Our built environment, particularly urban sprawl and farming, is driving endangered species to extinction, the latest State of the Environment Report has warned. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The five-yearly report was shelved after being handed down to the Morrison government in December last year. It was finally released to the public on Tuesday.

It makes for grim reading. 

In fact, it’s pretty much an encyclopaedia of environmental destruction.

The report rates Australia’s environment as poor and trending downwards across a whole range of areas, from climate change and disasters to land, soil, coasts and biodiversity. 

The built environment is playing a big role in that destruction, especially when it comes to the loss of biodiversity driving threatened species to extinction. 

“Threatened plants and animals are generally in a poor and deteriorating state due to increased land clearing, urban expansion and invasive species,” the report states. 

“The threats to biodiversity in terrestrial urban areas are fragmentation from urban sprawl, logging and agricultural expansion; vehicle strikes and dog attacks; and the impacts of climate change, including more intense bushfires, droughts and extreme heat events.”

The good news, according to experts The Fifth Estate spoke with as well as the report itself, is that with good urban planning, our cities can become habitats for threatened species.

The problem with urban sprawl

First the bad news. One of the biggest causes of biodiversity loss in Australia, alongside farming, is urban sprawl.

“Threatened ecological communities occur mostly in areas that have been heavily modified for agriculture or urban development,” the report says.

“The highest density of threatened species was found along the east coast of Australia, particularly around the urban centres of Brisbane, Cairns, Melbourne and Sydney, and along the increasingly populated coast between Sydney and Brisbane.”

Green cover will become even more important under climate change.

State of the Environment Report

Since European settlement, around 13.2 per cent of Australia’s native vegetation has been replaced by urban development, agriculture or mining.

A contributor to the report, Professor Kingsley Dixon from Curtin University, says the report is clear: Australia can no longer adopt a business-as-usual approach to the environment as all indicators of environmental decay now point to accelerated extinction and ecosystem collapse. 

“For WA, although we are just 9.6 per cent of Australia’s population, we have put 16 mammals and 15 plants into extinction and have a third of the threatened species. The Jarrah forest faces imminent climate change, fire and mining imposed collapse that will result in a cascade of animal extinctions.”

The issue isn’t just land – it’s also water

The damage from our sprawling cities isn’t just impacting the land – it affects our waterways too.

In areas close to the big cities, more than half of estuary coastlines have been modified by artificial structures, most of which are associated with urban growth. 

“Waterways, beaches and shorelines are generally in poor condition in areas near urban centres, due to coastal development and climate change, but in good condition in more remote areas,” he report states.

“Habitat modification such as construction of seawalls, and recreational activities such as tourism and fishing can also have substantial negative effects on species and ecosystems.”

Social impacts

There’s also a human cost to urban sprawl from new housing subdivisions being built in endangered wildlife habitats. That cost falls mostly on working class people and Indigenous communities.

“Liveability is not uniform across Australia. Urban fringe areas have lower liveability than inner city and more established areas as a result of reduced access to resources, long travel times and less tree canopy cover,” the report states.

“Travel?to?work distances have at least doubled since 1977 in every capital city except Adelaide. Although most local councils are adding bike and pedestrian paths, most of Australia’s largest cities remain dependent on cars. 

“Indigenous people are disproportionately affected through dispossession, loss of cultural identity and loss of connection to Country.”

There is a way forward

The good news is that there are ways to make our cities greener, more compact and biodiverse. And forward thinking developers are leading the charge.

As Professor Peter Newman from Curtin University’s Sustainability Policy Institute tells The Fifth Estate, cities can also be places that protect endangered species from feral predators.

He gives the example of 21 species that have now plateaued in their declines, because they’re being targeted with very strong interventions. These programs include captive breeding programs delivered through zoos, with selected releases in areas close to cities that are monitored and protected from feral animals.

Over in the West, leading developers such as Hesperia – recently profiled in The Fifth Estate – are playing a vital role as well.

“We’ve got a new paper on how urban developments are now saving the rare and endangered black cockatoo in Western Australia. Hesperia is part of that, as are a number of councils and the museum. They’re all working together to show what kind of trees planted in cities can enable these species to survive,” Newman says.

An urgent need for urban greening

Another important step in the right direction is to increase the amount of green public space in our cities.

“Recent shifts in policy towards more green cover are countering some of the losses that occurred before 2016, yet the extent and quality of green cover in urban areas are still declining as urban areas expand. Green cover will become even more important under climate change,” the report says.

“Managing green links and corridors within urban areas can support habitats and urban biodiversity, and help to limit the impacts of a warming climate on our cities. Managing ecological systems through empowering Indigenous communities and enabling Indigenous knowledge systems can improve environmental and social outcomes.”

Integrated water cycle management (IWCM), which integrates water supply, wastewater management and stormwater management, offers opportunities to improve the resilience of water systems, the report says.

“Integrated planning that incorporates water supply, wastewater disposal and stormwater management is a first step, noting that stormwater is subject to separate institutional arrangements in many cities. Integrated management also calls for a clear interface and consistent timeframes between land and water planning.”

Engage Indigenous communities, planners and architects

The final, but unfortunately far too often overlooked, step in creating a more socially and environmentally sustainable built environment is to make sure Indigenous communities are involved with the development process.

“Indigenous communities, knowledge and aspirations are rarely reflected in the built environment, but this is changing as urban planning professionals and government  planning authorities are increasing efforts to meaningfully partner with Indigenous communities to empower their rights and interests in urban settings,” the report says.

“The Planning Institute of Australia developed accreditation in 2016 for ensuring Indigenous knowledge as part of planning qualifications, but, although these moves towards recognition are growing, they remain limited.”

UPDATED 20 JULY to add comments from Jeff Angel.

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  1. …..The good news is that there are ways to make our cities greener, more compact and biodiverse. And forward thinking developers are leading the charge………Ahh, what a choice of words, developers are indeed leading the price charge and I suspect these are the “experts” who believe that somehow good planning will triumph over the inbuilt corruption that has plagued the industry since the 1950’s