Disasters caused by the impact of natural hazards on people, the environment, buildings and infrastructure are becoming more frequent and threatening worldwide. As the social, environmental and economic impact of disasters increases we should take this opportunity to consider lessons taken from recent events and plan for more resilient communities.
One of the key issues for resilience is determining the appropriate spatial scale when planning for natural hazards. Much of the focus in planning has previously been on individual sites or small-scale areas for rezoning. We need to shift the focus on planning for natural hazards to various scales
of local, regional and national that cross local government and even state boundaries to allow for the appropriate planning scale.
In our changing climate, it is clear that natural hazards will continue to be an issue across the Australian landscape and the globe1. The 2019/2020 bushﬁres resulted in damage to over 24 million hectares, destruction of over 3,000 homes and 33 deaths2. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, 2020 was Australia’s fourth warmest years on record3. Recent ﬂoods, coastal erosion and even an earthquake in Victoria are also evidence of the impact that disasters can have on Australian communities.
Planning for hazards
Regional Plans provide for a timeframe and scale that is most appropriate to consider these natural hazards. If we utilise the current and future opportunities that update of these plans provides then we can continue to shift our planning system to an all-hazards approach that considers all natural hazards in the broad strategic planning framework. Previous iterations of the Regional Plans have expressed a preferred outcome that planners consider natural hazards; however, there is limited direction on how to achieve this outcome.
The updated Regional Plans provide more focus on natural hazards by seeking to create resilient communities – see for example Objective 6 of the draft Hunter Regional Plan ‘Reach net zero and increase resilience and sustainable infrastructure. This is a positive objective and one that accepts the current trend of increased risk of natural hazards and potential impact on communities. We need to utilise this objective and create a strong and consistent planning framework that moves to a broader regional and state scale.
Policies such as Planning for Bushfire Protection 2019, NSW Coastal Management Framework, Floodplain Risk Management Program and a draft Planning for a more resilient NSW focus on sensitive land uses and infrastructure. These policies will continue to form part of our planning response to natural hazards. We suggest that the way in which we plan for disasters needs to continue to adapt to our improved understanding of natural hazard risk and regional planning is the appropriate scale to do this.
Regional Plans focus on growing existing centres and expanding areas close to existing developments. Growing existing areas makes sense as it allows for use of existing transport infrastructure, utilities and community services and facilities. However, many of these existing centres are exposed to natural hazards and have potentially experienced recent disasters such as ﬂooding, bushﬁre or coastal erosion. Addressing the ‘legacy’ risk resulting from past decision making6 is crucial for the expansion of existing centres.
More effective opportunities exist when planning for greenﬁeld housing release areas where a blank canvas exists, and the pattern and structure of new development can respond successfully to hazard risk. There are a number of issues that need to be resolved to provide for resilience and future growth of both existing and planned communities. Of course, the lynchpin to achieving spatial awareness is access to good quality information on risk and involvement of multiple disciplines to inform effective decision-making.
Considering risk in planning
Settlement planning at the regional scale allows a cross-boundary lens to be applied to growth management strategies. At this regional scale, we can identify the more appropriate locations for new development, plan for settlement forms, urban design and infrastructure provision. It is essential that this regional settlement planning includes an all-hazards risk assessment supported by comprehensive risk maps that incorporate all natural hazards applicable to a regional area or community. Risk assessment not only reviews the risk of a particular community to being impacted by disaster, but also reviews the adaptability of existing communities to cope with disaster risk in the context of new development occurring and changes to that community over time such as increase in population size, demographics and nature of land uses.
Importance of quality information
Visually overlaying natural hazard risk allows us to apply different overall risk ratings to a regional area or community and use this information to identify the most appropriate locations for new housing and facilities. Some of the current State-wide mapping information available does not include enough information on risk to enable effective strategic decisions to be taken over settlement location. Inputs to such a risk assessment are crucial, and State-wide natural hazard risk parameter guidance is essential in creating an accurate, consistent and comparable approach between regions. Standardised State-led data, risk models and indices being provided by different agencies allows for risk to be calculated at the regional level within a State-wide methodology. Consistent outputs are also important for readability and consistent interpretation between regions. Becoming “spatially enabled” is key to achieving true disaster resilience at the regional scale5.
