Australian cities failed to crack the world’s top 20 rankings for sustainability, with Melbourne and Brisbane now trailing behind cities such as Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston and Atlanta.

Excessive carbon emissions, poor quality cycling and public transport infrastructure, and housing costs have seen Australian cities tumble down the rankings of the world’s most sustainable cities.

That’s the finding of the 2022 Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index, which ranked 100 of the world’s top cities across 51 metrics based on their economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Australia’s top city overall was Sydney, which ranked 33rd in the world, behind international peers such as Tokyo, Paris, London and New York. Meanwhile, Melbourne has fallen to 60th place while Brisbane has plummeted to 64th.

The rankings mark a sharp drop off from 2016, when Sydney ranked 21st in the world, Brisbane 30th and Melbourne 32nd, demonstrating how Australian cities have failed to keep pace with sustainability improvements overseas.

Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly given the former federal government’s nine year almost virulent opposition to sustainability and climate action, Australian cities performed poorly around environmental sustainability. 

My take on this is that we’ve been trading on the natural beauty of our cities, but this is no longer enough; people demand more.

Arcadis Australian cities director Stephen Taylor

This measure includes big picture climate-related metrics such as greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy usage and energy efficiency.It also covers local issues such as green spaces, cycling infrastructure, water use, and waste management.

On these metrics Sydney ranked just 42nd in the world, with Melbourne placed 50th and Brisbane in 60th place. 

The report singled out Sydney for its exposure to environmental problems (an issue that might have been reversed with the Design and Place SEPP crafted by former planning minister Rob Stokes and dumped by his replacement Anthony Roberts), as well as the poor quality of its cycling infrastructure.

On social sustainability, cities were ranked across a basket of issues including the quality of their public transport infrastructure, the cost of broadband, education, life expectancy and income inequality.

While Sydney scored a relatively respectable 15th place, Brisbane ranked 57th in the world and Melbourne 61st. 

It will come as little surprise to anyone who has tried catching a bus in Melbourne’s sprawling car-dependent suburbs to learn that the quality of public transport is a big issue for the city.

Finally, on the economic front, the report looked at housing affordability, reliable (and affordable) electricity, the ease of doing business, employment, and access to green finance. 

Enabling people to live, work and socialise within a much smaller radius takes pressure off those inner-city suburbs that are in such high demand because of their proximity to the best opportunities.

Arcadis Australian cities director Stephen Taylor

Housing affordability and the slow switch over to cheaper renewable power are the biggest issues for Australian cities on this front, with Melbourne (43rd) pulling ahead of Sydney (46rd) and Brisbane (50th) in the rankings.

Arcadis Australian cities director Stephen Taylor said a clear challenge for all Australian cities is housing affordability and the cost of living, which can be addressed through infrastructure investments that will facilitate 30-minute cities.

“The rankings for our Australian cities in the Sustainable Cities Index 2022 are middling at best. My take on this is that we’ve been trading on the natural beauty of our cities, but this is no longer enough; people demand more,” he said.

“Enabling people to live, work and socialise within a much smaller radius takes pressure off those inner-city suburbs that are in such high demand because of their proximity to the best opportunities. This is not a short-term solution though. When we’re thinking about urban planning on this scale, we are really playing the long game.

“There are exciting initiatives coming out from our City Councils and State Governments to connect and green our cities; and if the recent federal election is any indication, there is a real desire in the community to invest in a more sustainable future.”

Internationally, Oslo in Norway took out the top spot in the 2022 index, followed by Stockholm and Tokyo, with cycling-friendly medium-density European cities such as Copenhagen, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Munich featuring prominently in the top 20 rankings.

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