Coastal urban climate futures in SE Australia: from Wollongong to Lakes Entrance

Adaptation Research Grants Program
Barbara Norman
University of Canberra
Year Started: 

Executive summary from final report

Coastal Urban Climate Futures in South East Australia from Wollongong to Lakes Entrance is an investigation into possible coastal urban futures in 2030 and beyond. The study is focussed on coastal adaptation in the context of climate change. It is broad in its scope by considering environmental, social and economic change in the south east coastal region. It has a spatial and temporal dimension in considering action on the ground. It involves seven local government areas, two states and several regional organisations. It explores some of the critical governance issues.

For this research, the south east coastal region comprises the local government areas of Wollongong, Shellharbour, Kiama, Shoalhaven, Eurobodalla, Bega and East Gippsland. The population is 408,496 with 0.8 per cent annual growth rate. It is a diverse coastal landscape with a range of urban settlements and coastal communities from significant towns to villages and hamlets. It is a coastal region already adapting to change.

This research uses a range of methods, including a review of peer-reviewed journal articles and government reports, local case studies, targeted focus groups and fieldwork. The time horizon is to 2030 but longer time frames have been considered where appropriate. An important dimension is the interdisciplinary approach.

A key component of the research was seven case studies of a diverse range of coastal settlements in the region from Wollongong to Lakes Entrance and two workshops with local decision-makers were a key part of the research. A final discussion with local government representatives on the draft report provided valuable feedback. The forums and discussions provided significant data to inform potential strategies for coastal urban futures in 2030.

The outcome is an integrated framework for describing what a climate-adapted coastal community may be like in 2030.

Research findings

The research has found that current coastal planning regulations used to assess future development address only one part of the urban future. The planning system is not well equipped to encourage or regulate the ‘retrofitting’ of the existing built environment for a climate-adapted future and mechanisms for this risk response are required.

The mapping of urban capable land can also be inconsistent with coastal or inundation risk mapping, with the continuing possibility of coastal development in high-risk areas. Constraint mapping is not currently applied consistently across each local government jurisdiction. Urban capable land should correlate with the risk assessment. However, responses that reduce or remove land areas from the urban-capable land bank can create compensatory problems for local government.

Infrastructure assets, including transport, water, sewerage and power supply investments and social infrastructure such as schools and health care facilities, should be subject to vulnerability assessments. These assessments should also include potential damage and cost of repairs from intermittent inundation. Infrastructure investment strategies could be estimated at scenario points [2030, 2070] for replacement and adaptation options.

The above suggests that, at a local level, an adapted coastal community will have adopted a risk assessment approach with respect to land use planning for both existing and new coastal development. Non-climate drivers identified include planning regulation/decision-making and demand for urban and developable land.

The findings from the case studies indicated that action has commenced on coastal adaptation and the decision-makers are aware of the current science. There is general desire for data to be presented in a more community-friendly way that will assist councils and regional organisations to communicate the impacts of climate change on coastal communities. There is consideration of some of the broader environmental risks including coastal inundation, flooding, bushfire and heat and the consequences for critical local infrastructure and services.

Socio-economic factors are significant concerns. These include an ageing population and isolation of communities with lack of access to public transport and health facilities exacerbating the overall vulnerability of some of the smaller communities. There is an identified need for improved coordination of policy, particularly on climate change action between State Government and local councils.

Opportunities for the future include green growth in coastal and marine industry, regional food production, tourism, education and research. There is also a desire for more ‘adaptable’ approaches to the built environment – housing, infrastructure, urban design – that will be able to adapt to environmental change over time. Similarly, it was expressed that more guidance could be provided to developers on options for adaptation.

There was a distinction between the concerns expressed between the first and second workshops. During that time, the climate change and coastal management policies of the Victorian and NSW Governments changed, particularly with regards to planning for sea level rise. The decision-makers at the workshop expressed concern that with less guidance from the State Governments, and more responsibility devolved to the local level, there was a policy gap that made it difficult for consistent and coordinated action at a regional scale in preparing for climate change.

