The recent 2016 Census results are clear: Australian city populations are exploding with Sydney and Melbourne now having the highest populations at 4.8 and 4.4 million respectively.

The Census also reported 11 per cent as the average for all cities population growth, with future growth for Melbourne set at 12 per cent and that for Sydney set at 10 per cent. Darwin records the highest estimated growth at 14 per cent. Overall since the last 2011 Census, an extra 1,037 Australians were added to the population each day – and this does not look like slowing any time soon.

This population growth has resulted in state governments approving more and more high-density city redevelopments along with major infrastructure projects to support this growth. But will it be at the price of our health and environment? Are these projects being rushed through without the policies in place to protect where we live as city dwellers?

Although the need to house our growing population is necessary, preserving green space, ensuring new developments are sustainable, energy efficient, energy productive, and have the right services and infrastructure is vital.

Green space in particular is under threat. For example, The Total Environment Centre reports that in relation to the current Sydney WestConnex road project, for the section affecting Sydney Park, St Peters and Alexandria, 827 trees – including some highly significant species – are being destroyed across 7.5 hectares of land. Is this loss of oxygen creation and green aspect to be replenished elsewhere in Sydney’s inner city?  The plan is not clear.

Current New South Wales (NSW) Government policy and legislation could do better to protect Sydney’s green spaces as these are actively being depleted by clearing for urban, industrial and grey infrastructure development. In all, more than 70 green spaces are at risk of destruction in Sydney as The Total Environment Centre’s SOS Green Spaces map highlights.

Executive officer for The Total Environment Centre, Jeff Angel, was recently on Wendy Harmer’s ABC 702 Morning Program, discussing these issues, with callers also raising concerns about the 100,000 or more people earmarked to be housed adjacent to the new Sydney Metro line and the consequential redevelopment across Sydney. Between the housing projects along the Canterbury rail line, high rise developments planned for Belmore, the forthcoming application to sell off green space of the popular Waverley Bowling Club in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, plus the re-development of areas like Wolli Creek, Mascot, Green Square and Waterloo, green space is under threat. Many in the community are not happy – with one political commentator calling it “redevelopment on steroids.”

The picture is similar for other Australian states, and clear legislation both at state and federal level is lacking. Local councils have sustainability plans, which are a step in the right direction when it comes to public space, parks, streetscapes and smaller developments. However, more is required for larger developments which have far greater public impact.

The planning and construction process is as complex as it is variable, depending on the size of the project, its value and its location. In NSW, for example, if the project value is determined to be under the local environment plan or LEP, the local council approves plans and development applications, but if the project is a State Significant Development (SSP) and has a higher value, it comes under the State Environment Planning Policies (SEPPs). All these have certain rules and regulations, no matter which state, but all differ. On top of these are building codes and star rating tools, but how are these helping to meeting low to zero carbon targets set by Australian governments?

Ray Thompson, the recently retired general manager, innovation and market development at CSR – producers of building products and involved in researching and developing energy efficient materials – believes there is still much to be done when it comes to compliance and legislation.

“The National Construction Code (NCC) contains a minimum standard of building energy efficiency based on a target mJ/m2 energy use for typical designs and usage,” he said.

“Compliance, which is in design only, can be achieved using a ‘deemed-to-satisfy’ method or by modelling. Currently this is to a 6 Star NaTHERS rating standard for most states, except NSW, but this was introduced in 2010 and is not proposed to be reviewed again until 2022!

“This 12 year gap would certainly be seen internationally as a very long time between reviews and we are now well below international standards for equivalent climates to Australia’s. Typically builders build to this minimum level, however a small percentage will build and promote higher star rated homes.”

In addition, the NCC needs to address other building energy efficiency issues such as the low window/floor ratios allowing designers to trade off natural light for lower costs, and air tightness and ventilation – crucial elements in quality, energy efficient construction that have been poorly understood in Australia.

Thompson further explained that for high rise developments, the Green Building Council of Australia encourages the use of their Green star rating to achieve and promote higher levels of sustainability.

“In NSW there is a unique compliance methodology called BASIX which has had quite low energy rating levels at around 4 Stars until 1 July this year when it was upgraded to around a 5 star level, depending on design,” he said.

“However, this is still below the national standard applied in others states and designers and builders were just given six months grace period to respond to the change, so effectively in practice it will not be implemented until January 2018.  All this as energy prices hit record highs with increases of over 100 per cent since 2010.”

CSR is striving to illustrate how new homes can be energy efficient through research such as CSR House – which has an 8 Star rating – showing that sustainable, energy efficient homes, which can also create more power than they use when adding renewables, are achievable now through design, technology and the use of correct materials. A short video from researcher and television presenter Josh Byrne, provides further explanation about the CSR project and similar projects – such as Lochiel Park where 103 homes were built in the mid-2000s to achieve a minimum of 7.5 energy efficiency stars.

So if this is achievable now, where is the government policy to legislate for builders and developers to produce better standard properties? A recent report from the CRC for Low Carbon Living (CRCLCL) analysed energy policies from the world and showed that that Australia is not meeting OECD standards The report calls for a thorough review and rationalisation of policies and regulations in consultation with states, territories, industry and the community to build an effective policy framework for the low-carbon built environment.

A project to address this was recently announced by ASBEC and ClimateWorks Australia (in partnership with the CRCLC) to develop “an industry-led, evidence-based pathway for the adoption of ambitious long-term targets for the energy performance requirements in the National Construction Code.” This has at its foundation a discussion paper where input from all parts of the industry – architects, designers, planners and engineers to building companies and developers – is being called for.

This is good news as it is clear that policy needs to keep up with our redeveloping cities. Many in industry acknowledge this fact but where is the legislation? Let us hope change is on its way, and soon. We will keep proving the evidence for high performance buildings for governments to consider.