A View From The Edge
Issues in Rural and Metropolitan Fringe Planning

Ian Sinclair,
Principal Consultant, Edge Land Planning
Rural and Environmental Planning Consultants

As published in New Planner, The Magazine of the Planning Profession in NSW
Number 44, September 2000
Sustainability Indicators
There as been a lot of talk recently about Sustainability, and more importantly indicators of Sustainability. These are sometimes called environmental indicators and catchment health indicators. It is considered that the term catchment health indicators are more accurate for the land use planning area. It is more understandable and also is something that we, as planners, can have an impact upon - the health of the local catchment and the impact of land use on that health.
We must put this in the context of ESD. It is not intended to explain the concept here, suffice to say that ESD is not something we can see but is a concept, an objective to achieve and a principle by which we carry out our planning. If we achieve sustainable development, in my opinion we have failed. This is because we should always be continually improving and redefining the concept and getting better at what we do. Just have a look over the past 10 years at how we have redefined the issues.
We write policy, particularly LEP's and DCPs to ensure that future development is sustainable and strives to improve the environmental quality rather than degrading it. A lot of people think that we can fix the existing situation by writing an LEP or DCP. This is not the case.
We, as planners, have a great opportunity to actually measure the sustainability of the policies that we write. We can do is by introducing catchment health indicators into the planning process. These can then be measured by the State of the Environment reporting (which is publicly reported) and used as a guide to the adequacy of land use policy.
The Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) State of the Environment Reporting Task Force has produced a recent document called "Environmental Indicators for Reporting on the State of the Environment." The document states that the environment is complex and discerning environmental trends can be difficult. Environmental indicators, it states, help track changes in the environment by selecting key measures - which may be physical, chemical, biological or socio-economic - that provide useful information about the whole system. By using indicators it is possible to evaluate the fundamental condition of the environment without having to capture the full complexity of the system.
The ANZECC State of the Environment Reporting Task Force has produced a series of indicators and publications which are very useful and which provide a standardised set of indicators based on common themes used by the OECD and standardised for Australia and New Zealand. These are: Atmosphere, Biodiversity, Land, Inland Waters, Estuaries and the Sea, Human Settlements, as well as Natural and Cultural Heritage. The documents can be downloaded from the Internet at the Environment Australia's website ( These should be used as a guide to developing indicators of catchment health for the local situation. Although not all of these are relevant to the landuse planning issues, some have a direct impact and others an indirect impact on the development of land use policy for rural land. Is necessary therefore to select individual ones and develop a system whereby indicators can be measured in a simple manner.
When developing a set of catchment health indicators and measuring protocols, it is tempting to try and become too scientific and therefore the measuring system and indicator becomes very complex. Shellharbour and Penrith Councils are currently investigating the preparation of a set of indicators for catchment health. These have been developed on the condition pressure response framework of the SoE reporting. It is intended to put the indicators into development control plans and that these indicators will be measured and reported by the SoE Report. As stated above it is important to make the indicators and measures as simple as possible. A couple of examples are a measure of water quality may be the turbidity of a stream. An inspection is carried out on a regular interval at a specific location and if the water is turbid (that is brown) it is an indicator of unhealthy catchment. However if the stream is clear it is an indicator of a healthy catchment. The same can be done for water quality testing. Indicators can also be used to measure the rehabilitation or connectivity of a wildlife corridor. A photo is taken at a regular interval from a specified point of a potential corridor and thereby building up a photographic record of the enhancement of that corridor. The same method can be applied to potential clearing of a corridor utilising aerial photography.
This concept is a new one and there is not the space here to describe it in detail. It is one where are we can in fact measure, for the first time in my view, the impact of development on the environment. We can also build up a series of baseline data. More importantly we can then review our planning documents based on some factual data which will give us an indication of the health of the catchment to provide a measure of how development is impacting on the catchment. Then we can truly state that we are preparing policies and assessing development to achieve sustainability.
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