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Introducing urban sustainability at Penrith Lakes, Sydney

Brendon Baker

CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems

The aim of this paper is to introduce a framework for moving towards balanced urban development; i.e. development that aims to balance economic performance, ecological integrity and social health in the short and long term. Currently communities are offered few mechanisms for achieving real change in the way they chart and realise their desired futures. More innovative frameworks are available for looking at urban environments as a community that is made up of complex interactions. One such framework stems from a systems thinking approach. The concepts of learning organisations and adaptive management also provide a key underpinning of the framework.

At Penrith Lakes, Sydney, we attempted to demonstrate how ‘sustainability’ could be operationalised during the planning stages of urban development. This provided us with some insights into the forces that shape the future of urban ecosystems. This paper introduces a systemic way of thinking about urban development that balances economic, social and environmental issues to achieve a healthy urban ecosystem for future communities.


This paper outlines a serendipitous process that originated when a sand and gravel quarry company gave CSIRO a chance to begin research into a challenging ecosystem — that of the cities and associated developments that make up our own human habitat, where urban people live, work and learn.

In 1998, CSIRO undertook a small review of the rehabilitation strategy for a quarry in western Sydney. The work utilised and further extended techniques for ecosystem rehabilitation based on landscape ecology principles of pattern and process in arid and semi-arid environments (Ludwig et al. 1997). The rehabilitation manager provided an enthusiasm that allowed us to explore the links between economic, social and ecological considerations. Over the following few years, our Group at CSIRO went well beyond our traditional scientific expertise, but discovered that balancing economic, social and environmental issues is critical for creating future urban function — or a healthy urban ecosystem.

The term ‘health’ here is used in a broad sense. Hence, we are referring to much more than just human health or environmental health. Instead, we consider healthy urban ecosystems are those that integrate the environment, community, and economy through innovative approaches that improve urban liveability and quality of life.

As our interest in the complexities surrounding the creation and maintenance of healthy urban ecosystems grew, we were introduced to systems thinking ideas and tools. We discovered better ways of moving towards balanced urban development. We began to look at ‘sustainability’ in the urban research field. In particular, how an urban system could achieve ecological integrity, economic prosperity and social health, and also how these factors interrelate and impact on each other. A systems thinking approach (Senge 1990) was encouraged and adopted — understanding the forces that shape the future of urban ecosystems in an integrated manner is essential if a community is to be pro-active in identifying new opportunities or pathways into the future.

So, I am in the odd position of thanking a sand and gravel quarry for starting us on the path towards urban sustainability…

Urbanised Australia

Almost 90% of the Australian population live in urban and peri-urban areas, making Australia one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Most of Australia’s population is concentrated in two widely separated coastal regions. The most densely populated 1% of the continent contains 84% of the population. About 70% of Australia’s population growth between 1995 and 2000 occurred in the capital cities, the most significant increases being on the outskirts of these metropolitan regions (ABS 2002).

Virtually all Australians are interacting with the urban ecosystem on a daily basis. Urban Australians are in turn interacting and putting demands on our natural ecosystems.

Although it may seem that in our highly technological and industrial society, we are further away from our dependence on nature than our ancestors, in fact the reverse is true — our consumption is much larger now than at any stage of history. All the resources and energy we use for our urban lives, including food, housing, clothes, cars, computers and even professional services, come ultimately from stocks of natural capital. Through activities such as agriculture, fishing, industry and commerce, our consumption of these stocks has increased beyond the ability of many ecosystems to cope. For example, Vitousek et al (1997) have estimated that our substantial impact of the Earth’s ecosystems have:

  • transformed up to half of the land surface;
  • altered the global atmosphere (CO2 concentration has increased nearly 30% in less than 200 years);
  • used more than half of all accessible surface fresh water;
  • caused the extinction of of all bird species; and
  • destroyed half the worlds mangrove areas (valuable nurseries for marine species).

These impacts seem very distant from our daily activities, however every action we take and item we use consumes a certain amount of natural resources and energy. Cumulatively the impacts of our urban lifestyles affect global ecosystems and ecosystem processes and services. When we think about a city, we know that the land area used by the city is much greater than its physical dimensions. The city’s inhabitants could not survive without the land needed to grow food crops and forest products, gather water, provide raw materials and energy for consumer goods, and absorb wastes. This wider area can be described as the city’s ecological footprint (Wackernagel et al 1996).