We live in a hazardous environment and avoiding risk altogether is not a feasible approach. Nevertheless, the ability to limit exposure by directing new settlements towards less hazardous areas is recognised in recent literature as an important settlement planning tool. The concept of keeping risk As Low As Reasonably Practicable (ALARP) referenced in the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience Land Use Planning for Disaster Resilient Communities Handbook6, and originally introduced by PIA in 2015, deﬁnes different risk levels as ‘Generally Intolerable’, ‘Tolerable’ and ‘Broadly Acceptable’7 (see Figure 2). The aim being to determine where no risk treatment is available or where risk treatment would be insufﬁcient to mitigate the risk and development should not go ahead. At the regional or broad community scale, this principle should be used to guide location which are ‘Broadly Acceptable’ or ‘Tolerable’ and adaptable.
Achieving good regional risk assessment provides a framework for adaptability that can be adopted at the Local Strategic Planning stage for implementation through a development application. Considering risk on a regional scale may involve providing community refuges, improved infrastructure including access and egress or additional emergency service resources to provide improved resilience. “Every disaster has it’s own acceptable level of risk on different land use classes”5, land which is assessed as being ‘Generally Intolerable’ for residential or higher risk development could be used effectively for recreation or environmental space within lower risk and vulnerability thresholds. Not only does this approach improve the resilience of spatial planning, but it also increases transparency of risk and knowledge of required mitigation tools.
We know that natural hazards are going to present increased risk to our communities and need to plan now for future climate scenarios. Regional Plans are an appropriate scale to consider natural hazards and if we consider this risk across these plans and within other strategic planning documents our planning system is more likely to be able to consider, plan for and adapt to ongoing risk. One of the goals of planning is to create resilient communities, the Regional Plans are an excellent opportunity to further this goal.
Catherine Ryland MPIA is Director of CR Bushfire Pty Ltd and PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong. Catherine has a background with the NSW Rural Fire Service in developing and implementing bushfire protection policy, including the introduction of strategic bushfire studies in NSW. Catherine works with NSW Government, industry organisations and private sector clients to effectively create resilient and adaptive communities.
Mark Maund RPIA is a Team Leader at WSP and Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle. He is involved in researching land use planning that considers natural hazards and seeks to promote the essential role that planning can play in helping to create resilient communities.
- United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction 2019, Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. https://gar.undrr.org/report-2019
- Commonwealth of Australia 2020, Royal Commission into Natural National Disaster Arrangements. https://naturaldisaster.royalcommission.gov.au/publications/royal-commission-national-natural-disaster-arrangements-report
- Bureau of Meteorology 2020, Annual Climate Statement http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/current/annual/aus/
- Planning, Industry and Environment 2021, draft hunter Regional Plan 2041. https://www.planning.nsw.gov.au/Plans-for-your-area/Regional-Plans/Hunter
- Sutanta, H, Rahabifard, A, Bishop, I. D. 2010, Integrating Spatial Planning and Disaster Risk Reduction at the Local Level in the Context of Spatially Enabled Government, Center for Spatial Data Infrastructures and Land Administration (CSDILA), Department of Geomatics, University of Melbourne.
- Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience 2020, Land Use Planning for Disaster Resilient Communities Handbook. https://knowledge.aidr.org.au/resources/handbook-land-use-planning/
- NSW Department of Planning 2007, Settlement Planning Guidelines Mid and Far North Coast Regional Strategies. https://www.planning.nsw.gov.au/~/media/Files/DPE/Guidelines/settlement-planning-guidelines-mid-and-far-north-coast-regional-strategies-2007-08.ashx
This article originally appeared in New Planner – the journal of the New South Wales planning profession – published by the Planning Institute of Australia. For more information, please visit: www.planning.org.au/news/new-planner-nsw