Integrated scenarios and strategies

The diverse range of issues identified has been integrated into a first pass ‘whole of system’ view of how impacts and responses can influence community outcomes. This demonstrates the many interdependencies that need to be taken into account in adaptation planning.

What is evident is that to be climate-adapted, a community requires effective planning, decision-making and implementation of responses to current and emerging climate impacts and risks – effective governance with an adaptive decision-making process to planning for climate change.

At the same time, effective adaptation, planning and decision-making, whether by government, business or the community, needs to incorporate an integrated perspective in several dimensions. This includes integration across change drivers with related policies (climate and non-climate), across sectors, impacts and responses, across spatial and temporal scales, and across institutions (including levels of government).

Further, it is critical that science is informed by and responsive to local circumstances that can affect a community’s preparedness for a changing environment and long-term climate change.

From these likely determinants of successful adaptation the project has identified a small number of contrasting 2030 scenarios based on various levels of governance and integration effectiveness. The outcomes for the community may be significantly different under the alternative scenarios even by 2030, and starkly different by 2070, as they reflect substantially different capacities to manage the more significant and less predictable impacts beyond 2030. Proposed strategies to facilitate a move to the preferred  ‘well-adapted settlement’ scenario are identified.

The findings can be summarised by seven key messages that have emerged from the research:

  1. Recent experience indicates that the region is already living with an environment of extreme events including floods, coastal storms and inundation, drought and bushfires.
  2. The science indicates that by 2030 the region may experience increased temperatures (virtually certain), changes in the pattern of rainfall (likely), further sea-level rise (virtually certain), an increasing risk of coastal inundation and erosion (highly likely) and an increasing risk of bushfires (highly likely).
  3. There are a number of small settlements with ageing communities that are vulnerable, due to physical isolation with limited access to public transport, health and other community facilities. This vulnerability will be exacerbated in the future with additional urban development in these settlements coupled with the impacts of climate change. Significant seasonal population fluctuations during summer months exacerbate the challenge of planning effectively for emergency management.
  4. The region has experienced significant economic change, resulting in relatively high youth unemployment in some locations and out-migration of young people. This may affect community resilience over time with less people able to contribute to services such as emergency management and community services. New employment and education opportunities need to be developed to retain young people in these coastal settlements.
  5. Green growth opportunities have been highlighted, including smart infrastructure for the built environment (water and energy) in adapting to extreme weather and climate change; coastal and marine initiatives in tourism, education and research building on the region’s natural assets and the national broadband network; carbon farming and renewable energy initiatives.
  6. There is a strong need for improved governance mechanisms for better coordination and integrated decision-making that considers immediate and longer time frames to support sustainable coastal planning and adapting to climate change. Past planning mistakes have led to more vulnerable coastal communities, compounding maladaptive practice. Adaptive planning and management (i.e. learning by doing) is core to improving coastal decision-making.
  7. There is demand for information that better connects data at a regional level to support evidence-based regional planning (for example, a regional knowledge portal). Emphasis is required on communication and knowledge sharing of information and leading practice in coastal adaptation between local councils, regional organisations, and the wider community. Ongoing collaborative research will be critical to maintain current knowledge for on-the-ground decision-making.

Overall a climate-adapted coastal community in the south east region by 2030 will have experienced environmental, social and economic change. This change will be incremental, although there will continue to be extreme events. Some aspects of extreme weather such as heatwaves and coastal flooding events are likely to have increased in severity and/or frequency by 2030. External drivers such as global economic change will impact employment and rates of growth. Planning will also need to be able to respond to possible co-incidences of events (floods, storm surge). Governance, integration and engagement processes will also need to be increasingly effective by 2030 in order to prepare for the greater and less predictable climate and other changes as the century progresses.

