Implementing sustainability in the built environment

Why we should be challenging the status quo to increase the role and effectiveness of the building and planning system in delivering sustainable cities

Authors: Andreanne Doyon, Joe Hurley, Susie Moloney, Trivess Moore


Australia’s building and land-use policy settings fall well short of what is needed to make meaningful progress toward creating sustainable cities. You will find environmental sustainability goals and objectives in government strategy documents. But our research on building and land-use planning policies around Australia has found that every state, with the exception of New South Wales, has serious gaps in legislation and enforcement.

Research shows a large percentage of new dwellings in Australia fail to meet even minimum building requirements when checked after construction. There is little legislation and enforcement, with the notable exception of NSW’s Building and Sustainability Index (BASIX). This means neither building codes nor state planning systems are achieving sustainability goals required for a low-carbon future for cities and buildings.

Sustainable cities are among the UN Sustainable Development Goals. At present, Australia ranks 37th on progress toward these goals. So how important is the built environment to Australia’s ability to achieve these goals?

In fact, it’s a significant contributor to anthropogenic climate change. The built environment accounts for around 40 percent of worldwide energy use and one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. In Australia, the residential sector is responsible for 12 percent of final energy use and 13 percent of emissions.

As the national building code is failing to improve sustainability, efforts to improve outcomes through local planning systems are emerging. The Council Alliance for Sustainable Built Environments (CASBE) in Victoria is an example of a coalition of local governments working with design and planning professionals to create environmentally sustainable built environments.

While there has been debate in Victoria over recently about the need for better building design and performance, our analysis of appeal cases before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) reveals significant inconsistencies in decision-making over many years. We identified all cases between 2003 and 2016 that cover sustainability issues in the written reasons for the decision, for all 31 metro councils in Melbourne. Of the 1708 cases identified, we assigned differing levels of significance in their coverage of ecological sustainable development (ESD).

The most significant category were cases where the requirement for an ESD management plan (or similar) was a key determining factor in the VCAT finding. This category had 49 appeal cases.

We analysed these to develop a better understanding of state treatment of local government attempts to impose ESD requirements on proponents of development.

We found:

  • Significant inconsistencies in decisions regarding the role of building and planning, and reversion to earlier decision justifications after changes in position.
  • A reoccurring theme of passing of responsibility between building and planning systems that has worked to maintain the status-quo, making it difficult to embed and normalise ESD in the built environment.
  • A contested and uncertain context within which local government decision makers and other actors in the development process operate.
  • That in recent years the inclusion of ESD has been more regularly accepted by VCAT, especially where a local ESD planning policy has been approved.
  • The analysis reveals the Victorian State Government’s approach to ESD as one of inertia, maintaining status quo, and resisting outside attempts at innovation and change initiated by CASBE affiliated councils.

However, due in part to the efforts of CASBE, recent data shows a shift to an increased acceptance of ESD requirements within a planning policy context.

The work of CASBE highlights the important role of networks in building capacity across councils and mobilising support for achieving sustainable outcomes in our built environments. Over time, CASBE and other advocates have developed and implemented a range of assessment tools, local policies and decision-making processes. The CASBE network has grown as a result of its members’ persistence in the face of state government reluctance to change. In a growing number of local government planning schemes, there are now ESD local planning policies that promote designing for environmental sustainability.

Despite these achievements, the systemic and political obstacles to achieving environmentally sustainable design in our cities are evident and persistent. The voluntary use of tools to assess sustainability as a guide to decision-making is important, but can only go so far. Clear and enforceable standards for environmentally sustainable design are needed in both building and planning regulations.

We must transform our built environments to reduce the impacts of climate change and improve environmental outcomes. This requires a building and planning system that delivers consistently higher standards in our built form. Moving beyond inertia and taking responsibility now for the decisions we make about how our cities develop is essential. This will necessitate a commitment from all levels of government.

For further information, contact Andreanne Doyon via andreanne.doyon@rmit.edu.au or Joe Hurley via joe.hurley@rmit.edu.au

Recommended Citation:

Moore, T, Moloney, S, Hurley, J and Doyon, A 2017, Implementing sustainability in the built environment: An analysis of the role and effectiveness of the building and planning system in delivering sustainable cities, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.