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Australian cities, luxury and sustainability

By Peter McMahon and John Barker - posted Thursday, 12 August 2010

New Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s dumping of the “big Australia” concept in favour of “sustainable” population growth and ongoing debate over immigration levels have placed renewed attention on the condition of our cities heading into the new decade.

In particular, two recent reports have highlighted how vulnerable Australian cities are to coming challenges in terms of sustainability. They also show the way the shift from needs to luxuries is undermining our capacity to live sustainably in this country.

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s (ACF’s) Sustainable Cities Index 2010 named Darwin as the most sustainable city and Perth as the least sustainable. These ACF annual reports are credible analyses that in reality overestimate sustainability, mostly by including economic and other factors with a complicated environmental impact.


The index compares three basic indicators - environmental, quality of life and resilience - which in fact disguise the real situation. The non-environmental indicators - health, employment, education and household repayments - are ambivalent in their impact on sustainability. For instance, the high employment figures in Perth reflect the economic impact of the mining boom, but mining is decidedly bad news in terms of environmental sustainability.

Similarly, the critical indicator of “climate change” is based on an average of local government performances in meeting carbon reduction targets, hardly a comprehensive indicator of a city’s capacity to respond to this basic challenge.

In this year’s Index, Darwin, the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, Townsville, Canberra-Queanbeyan and Hobart are the best performers. The index is definitely skewed here by economic factors. For instance, Darwin came out top in terms of unemployment and housing payments while doing poorly in regards to the true sustainability factors of ecological footprint and climate change.

Melbourne, Gold Coast-Tweed, Cairns, Bendigo, Toowoomba, Sydney and Launceston were mid-level performers. Launceston’s low ecological footprint pushed it up the table, and Melbourne easily out-pointed arch-rival Sydney. As an aside, in the case of both Sydney and Melbourne it is not hard to see how high density rates and low subjective well-being might be related.

The worst performers were Adelaide, Ballarat, Albury-Wodonga, Newcastle, Geelong and, finally, Perth. There were some odd mixes here, with Newcastle, home to coal mining, rating well on climate change but badly in terms of air quality. Adelaide was the second worst capital city ahead of Perth.

Perth was the standout disaster, rating worst in the nation in regards to the critical measures of ecological footprint, water and transport. Only biodiversity (thanks to its many parks), education and employment rated reasonably well for the western-most city.


Much of the problem for our cities is the general shift from lifestyles built around a balanced mix of activities to one based on material wealth and increasingly what were once luxury goods and services.

This problem of shifting from needs to wants is best exemplified by the situation of Perth, a city enjoying, or suffering from - depending on your perspective - the mining and energy boom. A recent report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that Perthites were indulging themselves in a big way in order to increase already high levels of comfort and pleasure.

One notable trend is towards air conditioning: 90 per cent of Perth homes now have a space heating system and nearly 80 per cent have a cooling system. There is no doubt these help on really hot or cold days, but they are grossly overused in what is a mostly benign climate. For instance, there is little attempt to use clothing to ameliorate environmental conditions.

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About the Authors

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

John Barker is the Principal of a small innovation consulting service Science Dynamics. He has had extensive experience in the practical, theoretical, academic and policy aspects of innovation in Australia and has been responsible for developing and/or managing a technology park (Bentley, WA), a science museum (Scitech), several major research and innovation grants schemes (WA Centres of Excellence and WAISS) and a state science, industry and technology “think tank” (TIACWA). John has published extensively and lectured to Masters level on the processes of innovation, including e-commerce (UWA, Murdoch, Curtin). He has developed and commercialised a range of solar energy products; consulted, lectured and presented on solar housing, solar water desalination, energy conservation and net energy analysis and has been a board member of renewable energy grants programs.

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