Designing for resilience in bushfire-prone areas

Researchers have developed nine principles to help urban planners, emergency services and communities collaborate to reduce fire risk.

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Urban planning and design can reduce Australia’s vulnerability to catastrophic bushfires, according to work by Professor Alan March and Constanza Gonzalez-Mathiesena from the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning .

More bushfires (also known as wildfires) are occurring around the world each year. Their economic impact will increase, and more people will be affected.

To examine the potential for urban planning to improve risk management and the resilience of communities, the research team interviewed experts and studied land-use planning policies from countries prone to severe bushfires. This included the USA, France, Spain and Australia.

The team studied policy, guidelines and planning at the government, suburb and site levels. For example, they found builders minimise risk by building houses and infrastructure that do not easily catch fire. Land-use planners minimise risk by determining safer locations for new suburbs. They also ensure that suburbs are designed to help people safely evacuate and to allow emergency services to find water and access properties.

Based on this research, the team developed nine design and planning principles for bushfire-prone areas.

To help communities avoid or minimise risk:

  • ensure design and planning consider how fire responds to different environments and weather
  • build houses away from potential fire sources, such as forested areas
  • manage vegetation and other fuel sources
  • control building density to minimise the spread of fire and to avoid isolated properties
  • zone land appropriately to its bushfire risk.

To help communities and emergency services adapt and respond during a crisis:

  • plan the number, size and location of emergency services needed to reach the community quickly
  • design roads that allow efficient emergency response and evacuation
  • ensure sufficient water sources for firefighting, for individuals and emergency services
  • ensure that people understand their options for evacuating, finding refuge or defending their properties.

Next steps

The researchers are now looking at how urban planners can improve their understanding of building codes and associated development to enhance resilience.

This work is part of a larger body of research on bushfires preparedness and prevention led by Professor March and Associate Professor Janet Stanley at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne.


Gonzalez-Mathiesen C, March A (2018) Establishing design principles for wildfire resilient urban planning. Planning Practice & Research 33(2): 97-119. doi: 10.1080/02697459.2018.1429787

Image: HighExposure/Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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Banner image: Bushfire planning and building controls improve how structures perform in fire conditions.

First published on 11 March 2022.

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