We can measure the ecological footprint of a city by calculating how much land we use to support our current activities. The ecological footprint of Sydney is around 6 hectares for each resident (Simpson et al 2000). This level of consumption of natural capital is far from sustainable, and we need to look at ways in which we can reduce our footprint in order to achieve ‘healthier’ urban ecosystems.

Healthy urban ecosystems depend on reduced environmental impacts. However they also depend on the interactions between the community, environment, and economic elements of where urban people live, work and learn. The downstream costs of community decline and despair are immeasurable for urban communities in Australia. Paradoxically, these issues provide enormous opportunity for Australians to be proactive in mapping out their desired futures. There exists a recognised ‘systems failure’ in most regions — a failure to see and understand the economy, environment and social fabric of a region holistically or as an inter-connected system.

Although rarely made clear by scientists, addressing this systems failure is possibly the core question of research into urban sustainability.

Urban sustainability

The level of international, national, community and corporate concern for environmental issues has been escalating rapidly since the 1960s. Environmental issues, such as climate change, ozone depletion, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, water and air pollution, land degradation and contamination, decreases in landscape productivity and function, and the management of wastes, have been debated continuously. However, more recently the contributions of urban populations to these issues have gained recognition and momentum as a research topic (World Resources Institute 1996; Alberti and Susskind 1996; Valentine and Heiken 2000). As urban populations increase and cities grow in complexity, so do the issues of economic and political stability that are responsible for quality of life (Valentine and Heiken 2000). The majority of the world’s population will soon reside in cities having local and global impacts on environment, health, economies, culture and technology.

A global movement towards sustainable human settlements has emerged (Anders 1991; UN Centre for Human Settlements 1996). However, this field of urban system science crosses many disciplines and many scales. To examine urban sustainability requires a new way of thinking about systems and communities.

The term ‘urban’ defies easy description. ‘Sustainability’ is even more elusive. Urban sustainability gives rise to images of a utopian city — a human habitat that functions in an efficient and equitable manner, where all people live well in a prosperous community. Despite a plethora of papers on the subject, we still know little about what makes a city sustainable and neither the social nor the natural sciences have come together successfully to resolve the issue.

Much of the early contributions to the topic of urban sustainability have focused on how to operationalise the concept (Choguill 1996). There is general agreement about the term ‘sustainability’ — the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) has stated it as meaning ‘the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. This is an admirable definition, however it does not suggest how progress towards sustainability in the urban sphere can be measured, or how we can determine when the so-called ‘triple-bottom-line’ of urban sustainability is achieved (economic performance, ecological integrity and social health).

As a result, a wide range of definitions have been suggested. Following an international overview of the subject, Choguill (1996) proposes that the definition put forth by Hardoy, Mitlin and Satterthwaite (1992) has universal acceptability:

…that urban sustainability should be defined to include the minimisation of the use of non-renewable resources, the achievement of the sustainable use of renewable resources, staying within the absorptive capacity of local and global waste-absorption limits and meeting basic human needs.

This definition has an environmental focus that immediately appeals to the ecologist. It is also valid when we consider that the natural environment provides the basic life support services for our economic and social activities, particularly in urban and peri-urban areas.

The inputs, outputs and processes of energy and materials in a city can be likened to a metabolic process or the functions of an ecosystem. Human settlements are places where communities evolve economically and socially in an attempt to improve their quality of life (Newman et al 1999). In so doing, urban populations rely heavily on ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are defined by Daily (1997) as:

… the conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and the species that make them up, sustain and fulfil human life. They maintain biodiversity and the production of ecosystem goods, such as seafood, forage, timber, biomass fuels, natural fibre, and many pharmaceuticals, industrial products, and their precursors. The harvest and trade of these goods represent an important and familiar part of the human economy. In addition to the production of goods, ecosystem services are the actual life-support functions, such as cleansing, recycling, and renewal, and they confer many intangible aesthetic and cultural benefits as well.

Ecosystem services are generated by the complex workings of natural cycles, driven by solar energy, and operating at many temporal and spatial scales (Daily 1997). These services are critical to ecosystem function and productivity, but are rarely thought about by human beings, particularly those in modern urban lifestyles. The primary reason that ecosystem services are taken for granted is that they are, effectively, free. However, such services have essential functions in:

  • providing resources for human utilisation,
  • maintaining the dynamics of human ecosystems,
  • improving human well-being, and
  • absorbing outputs of human waste.

