

    Australia has a very high level of vehicle ownership by international standards. Increased out-of-home activities and road freight have also led to a significant increase in kilometres travelled (63% increase between 1981 and 2000).

    These increases, particularly the high use of private transport, constitute a factor leading to Australia's high levels of per capita greenhouse gas emissions. The transport sector accounted for 16.1% of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions in 1999 (AGO 2001) and is one of the fastest growing sources of these emissions. Our per capita transport emissions are one of the highest in the world. Figure 44 shows past and projected greenhouse gas emissions from various sectors.

    Figure 44: Energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, Australia.
    Emissions from energy conversion and fugitive emissions have been allocated to end-use sectors.

     Energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, Australia

    Source: ABARE energy data; ABS data; Wilkenfeld and Associates (1998); Bush et al. (1999)

    Increased transport use is also contributing to increased traffic congestion and environmental noise, accentuated by trends such as increased residential density and more evening activities. One in 10 dwellings in Australia's cities experience levels of road traffic noise over an 18-hour period, which exceeds recommended levels. This is occurring when workplace noise is decreasing because of the changing structure of Australian industry and improved occupational health and safety practices.

    The extent of public transport use remains stagnant. Improved public transport could help to reduce private transport use. The level of public transport use depends on effective urban form and design as well as factors such as relative cost and convenience.

    Vehicle fuel efficiency is improving, as is the level of emissions as a result of new government standards. New public infrastructure, such as motorways and highways, may have helped to reduce emissions. Improved motorways and highways are likely to increase usage, but whether these improvements will outweigh the increase in fuel efficiency is debatable.

    Positive developments have been more than offset by increased use, particularly of larger four-wheel drive vehicles, the ageing motor vehicle fleet and freight transport. Although the transport contribution to greenhouse gas emissions has increased, lead and carbon monoxide emissions are declining as a result of phasing out of leaded fuel and the introduction of higher emission standards for motor vehicles (see the Atmosphere theme report).

    Trend: Transport use
    Transport use is continuing to grow at a faster rate than population growth (i.e. more cars, more often and further). The condition of transport is deteriorating (i.e. increasing congestion, ageing vehicle fleet and infrastructure). However, there has been an adequate response in some respects (i.e. efficiency and emissions initiatives).

    Indoor air quality

    Urban air quality is good, compared with cities of a similar size, with a range of Commonwealth and state programs having assisted. However, over 90% of our time is spent in enclosed environments (including vehicles), resulting in increasing concern about indoor air quality. Although there is a paucity of data on indoor air quality, the main issues include the initial periods of occupation for new or renovated houses and offices, urban transport and environ-ments where smoking is allowed (Table 12). Insufficient information is available to determine changes in indoor air quality. Although the increasing prohibition of smoking in enclosed environments is positive, 39% of all children live with at least one adult who smokes. More information needs to be obtained on indoor air quality and its effects on human health and productivity. However, there are encouraging reports on prohibition of smoking in public places.

    Table 12: Indoor and outdoor air pollutant levels for some Australian buildings
    Pollutant Health goal
    (g/m3, 0C/101 kPa)
    Typical indoor air concentrations (g/m3) Typical outdoor air concentration (g/m3)
    New house/office Established house Established office
    Formaldehyde 130 (NHMRC) 100-800 20-120 40-120 10-20
    Total VOCs 500 (NHMRC) 5 000-20 000 200-300 100-300 20-100
    Nitrogen dioxide
    No unflued gas heater
    Unflued gas heater
    225 (NEPM)



    60-1 500


    (300 peak)
    Fine particles (PM10)
    50 (NEPM)




    Dust mite allergens
    (per gram of house dust)
    2-10 g/g (WHO)
      10-60 coastal  


    Source: Brown (1996, 1997, 1998a,b, 2000) and Manins et al. (2001).

    Trend: Indoor air quality
    There are insufficient data to determine trends, and responses are inadequate in most respects.

    Management of waste

    Settlements depend upon energy, food, water and materials coming from a great diversity of places. Water, in particular, could become a limiting resource on the growth of some human settlements (e.g. in Adelaide). The level of reuse (Table 13) is starting to increase and this also provides a promising opportunity to increase available water supply to human settlements. Despite its potential, however, reuse of wastewater and stormwater is low in comparison with many other countries, particularly when Australia is regarded as one of the driest continents on earth.

