Key things we learned about cities and heat from the State of the Environment report

The 2021 State of the Environment report (SOE) was released in July 2022. The SOE reports have been released every 5 years since 1995 and are an assessment of every aspect of Australia’s environment and heritage, including rivers, oceans, air, ice, land and urban areas. We’ve pulled out some key findings related to heatwaves, cities and urban heat and have included links to other organisations’ analyses at the end.


  • Heatwaves are our deadliest environmental disaster and the impacts are getting worse. Hospital presentations peak on heatwave days but there can be increase in hospital presentations for 2 weeks afterwards (Watson et al, 2019).
  • “Heatwaves are the single biggest climate-related cause of human mortality in Australia.”
  • We’re experiencing worse heatwaves on land and in the sea. Native and domesticated animals can both be severely impacted by heatwaves, as can agriculture.

Our cities:

  • “Liveability” varies across our cities. Older, inner-city areas are more likely to be walkable, have more access to green spaces and more services. Rich ares are more likely to have better green cover, more trees and better digital access. Outer suburban “urban fringe” areas have fewer services and long commute times. The report says the difference in liveability across cities is getting worse.
  • We need a better more consistent approach to urban planning that includes a “rights based” approach to including First Nations voices and needs in our planning system.

The colonial tendency is to obliterate any trace of Indigeneity in the city, while continuing to celebrate ‘our’ Aboriginal heritage in the outback/on the frontier. Indeed, the way in which Aboriginal people and culture is viewed by, and the extent to which Aboriginal society has been reconciled with, mainstream Australian settler society can be measured in the nation’s geography and architecture alone. The return or reinsertion of Aboriginal places into metropolitan centres may well be the best measure of how far along the road to reconciliation we have come.

Indigenous place: contemporary buildings, landmarks and places of significance in southeast Australia and beyond, Pieris et al, 2014:95, quoted in SOE report 2021
  • Our population exceeds 25.6 million and more than 76% of people live in major cities (population over 100,000). We’re highly urbanised but Australia doesn’t have high population density.

In 2020, Australia’s population concentration was 3.3 people per square kilometre (people/km2), increasing from 2.9 people/km2 in 2011. By way of comparison, Japan had 347 people/km2 in 2020, the United Kingdom had 281 people/km2, and the United States had 36 people/km2.

SOE report 2021
  • According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 73% of our dwellings are detached houses and 13% are apartments.
  • Good access to public transport is best in Canberra (65%) and Sydney (61%) and worst in Hobart and Darwin (both 23%). This is measured by percentage of dwellings within 400 meters of public transport with a ‘reasonable service’.
  • In Sydney and Melbourne, around one in two people live within 400m or 5 min of an open public space like a park. Across the country, access to open public spaces is not distributed equally and richer people have better access to parks in their neighbourhood.

Urban Heat:

  • Rising temperatures driven by climate change will make the urban heat islands in our cities worse and more dangerous.
  • Heatwaves are our deadliest environmental disaster and are projected to get worse and have more significant health impacts
  • Heatwaves but pressure on our infrastructure and resources. “Residential electricity use can be 3 to 4 times higher than normal on days that are 35 °C or hotter, placing stress on the power grid (WSROC, 2018) and increasing the risk of blackouts or power shortages. These have a potentially more significant impact during a heatwave by increasing the likelihood of death when vulnerable communities are left without air-conditioning.”
  • “Heat contributes to the deaths of more than 1,000 people aged over 65 across Australia each year, with some sources identifying excess heat as contributing to as many as 1.7 million deaths between January 2006 and October 2017 (Longden 2020).”
  • We should be concerned that though urban trees help us cool cities, they are also at risk in extreme heat. Under a ‘business as usual’ emissions scenario 24% of public trees will be at risk in high temperatures.

Australian urban areas have very high exposure to the climate change impacts. These impacts are expected to increase, placing growing pressure on the urban environment and the livability of its citizens. Climate change is also expected to affect biodiversity in urban areas through greater urban heat; more extreme events including bushfires, drought, extreme rainfall and flooding; and sea level rise.

SOE report 2021
  • The way we build our cities can drive both sustainability and regeneration. “To achieve reductions and work towards a net zero economy, it will be necessary to rethink our urban structures and systems, how we live within them and the materials we use to build them.”
  • The Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience & Safer Communities estimated that by 2050, $17 billion would need to be spent on rebuilding critical infrastructure because of natural disasters affecting Australia. Climate change is driving an increase in extreme events in our cities. We will need new infrastructure and to retrofit existing infrastructure to tolerate increasingly severe disasters.
  • There’s a lot more we can be doing at every level to plan for more sustainable cities and improve regulations. One key opportunity is to increase energy efficiency standards for buildings across the country in the National Construction Code (being reviewed in 2022).
  • Researchers have been working with First Nations people including the Darug people to document indigenous seasonal indicators. This is a case study example for Sydney.
  • The report is optimistic that new driving technologies such as autonomous vehicles will allow for a more efficient use of space and roads. Currently 33% of our urban land is roads or car-parking.

Additional resources:

Read the whole State of the Environment report

Sydney University – State of the Environment: report findings

CSIRO Expert Commentary on SOE report

The Guardian ‘State of the environment: shocking report shows how Australia’s land and wildlife are being destroyed’

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