With this in mind, Newman (1999) suggests that it is possible to define the goal of urban sustainability as the efficient use of ecosystem services and a reduction in the production of wastes, while simultaneously improving human liveability. The latter is defined as the human requirements for social amenity, health and well-being.

Such ‘metabolism’ models introduce the concept of human liveability — a key element of sustainability; however do not fully describe urban sustainability because they treat economic and social factors as secondary. They fail to integrate across these spheres.

Many urban analysts argue that the interactions between human environments and natural processes cannot be understood in isolation from economic and social structures (Alberti 1996; Camagni et al 1998). Ecologists are quick to point out the importance of ecosystem services in maintaining humans and human activities, often forgetting however that for human activities to be sustainable, there must also be a constant stock of economic and social capital (Roseland 2000).

‘Sustainability’ is thus defined in this paper as the dynamic interaction of natural, social and economic capital in a balanced perspective. Urban sustainability relates to the way in which cites and peri-urban areas use natural, social and economic capital. This concept of ‘balanced development’ is favoured over the term ‘sustainability’ as it presents explicit goals (long and short term) for regions or communities in achieving a balance between often conflicting issues related to environmental, social and economic spheres. So, how do we go about planning, designing and realising balanced urban communities?

Penrith Lakes

Our work at Penrith Lakes, on the Castlereagh flood plain-near Penrith, NSW, has given us some insights into operationalising sustainability during the planning stages of urban development. We used a multi-disciplinary team of ecologists, engineers, architects and planners to develop design principles and indicators for balanced urban development.

The Penrith Lakes site is located on the western edge of the suburban sprawl of Sydney and adjacent to the Blue Mountains National Park (Figure 1). The 2,000 ha sand and gravel quarry offers the opportunity for a relatively unencumbered land development compared to many of the social, economic and ecological constraints on other areas of rural land subject to urban development pressure. The urban and recreational development of Penrith Lakes will be completed over the next 5–10 years.

Figure 1. Location of the Penrith Lakes Scheme

CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems was contracted by the Penrith Lakes Development Corporation (PLDC) to prepare a strategy that identifies and integrates the environmental, social and economic factors underpinning a future urban development to support a community of up to 10,000 people (Kearns et al 1999b). Plans include approximately 1,000 ha of open space, 700 ha of recreational lakes, provision for 250 ha of urban development. Outcomes already include the Penrith Whitewater Stadium and the Sydney International Regatta Centre, an international standard rowing and canoeing course, which was completed in 1995 well ahead of its use for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. The overall aim of the strategy was to apply ecological knowledge and systems thinking to the design and construction of a ‘sustainable’, or balanced, human habitat.

The approach aims to deliver significant social, economic and ecological advantages for the future community and PLDC shareholders. We believed that the application of ecological knowledge through a systemic approach would enable us to best understand and manage the complex developmental issues at Penrith Lakes.

During a series of workshops and on-site meetings at the Penrith Lakes site, PLDC became aware that the powerful integrated approach could combine both operational and rehabilitation actions, as well as drive innovation towards balanced development by:

  • increasing intergenerational economic development following the end of quarrying in successive areas of the Penrith Lakes site;
  • enhancing community involvement through recreational, educational and cultural linkages with the surrounding region and its history;
  • applying ecological knowledge in the planning and design of the water management system, built environment, sewage treatment and waste management processes, and
  • integrating the principles of ecosystem function into the rehabilitation of landforms, construction of flora and fauna habitat and human use of urban and recreational areas.

The goal of the Ecosystem Strategy (Kearns et al 1999a) was to identify and plan for the desired economic, social and environmental future of the urban and recreational development at Penrith Lakes.

The key outcomes of the Strategy included:

  • an opportunity to make a substantial contribution at the planning stage for a major urban and recreational development;
  • design principles which guide design actions towards achieving set balanced urban development goals;
  • interactive documents that transfer a systemic way of thinking;
  • learning from the application of ecological knowledge to the design and construction of sustainable human habitat;
  • balancing economic, social and environmental issues to achieve a healthy urban ecosystem for the future Penrith Lakes community;
  • identification of, and monitoring methods for, critical factors for achieving balanced development.

The opportunity to make a substantial contribution at the planning stage of the Penrith Lakes development allowed us to introduce a systemic and balanced approach to various future development pathways. We were able to consider the flow-on effects of economic, social and environmental factors under different scenarios. Examples of scenarios that were qualitatively assessed included:

  • green building design
  • human-scale transport facilities
  • total water cycle management
  • maximise native vegetation
  • use of renewable energy sources.

