Australia’s major cities are home to almost three-quarters of all Australian residents, with the Australian population predicted to reach between 28.3 and 29.3 million people by 2027 and 40 million by 2050.

For Australian cities and towns to continue to grow in a sustainable way, many of the key decisions required to successfully cater for climate change need to be made right now, and this is creating demand for more skilled urban designers and planners.

Cities are engines of economic growth, but their expansion both puts pressure on the natural environment and exposes city dwellers to the sharp edge of global warming. Urban planners and designers are at the forefront of developing our urban environments and promoting better design and sustainable planning practices by addressing the challenges raised by climate change and limited resources: how can we achieve the same economic benefit while doing better by the natural environment and urban residents in creating more sustainable cities and buildings?

Climate change impacts cities significantly and in different ways. Despite the warning signs seen in the past few years, greenfield development on city fringes is continuing, taking over agricultural lands and putting food security at greater risk, while diminishing bushland and other green areas that are fundamental for stabilising temperatures in inland locations.

Such housing developments also reduce the protective tree canopy and increase hard surfaces, pushing up temperatures and negatively affecting both people’s health and the locale’s biodiversity. All of this impacts a city’s liveability and productivity, and the built environment, including infrastructure such as roads, bridges and transport.

Nature has a way of reminding us that our actions matter. The 2019-20 bushfires, this year’s floods in New South Wales and coastal erosion on the Northern Beaches of Sydney were extreme examples. The expanding urban edge is increasing the exposure to bushfire risk, which affects household insurance premiums.

Rising sea levels increase the risks of land erosion and storm surges for housing located on coastlines. Increased building on river floodplains, which diminishes the ability of land to absorb runoff, exposes residents to more extreme flooding. 

To rise to this challenge, we need to rethink urban development to mitigate the impact of climate volatility on the people who make cities their home. Furthermore, we need to reconsider the contribution that cities themselves make to greenhouse gas emissions. The conventional approach of single-purpose neighbourhoods, where residents are dependent on their cars for travelling for work, shopping and recreation, simply exacerbates the problem.

Population growth poses its own challenges. The traditional response has been to increase densities, but density needs to be done right. Some of the key principles to be considered are access to nature, careful design regulation, mixed use neighbourhoods with lots of ways of getting around, and population concentrations proportional to the level of infrastructure in place.

Designing and developing more sustainable buildings and communities demands an integrated approach that aims for a balance between preserving and enhancing our natural environment and resources, promoting more equitable and connected communities, and supporting long-term economic growth.

But cities are highly complex systems, driven by competing interests, where growth is regulated by multiple agencies at various levels of government. This makes it difficult to establish neutral forums in which issues can be resolved and optimum outcomes found on the basis of objective discussion.

Urban designers who understand how natural and built environments affect each other and articulate the evidence supporting their design proposals will be more effective advocates for the sort of change cities need now to combat climate change and become more sustainable.

Society requires urban designers who understand social dynamics and can comprehend, analyse and apply relevant policies and regulations in designing places that work for all sorts of residents, workers, commuters, and people at rest or at play. Urban designers and planners have the role to create proposals, guidelines and policies that promote the above.

The challenges urban centres face are multifaceted and will require an integrated approach to planning and design strategies in order to minimise risks to urban communities. Postgraduate study helps planners and designers respond to these challenges by enabling them to acquire substantive skills to design neighbourhoods and regulate development to withstand floods, heat and other climate phenomena.

Postgraduate study can also teach process skills, or how to better engage community residents in complex decisions involving housing construction and the environment such as building in coastal zones and how local and state governments can collaborate more effectively.

Postgraduate degrees should aim not only to equip planners and designers with a range of skillsets, but also to educate them about the value and importance of working with other disciplines, stakeholders, and voices. Tertiary education provides professionals with the knowledge and skills to see the big picture.

Despite the level of specialisation that a degree can provide, it also enables graduates to approach challenges with the holistic and comprehensive perspective that is required to tackle and solve these complex problems.

This article was written by the University of Technology’s Gabriela Quintana Vigiola and Heather MacDonald.

Image: Macquarie University Incubator / Architectus