Green cities: What Australia can learn from Asia

As Australia gears up to deal with rapid population growth and increasing density in cities, it can look to Asia for urban solutions that work, said experts at the Green Cities conference in Sydney.

sydney harbour bridge
Sydney's iconic Harbour Bridge. The city plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 70 per cent by 2030, and supply all its energy from renewable sources by then. Image: Shutterstock

Australia’s population is set to skyrocket from 24 million today to more than 40 million people by 2060, and the country can look to Asia for ideas on how to manage the environmental and social impacts of rapid urban growth and densification, said industry experts on Wednesday. 

Speaking at the 10th annual Green Cities conference in Sydney’s Hilton Hotel, New South Wales (NSW) Minister for Planning Rob Stokes said that many Australian cities will face a “huge weight of growth” in the coming decades as millions of people move to metropolises like Melbourne and Sydney. 

Sydney’s population, for example, will soar from almost 4.8 million today to about 6 million in 2031.

About 664,300 new homes will be needed by then to accommodate this increase, Stokes told the 600-strong audience. But Sydney is reaching its physical limits, so growth will have to squeeze into its existing 12,000 kilometres of space, he added.

“The good news is, this is a lot of land,” said Stokes. Japan’s greater Tokyo region, in comparison, is about the same size as Sydney, but houses more than 37 million people. 

Densification is inevitable in Australian cities, and “it will create real opportunities and challenges for city dwellers and workers”, said Stokes.

Speaking at the same conference, Mark Watts, executive director of the C40 Cities Leadership Group - a network of megacities committed to climate action - said that one upside of densification is that compact cities tend to be more sustainable than sprawling urban areas.

“No mayor wants to build the new Los Angeles,” he said, highlighting that the US city’s residents rely heavily on private cars to get around because homes, workplaces, and amenities are located far away from one another.

In contrast to this unsustainable urban design, almost half of the residents in dense, compact Copenhagen cycle to work, said Watts.  

So if cities are to do their part to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to the goal of capping temperature rise at 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as set out in the Paris Agreement inked in December by 195 nations, a focus on low-carbon transport such as walking, cycling, and mass transit will be essential, said Watts. 

Income inequality also has an impact on sustainability efforts, he added. Research published in 2010 by the London Sustainable Development Commission, for example, shows that people in more equal societies recycle more of their waste and also produce less carbon emissions per US$100 of income. 

While Australia’s cities are just beginning to grapple with accelerating pace of population growth and densification, countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo have been dealing with these challenges for decades, noted panellists.

When you have to survive, people are more united and recognise the value of long-term planning.

Cheong Koon Hean, chief executive officer, Housing Development Board

Good governance matters

Peter Verwer, chief executive of the Singapore-based Asia Pacific Real Estate Association, said that not only is Asia one of the most rapidly urbanising parts of the world, many of its governments are also using urbanisation as a tool to lift people out of poverty.

Wealthy and emerging Asian countries alike have employed strategies which could prove valuable to Australia, said panellists at a discussion on green growth - defined as balancing economic performance with sustainability outcomes such as minimising waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution among other things - in Asia.

India, for example, announced a plan last year to develop 100 smart and sustainable cities across the country, and has put US$15 billion behind this initiative. Meanwhile, China, in an effort to manage the environmental impact of its urban growth, has made it mandatory for new and existing government buildings to be certified under its national building energy efficiency label. 

Singaporean architect Tai Lee Siang, who is also vice-president of the World Green Building Council, noted that these moves by India and China underscore that “there is no way out unless you have a strong government that believes in sustainability”. 

Cheong Koon Hean, chief executive officer of Singapore’s public housing agency Housing Development Board (HDB) and a fellow panellist at the conference, added that the city-state is another example of how government leadership has helped Singapore achieve environmental sustainability and affordable housing despite its high population density and limited land area.

HDB provides homes for 80 per cent of the country’s 5.4 million residents, and 80 per cent of these HDB dwellers own their homes, shared Cheong.

She added that in addition to making home ownership affordable, HDB has also become a sustainability leader in the city-state.

It is Singapore’s largest buyer of solar energy, and the 23 residential towns and three estates it manages are kitted out with green features such as ample green spaces, energy-efficient fixtures in public spaces, and in some towns, extensive bicycle path networks.

Cheong added that high-quality public housing is essential for Singapore’s survival as a small city-state with a growing population and few natural resources.

The success of its housing programmes are thanks to the cooperation between government agencies, which worked together to invest in infrastrucutre and allocate funds to sustainable and affordable housing, she added.

“When you have to survive, people are more united and recognise the value of long-term planning,” she explained, adding that Singapore’s approach to governance “will be helpful to many cities to work out the way forward together.”

Australia, however, may face challenges in achieving alignment between various stakeholders, said Cheong. This is because multiple levels of government at the city, state, and federal scale can result in confusion - or worse, disagreement on policies. 

Long term planning can help overcome such disagreements, said Cheong, referring to Singapore’s tradition of producing an urban development masterplan every five years which charts the country’s urban planning for the next 10 to 15 years.

The city-state can also learn valuable lessons from its neighbour down under, Cheong told Eco-Business. 

Australia is very good at rallying supporting from residents and businesses for its sustainability efforts, which Singapore can learn from, Cheong told Eco-Business. “After all, a green country needs green citizens”. 

The City of Sydney’s Better Buildings Partnership, where the city government works with building owners and tenants to reduce resource use and emissions is a perfect example of this, she added. 

Better transport for more equal cities

Asian cities such as Hong Kong have also made advances in public transport infrastructure and integrated land use, which has helped address traffic congestion and provideequal access to opportunities for low-income citizens. 

Steve Yiu, head of town planning at the MTR Corporation - which operates the country’s mass rapid transit and light rail networks - said that “rail is the backbone of Hong Kong’s urban growth”. Not only does the country have an extensive rail network, it also created mixed-use developments for people to live and work near the stations. 

Thanks to this strategy, 42 per cent of all housing in Hong Kong and 75 per cent of commercial units are located within walking distance of a train station, and its car ownership figures are much lower than in other cities. About 90 per cent of its 7 million population use public transport, and there is just one car per five households. 

Hong Kong’s efforts have helped it become one of the top cities in the world for urban mobility, said Yiu, adding that affordable mass transit also allows people who cannot afford cars to access work and social opportunities.

Other cities in Asia, Europe and the United States too are turning to transit-oriented development to manage their urban growth, he added.

“I hope that in facing its population challenges, Australia can learn from the successful experience of other cities and find a good fit for its needs,” said Yiu. 

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