Such scenarios were examined in light of their up-front economic cost, future economic returns, environmental benefits, ecological achievability, and social/community advantages.

Design principles were developed that encouraged actions for achieving set urban development goals in a balanced manner. The principles rely not so much on new technology but rather the intelligent application of existing technology. During our Penrith Lakes work, much of these design principles had an ecological bias. Design principles ranged from using recycled building materials to innovative lot design, from technological substitution to edible landscapes, from improving microclimate to cat control.

The design principles were presented in an interactive document (Baker et al 2001) that provided a tool for the transfer of knowledge and helping people think about urban development in a systemic manner. It was aimed at engineers, planners, construction contractors and policy-makers. Personal and organisational learning from the application of ecological knowledge to the design and construction of balanced human habitat was one of the most exciting outcomes of the Penrith Lakes work.

It was hoped that the transfer of knowledge to the people who design, plan and construct the urban environment would lead to a healthy urban ecosystem both for the future Penrith Lakes community and also for future urban development projects undertaken by the people involved.

The methods used at Penrith Lakes have been enhanced and are now applicable across Australia. Innovative ways in which urban and peri-urban Australia can work towards balanced urban futures became the focus of our research.

A framework for urban futures

The demands and stresses placed upon Australia’s natural resources and our urban communities are increasing. Globalisation, deregulation, monumental landscape problems, diminishing services, world oil and gas stocks and prices, water quality problems, global climate change and significantly reduced employment prospects are examples of drivers and their consequences hitting all parts of Australia. Paradoxically, these issues provide enormous opportunity for Australian communities to be proactive in mapping out their desired futures.

Urban Australia is facing such challenges. Some of the many questions being raised pertain to issues such as: appropriate development options, identification and leveraging of competitive advantage, investment opportunities and adequacies of regional markets. However, based on our many discussions with communities throughout Australia, we believe that:

  • one of the first tasks to develop healthy urban ecosystems, is to establish a clear understanding of what communities groups perceive as the drivers of change and the factors that inhibit change;
  • there exists a recognised ‘systems failure’ in most regions — a failure to see and understand the economy, environment and social fabric of a region holistically or as an inter-connected system. This failure results in groups not understanding alternative perspectives, not seeing indirect consequences of their decision making, agencies being unable to reconcile diverse viewpoints about development options and an inability to put together a workable and coherent strategic plan for the future; and
  • this ‘systems failure’ can be addressed by examining the contribution of social, economic and environmental factors to balanced development.

CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystem is developing a unique and innovative framework that qualitatively and quantitatively assesses strategies for balanced development and healthy urban ecosystems.

The ‘Regional Development Futures’ (RDF) framework seeks to deliver environmental, social and economic benefits by applying our scientific skills in partnership with the people who influence, use and manage the nation’s ecosystems. To avoid a ‘systems failure’, there is the need to see and understand the fabric of a region holistically or as an inter-connected system. Balanced development necessitates that the community decides the relative balance among economic, social, and environmental factors. The RDF framework uses methods based on action research (community participation) to enable a region to evaluate the flow-on implications of alternative resource use, and to seek balance between short-term and long-term goals.

Embracing an adaptive learning culture, the RDF framework and science aims to deliver the processes, tools and knowledge to chart, realise and monitor desired community futures. The transference of skills, knowledge and technologies helps to ensure that a region can adopt an adaptive management style to social, economic and ecological investment by entering an ongoing cycle of developing, monitoring and implementing alternative strategies.

Adaptive management seeks to aggressively use management intervention as a tool to strategically probe the functioning of a system. Adaptive management identifies uncertainties, and then establishes methodologies to test hypotheses concerning those uncertainties. It uses management as a tool not only to change the system, but as a tool to learn about the system. It is concerned with the need to learn and the cost of ignorance, while traditional management is focused on the need to preserve and the cost of knowledge.

Building community capacity through adaptive management results in resilient and empowered communities, better able to manage the uncertainty of change in the future (Figure 2). The RDF framework is phased to assist regions to think about the future in a systemic way.