    Table 13: National wastewater reuse volumes and percentage by water sector
    Year Volume reuse (ML) Water sector
    Domestic Industrial Commercial Rural
    1993-94 93 902 0 36 30 34
    1994-95 101 292 0 35 26 39
    1995-96 109 238 0 37 25 38
    1996-97 134 427 0 43 26 31

    Source: ABS (2000e).

    Settlements also export wastes and emissions which can affect neighbouring areas, sometimes at considerable distances from them. Waste generation is at a high level with the per capita disposal rate for domestic waste at 620 kg/year, placing us second only to the USA among the OECD countries (Figure 45). Over 95% of solid waste is disposed to landfill, of which construction and demolition of buildings contributes between 40 and 50%. The level of household waste is not vastly different to other countries (Figure 45).

    Figure 45: Top 10 municipal waste disposers in the OECD.

     Top 10 municipal waste disposers in the OECD

    Source: OECD (1999)

    The National Waste Minimisation Act was adopted in 1992, after which states and territories set waste reduction targets. Several important initiatives have followed. Although the waste reduction targets have not been met, the program has had a positive effect in several jurisdictions (Figure 46).

    Figure 46: Solid waste disposal rates (t/person per year).
    The definition of solid waste disposal for Victoria changed between 1996-97 and 1997-98 and this accounts for the apparent increase.

     Solid waste disposal rates (t/person per year)

    Source: EcoRecycle Victoria, EPA NSW, EPA SA, ACT Government, DEPWA

    Trend: Waste management
    As a result of increasing pressures and adequate responses in most respects, the condition is static.

    Programs to increase recycling have had some success, particularly with kerbside recycling and the reuse of materials from demolished buildings. In the five years between 1993-1994 and 1998-1999, quantities of waste disposed at landfills in the Australian Capital Territory were reduced by 40%, while the amount of wastes that were recycled more than doubled from 118 000 to 331 000 tonnes (ACT Government 2000). In Victoria, the quantities of wastes that were recovered and recycled have also steadily increased from 1.4 million tonnes in 1993 to 3.2 million tonnes in 1998-1999 (EcoRecycle Victoria 2000) (Figure 47).

    Figure 47: Per capita waste recovery and recycling rates in the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria.

     Per capita waste recovery and recycling rates in the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria

    Source: ACT Government (2000) and EcoRecycle Victoria (1998, 2000)

    Although waste recovery and recycling rates have improved in all jurisdictions, these fell well short of the national target of 50% reduction by 2000 (set in 1992). In Sydney, the level of waste reduction achieved by 2000 against the 1990 baseline was close to 18%. Further reductions are necessary and the targets set in 1992 should be revisited. Strengthening existing waste management programs is likely to be the best option.

    The volume of wastewater and stormwater to be disposed has risen, but has been offset to some extent by the level of treatment, reuse and land-based disposal. Yet despite considerable investment in infrastructure and an improvement in coastal water quality, Sydney Harbour water quality is still affected by sewer overflows.

    The quantity of hazardous waste generated has also been increasing rapidly. For example, in Sydney between 1992 and 1996, the amount of hazardous waste increased from 170 000 to 422 000 tonnes.


    If existing trends continue, pressures from human settlements are not consistent with a sustainable environment. This is accentuated by:

    • the form of settlement, particularly the high growth in coastal areas and urban fringes and the dispersed low-density form of settlement
    • the very high per capita material usage which is still growing
    • the very high per capita energy usage which is also still growing and leading to increases in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly through electricity generation and transport usage
    • a high level of per capita waste by world standards although it appears to have stabilised in recent years
    • the uneven distribution of wealth means that some settlements (e.g. many Indigenous settlements and small rural towns) do not always have the capacity to look after their environment and heritage.

    Several responses by governments of all jurisdictions have been successful or partly successful. However, more needs to be done, to focus on more efficient resource use, i.e. doing more with less for longer. Creating sustainable settlements will require significant institutional and individual changes.