Enhancing Urban Landscapes – Rainforest to Reef

Briefing Note Summary

Natural areas in the Cairns urban footprint have been significantly degraded or removed.

World Heritage values have been seriously impacted upon, including from the rainforests all the way to the reef.

Cleaning up agriculturalpractices has rightly been focused upon, but little focus has been on urban areas.

A fund of $29.4M is required to restore and enhance natural urban landscapes, help protect the reef, and fuel the green economy to create green jobs.

It is proposed that the fund be self-sustaining by tapping into a variety of private and public green funding mechanisms.

The Issue

Strategic Urban Landscapes Fund

Urban development along the Tropical North Queensland coast occurs in an internationally significant and ecologically fragile zone between World Heritage-listed rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef. The Reef and Wet Tropics are worth more than $11B to the economy. In Cairns, human settlement has dramatically altered the landscape, and natural areas in the urban footprint are either gone or severely degraded. Urban settlements are high polluters and have significant impacts on coral reefs. Although urban areas form less than 1% of land use in the Great Barrier Reef catchment, they contribute disproportionally to sediment loads.

Much research and remedial work has focused on agriculture’s impacts on the Great Barrier Reef. Some research exists regarding impacts from urban development (e.g., AIMS), but far less mitigation/restoration work has been undertaken to address the impact of urban infrastructure and services such as housing, buildings, roads, power, water, and sewerage. Marine environments near urban areas receive more sediments, nutrients (from runoff, wastewater), and pollutants (industrial, microplastics) than undeveloped areas, and coral reefs near coastal cities are characteristically subject to more anthropogenic (human) stressors such as population growth, flooding events, storm surge, fire risks, and pollution. It is vital that lessons, skillsets, and capabilities learnt in agricultural contexts are transferred into an urban landscape environment.

This paper proposes a greater Cairns-focused Strategic Urban Landscapes (SUL) Fund that involves enhancing, rehabilitating, and restoring natural urban landscapes, particularly around rivers and streams flowing to the Reef. The SUL fund would initially be federally funded but would be used to leverage further private sector and other government (i.e., Local/State) funding that ensure the fund’s ongoing sustainability. After initial SUL start-up, this initiative would prioritise and develop these sustainable funding models and economic instruments (e.g., reef credits, go green funds, offsets) as well as identify policy and planning drivers to move towards a self-sustainable model that provides environmental and economic benefits.

Leveraging public and private sector capital provides prospects for engaging with opportunities emerging in the environmental trading space. There is a rapidly growing carbon and biodiversity environmental market that needs to be further harnessed by the TNQ region. Offsets are a common method for large infrastructure projects needing to mitigate their impacts on the environment. Developers and infrastructure providers often struggle to find suitable programs to offset against, especially in their geographic area. This program will provide local and national opportunities.

The Reef is not the only beneficiary. SUL programs will improve water quality, enhance biodiversity, amplify the city’s resilience to flooding, make the city a more attractive tourist destination, and increase liveability.

Benefits of these programs include:

  1. Enhanced Reef health through improved water quality (both salt and freshwater), through decontaminating (heavy metals, sewerage, and stormwater), and reducing runoff to the Great Barrier Reef.
  2. Restored natural city landscapes through revegetating natural waterways and widening nature corridors, reconnecting segregated natural ecosystems, and providing buffers for existing vulnerable sites and climate refugia.
  3. Resilience to flooding, which is forecast to increase in Cairns with climate change.
  4. Reduced urban heat in Cairns, a city projected to triple the number of heatwave days by 20501.
  5. Urban development that prioritises the environment makes the city healthier, more attractive, cooler, and more liveable. This makes the region a place of choice to live and work, which ultimately drives economic growth. It adds further to the Cairns Regional Council’s goal of being a smart green economy.
  6. The lessons learnt through practical on-the-ground research in the Cairns region can be applied to the 21 LGAs, with a combined population of more than 600,000 people, that abut the boundary of the Great Barrier Reef.


