Water, history and the Australian city: urbanism, suburbanism and water in a dry continent, 1788-2015

Lionel Frost, A. Gaynor, Jenny Gregory, Ruth Morgan, Seamus O'Hanlon, Peter Spearritt, John Young

Research output: Working paper


This report provides the historical context for Australian urban and suburban development in the period since European colonisation in 1788. The report is a deliverable for Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities (CRCWSC) project on ‘Understanding social processes to achieve water sensitive cities’ (Project A2.1).

While the major focus is the three key node cities of the CRCWSC (Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth) the report also provides background information on the histories of other Australian cities and locates the Australian urban experience within international contexts of the ‘settler societies’ of the so-called New World.

The key three cities have differing early histories as well as climate and topographic differences – sub-tropical and hilly Brisbane, temperate and flat Melbourne, and Mediterranean and flat Perth. Despite these differences, residents of each of these cities as with residents of all Australian cities - have from at least since the late nineteenth century demonstrated a clear preference for suburban rather than urban living, and a strong preference for low-density, detached dwellings over higher-density attached ones. They have also demonstrated a willingness to wear the elevated private costs associated with these dwelling and ‘lifestyle’ choices.

In this report we draw on the historical concept of ‘path dependency’ - that is the key constraining roles that decisions made or not made in the past have on contemporary practices and policy options. This central concept leads us to argue that as planners, engineers and policy-makers seek to move us towards a more
water sensitive future, rather than try to impose new morphologies, habits and practices on a likely unwilling Australian public, they should instead actively work with new and existing suburban communities to adapt received ideas about residential and dwelling cultures to these new hydrological constraints.

While the report makes clear that Australians have traditionally been profligate with water, we also demonstrate that they have always shown a remarkable willingness to adapt water habits and usage during times of crisis. Our report proves that whereas in the past planners and governments have traditionally looked to ‘big engineering’ solutions such as newer and ever-larger dams (or more recently desalination plants) in order to deal with issues around water supply and demand, in practice two important but administratively simple and cheap policy changes have had the greatest impact: water pricing and public education campaigns.

The latter has been especially effective during periods of drought. The historical evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that once the impacts of drought and wasteful usage of water have been explained, urban Australians have adapted their water use and behaviours to fit the short-term need for restraint. We see no reason why that should not remain the case into the future. We thus recommend that in a climate change-influenced water constrained-future, public education campaigns about the importance of water sensitivity should become a permanent component of public policy.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationMelbourne
PublisherCooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities Pty Ltd.
Number of pages63
ISBN (Print)978-1-921912-38-2
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2016


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