How well are our cities working?
Here’s some encouraging news for city-dwellers: per person, since 2006, we’ve been consuming less energy and water, producing less waste and recovering more of it, and breathing cleaner air.
The study, which was first undertaken last year, compiles dozens of indicators regarding population, productivity, sustainability and liveability in urban areas.
Among its varied findings, the report reveals that while inner-city areas have become denser, it’s the outer suburbs that still accommodate most of the population growth.
Despite the gathering sprawl, average commuting times – longest in Sydney (35 minutes) and Melbourne (31 minutes) – remained steady in the decade to 2006.
The report also shows that public transport use is on the rise. The average distance travelled by vehicle peaked early last decade and has fallen slightly since then. Nevertheless, the total “vehicle kilometres travelled” in our cities continues to increase, because we have more people and more freight altogether.
So how should we judge these facts about our cities?
Alan March, senior lecturer in urban planning at University of Melbourne, says the analysis lacks a yardstick. “I don’t see a forward projection there, which is the point of ‘sustain’ in sustainability: a sense of how we’re going to deal with a low-carbon or a low–fossil fuel future,” he says.
He’s also troubled by the scant attention given to inequality and disparities in service provision. “The way cities operate is crucial to the difference between the haves and the have-nots, which is clearly increasing in Australia,” he says, citing, for example, the need for everyone to have a primary school within walking distance.
“I put that under the social sustainability mantle – if you let some people get a long way behind then it’s much harder to bring them back later. In many ways it’s much less efficient.”
And while a reduction in energy, water and waste per person is heartening, it’s the total eco-impact that counts. With a growing population, cutting overall consumption is a bigger challenge. When it comes to housing, that could entail retrofitting and adapting the housing we have, rather than building new.
Dr March argues that governments need to switch investment away from roads and into public transport, and pay heed to other concerns, including habitat loss and the way we feed our towns.
“We need to take our food supply into account,” he says, “particularly all the knock on effects when you relate it to oil-scarce economies and the large distances involved. Food should be weighing more heavily on our minds.”
In the same way, he says, we must assess our cities’ ability to withstand crises. “The evidence is conclusive that we’re going to have more extreme weather events. We’re also becoming increasingly aware of the fragile nature of the world economy.
“One of the big movements in sustainability now is thinking about the resilience of places, not just to natural disasters, but also to things like economic shocks, terrorism, or pandemics,” Dr March says.
“We have very vulnerable single-service systems, like our water and electricity supply. We know they’re not resilient and therefore not particularly sustainable if something goes wrong with one key element of that chain.”