Sustainable urban development

The Great Barrier Reef is internationally renowned for its abundance and diversity of marine life, while the rainforests of the Wet Tropics contain plant and animal species not found anywhere else on the planet. The city of Cairns enjoys the unique advantages of being adjacent to these two precious assets.

Urban development and future growth require high-level strategic foresight, as only a narrow coastal strip is available for future population growth and urban development. Cairns is an ideal living laboratory for Reef- and Rainforest-sensitive urban development solutions that can be replicated across other catchments.

Waterways in urban areas are converted into hard infrastructure such as concrete drains and culverts, which quickly convey stormwater but degrade water quality and ecosystem services. Research suggests that retaining and enhancing the city’s natural systems (blue green infrastructure or BGI) in urban development strategies is key to the ongoing success of cities and towns and creates healthy, prosperous, and resilient places.

Nature-based solutions and water-sensitive urban designs play an important role in habitat restoration and biodiversity conservation. This in turn creates connectivity for flora and fauna in our urban areas, providing important temperature refugia for animals and humans alike.

Catchment planning

The Cairns Regional Council already has a track record of success through its integrated catchment management planning model, which mitigates the risk of flooding in high-risk catchments to enhance their disaster resilience. Council’s efforts to monitor Saltwater Creek in Cairns are building an evidence base to guide investment and interventions that improve resilience to flooding. Most recently, CRC engaged Healthy Land and Water to undertake a strategic planning workshop (June 2021), which prioritised the key challenges, goals, and potential solutions. This provides the basis to develop an integrated catchment management plan. A model will be designed that can be replicated across the city and other tropical catchments.

Water sensitive urban design

James Cook University (JCU) in collaboration with Central Queensland University (CQU) can provide practical on-the-ground research. JCU’s Tropical Urbanism and Design Lab (TUDLab) has documented key examples of water-sensitive urban design (WSUD) undertaken in Cairns, with flood mitigation solutions through improved conveyance of floodwaters.

Restoration of damaged landscapes

Terrain NRM, Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA) and Far North Queensland Regional Organisation of Councils (FNQROC) have been leaders with other stakeholders in identifying a series of critical green corridors across the Wet Tropics to increase the resilience of the World Heritage rainforest and its keystone species. Our region has one of the most established (40+ years) and proven reforestation industry clusters in Australia and it has capacity to scale. These capabilities can now be implemented at city level.

Tropical sustainable city building

Advance Cairns is the peak advocacy and economic development group for FNQ. Industry will play a vital role in the implementation of the strategy and development of the green economy, and Advance Cairns is well positioned to take on a leadership role in conjunction with our two universities, JCU and CQU.

Next Steps

Step 1 – Establish a collaborative group comprised of key stakeholders to drive the project. The group will develop a governance and organisational framework for the fund.

Step 2 – JCU/CQU to lead a multidisciplinary Strategic Catchment and Biodiversity Prioritisation Study

  • Develop a Strategic Framework to identify priority restoration/rehabilitation projects and programs
  • Conduct on-the-ground research to map key restoration corridors and associated catchment management plans based on sustainable waterway management
  • Research preliminary designs and business cases to be appraised by an evaluation committee

Step 3 – Establish an initially federally funded SUL Fund that enables ‘on-the-ground’ restoration and rehabilitation programs (with a focus on Indigenous employment and co-design).

Step 4 – Increase the capacity of and provide opportunities for Traditional Owner organisations and existing businesses in the region to increase the number of jobs and benefits.

Step 5 – Develop sustainable funding models and economic instruments and identify and implement policy and planning drivers to transition to a more self-sustaining funding model building on the work of the start-up fund. Leverage private and public funding opportunities. Pilot initiatives to test viability.

Step 6 – Ongoing research to evaluate and monitor the success of the program, funds invested are accountable to investors, so it can be applied to other coastal urban environments.

Our Recommendation

  • That the Federal Government commits to implementing the Enhancing Natural Urban Landscapes – From Rainforest to Reef initiative that includes establishing a strategic urban landscapes fund (SUL). Total cost $29.4M.