  • Developing Partnerships — Building partnerships with community, government and industry groups captures diverse perspectives and ensures that an understanding of the region and key issues are identified and addressed. Together, the partners explore synergies with existing investments, and map desired options for the future.
  • Creating the Foundation — As culture and history influences communities’ response to change, an assessment of the historical events and contextual factors that have helped shape the region is undertaken. Lessons from the past are identified. Past trends, existing research and baseline information are collated into a searchable inventory to be used as a community resource.
  • Opportunities for Change — A community will identify the way the region works as a system: the drivers of change, the interconnections between economic, social and environmental issues, and the flow-on consequences of investment decisions. This ‘systems understanding’ of the region is central to identifying where (and why) strategic investments for the future can be made.
  • Building Resilient Futures — Provide a process for evidence-based decision-making concerning future development pathways. A learning organisation approach underpins the process for charting pathways for the future, for monitoring and adapting economic, social and ecological investment strategies and for realising strategies that are resilient in the long term.

Figure 2. The Regional Development Futures framework

Key outputs from the RDF framework include the development and evaluation of scenarios, the creation of a community sustainable data system for monitoring progress and a community integrated regional development futures tool-kit. Training, data systems and technology transfers, and maintenance processes ensure an enduring basis for evidence-based evaluation for future pathways.

The key strengths of the approach are that it:

  • engages community groups;
  • enables development options to be quantitatively and qualitatively compared;
  • identifies the range of changes a community may be seeking and why;
  • is based on a holistic approach and on Systems Thinking concepts. These approaches are totally consistent with ‘whole-of-government’ and ‘whole-of-community’ approaches;
  • teaches adaptive management and continual learning, particularly through systems workshops and scenario evaluation;
  • is a structured and phased approach with each phase having clearly identified objectives, inputs and outputs. This offers communities the flexibility to phase a project contingent on local circumstances (e.g. timing, commitment, budget etc.); and
  • provides local government and communities with the capacity for ongoing implementation and monitoring, realised through a sustainable data system.

In much the same way that strategic planning at the organisational level requires an integrative framework to facilitate and guide the identification of critical issues and future appropriate strategies, it is evident that sustainable development also requires such a framework for examining economic, environmental and social factors in an integrated way.

There is therefore now a real need to forge ahead with research, development and implementation of these integrative frameworks and CSIRO is in the vanguard of effectively contributing to the balanced development of regional and urban Australia.


The downstream costs of community decline and despair are immeasurable for urban communities in Australia. Paradoxically, these issues provide enormous opportunity for Australians to be proactive in mapping out their desired futures.

There exists a recognised ‘systems failure’ in most regions — a failure to see and understand the economy, environment and social fabric of a region holistically or as an inter-connected system.

This failure results in groups not understanding alternative perspectives, not seeing indirect consequences of their decision making, agencies being unable to reconcile diverse viewpoints about development options and an inability to put together a workable and coherent strategic plan for the future.

There are better ways of achieving positive outcomes for human ecosystems, individuals, communities, businesses and cities. We need to challenge and change the fundamental way we go about development and planning to increase our economic performance, social health and ecological integrity in the future.

The examination of landscape rehabilitation at a sand and gravel quarry set us on a path towards multi-disciplinary research on the complex interactions between social, economic and environmental factors in an urban community. We have the tactics to reduce the environmental impacts of development, create liveable cities and economic success. Our future research and development will be intimately connected with urban communities, with the people who will implement changes in balanced urban development. Urban institutions and communities provide enormous, untapped opportunities to solve challenges — we can, and must, pioneer new approaches to realising future human habitats that function in an efficient and equitable manner, where all people live well in a prosperous community. New approaches, such as the Regional Development Futures Framework, are crucial if we, in Australia, are to achieve real sustainability.


The CSIRO Penrith Lakes work was performed by staff from CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, notably Guy Barnett, Mike Doherty, and Allen Kearns; along with the enthusiastic rehabilitation manager Andrew Nolan (Penrith Lakes Development Corporation). Paul Walker has set the foundations of the Regional & Urban Futures Group, which is rapidly building a portfolio of research which, using a Systems Thinking approach, is successfully engaging communities in assessing their desired economic, environmental and social futures and in understanding the flow-on consequences of alternative development pathways.


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About the author

Brendon Baker has a background in Geographical Information Systems for ecological applications and in 1997 completed graduate studies in environmental law; joined CSIRO in 1997 and is currently working in the Regional Development Futures group, with a particular focus on frameworks that will help communities chart their desired economic, environmental and social futures.

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