Opportunities to adapt to change are possible with enhanced communication networks, educational opportunities, research, and decision-making processes that facilitate more collaborative responses. Green growth opportunities supported by improved coastal governance arrangements (intergovernmental cooperation and integration of policy) could provide the basis for developing more resilient coastal communities. Evidence based integrated regional planning with active engagement by the regional communities could provide that framework.

In summary, the research indicates that the process of decision-making and the effectiveness of integrated governance arrangements supported by community engagement will be the successful determining factors of a well-adapted coastal community in 2030. The design and construction of coastal settlements will flow from that and respond to local circumstances drawing upon a regional sharing of knowledge and leading practice in coastal adaptation.

The research has identified the following principles as a framework for a climate-adapted small coastal settlement in 2030. The principles have potential application in other coastal regions in Australia, while recognising the importance of guiding principles for coastal urban futures that acknowledge local differences – a key conclusion of this research.

Principle 1

An integrated approach should be adopted for sustainable regional and local planning (social, economic, environmental and cultural). The approach should consider the catchment–to coast–to marine continuum and the different levels of government and stakeholders involved in planning and implementation.

Principle 2

The precautionary principle to decision making should be applied to the location of new and redeveloped urban settlement and infrastructure and other relevant decisions, particularly where environmental risk currently or potentially exists. Open space should be a key consideration to allow for adaptation (coastal retreat, heat absorption, green infrastructure).

Principle 3

Risk management approaches should be incorporated into local and regional strategies for coastal settlements responding to climate and environmental change including progressive learning from experience to ensure adaptability. This should be underpinned by the best science on climate change, socio-economic trends and an understanding of local community circumstances.

Principle 4

Appropriate forums should be established at the regional level to enable collaboration across institutions at the local and regional level. Governance mechanisms that facilitate intergovernmental agreement on policy directions (shared vision) and integration of policy decisions (implementation) are fundamental to coastal adaptation. This aligns with the findings of the recommendations of the House of Representatives report – Managing our coastal zone in a changing climate: the time to act is now.

Principle 5

There should be an ongoing process of community engagement. This needs to be informed by the latest science, in developing and regularly reviewing coastal urban plans to gain community support, and where possible support by all levels of government and across government agencies.

Principle 6

The skills and knowledge of regional and local communities should be connected by relevant organisations to provide a foundation for long-term research, co-production of knowledge and monitoring of coastal urban futures. Regional communities and practitioners could engage on a periodic basis with Australia’s leading scientific research organisations to discuss the most up-to-date scientific knowledge on the risks of climate change and its implications for adaptation strategies.

Principle 7

A process of continuous monitoring, evaluation and reporting of adaptation actions should be implemented to ensure  ‘learning by doing’ and to avoid past mistakes. The impacts of climate change on the coastal environment will require more attention to evaluating impacts of adaptation measures over time.


The seven key messages and seven key principles arising from this research strongly indicate that regional governance which enables implementation of a shared vision will be a hallmark of what an adapted climate community will look like in 2030. An evidence-based shared vision that can take a long-term view and allow for local interpretation and circumstance will provide the framework for appropriate local decision making. Adaptation actions in coastal communities will require the cooperation and agreement from all levels of government who own and manage infrastructure and services in the coastal environment.

The overall finding of this research is that a prescriptive approach to settlement and infrastructure for coastal communities is less important than a decision-making process that is open, transparent, inclusive and adaptive, involving all levels of government and the community. This is an important finding and is consistent with the recommendations of the House of Representatives report – Managing our coastal zone in a changing climate: the time to act is now (House of Representatives 2009). This finding suggests recent devolution of coastal planning and climate change decisions to local government will not be sustainable in the immediate or longer term as actions on major coastal infrastructure and development requires support and investment from state and national governments. In contrast, a more collaborative regional approach with wide representation may be the best pathway forward for adapting to climate change on the coast.

View final report

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