Land use changeIndicator
Over the reporting period, it was not possible to determine changes in the area of urban and rural lands. However, any changes are estimated to be small. Although nearly 75% of ACT Government land is zoned for natural ecosystems and greenspace, urban expansion continues to be an environmental challenge for the ACT. To minimise urban growth, the proportion of medium and high-density housing is increasing. The rates of infill development are improving with all years from 2015–16 meeting (or close to meeting) the 70% infill target.
Indicator assessment legend
Environmental condition is healthy across the ACT, OR pressure likely to have negligible impact on environmental condition/human health.
Environmental condition is neither positive or negative and may be variable across the ACT, OR pressure likely to have limited impact on environmental condition/human health.
Environmental condition is under significant stress, OR pressure likely to have significant impact on environmental condition/ human health.
Data is insufficient to make an assessment of status and trends.
Adequate high-quality evidence and high level of consensus
Limited evidence or limited consensus
Evidence and consensus too low to make an assessment
Assessments of status, trends and data quality are not appropriate for the indicator
- Land use
- Territory plan zones
- Rural and plantation forest land use
- Urban expansion
- Minimising the growth in the ACT’s urban footprint
- Greenfield versus infill development
For land use change, only urban and rural land uses are discussed here; for changes in conservation areas see Indicator B2: Extent and condition of conservation areas in the biodiversity section.
Land use data
The data used for this indicator are from the Territory Plan Zones. Under the Planning and Development Act 2007, the Territory Plan sets out zoning that identifies the types of land use and activities that are permitted in an area. Because the data are based on land zoning, they may not reflect actual current land use. For example, land zoned for urban areas may still be undeveloped. In addition, land zoning related to specific objectives such as ecological protection, cultural and heritage resources, and environmental integrity (for example, hills, ridges and buffers, mountains and bushland, and river corridors) will differ to conservation and protected areas as shown in section Indicator B2: Extent and condition of conservation areas because some of this zoned land is under the tenure of rural lease holders and not managed by the ACT Government.
Condition and trends
The total area of the ACT is around 236,000 hectares and the area of land under the tenure of the ACT Government is around 224,700 hectares. The remainder of the ACT’s land is national land managed by the National Capital Authority (also known as ‘designated land’) and largely includes urban areas around central Canberra and Lake Burley Griffin.
The main land uses under the tenure of the ACT Government are shown in Figures L1 and L2). Note that there may be some variation compared to actual land use area due to the amalgamation of categories used and the inclusion of some areas in more than one land use type. The main land uses are:
- conservation and protected lands which protect around 141,000 hectares (63%)
- urban and intensive lands which account for around 37,000 hectares (17%) – ‘Urban and intensive’ includes lands zoned as residential, commercial, industrial, transport, urban open space, and hills/ridges/buffer areas
- rural lands which account for around 33,000 hectares (15%), and
- plantation forests which account for around 8,700 hectares (4%).
It was not possible to determine changes in the area of urban and rural lands over the reporting period (2015–16 to 2018–19). However, any changes are estimated to be small.
Figure L1: Main land uses under the tenure of the ACT Government, 2019.
Territory plan zones
Under the Territory Plan, zoning categories for lands managed by the ACT Government are mountains and bushlands (62%), rural (15%), urban and intensive (9%), hills, ridges and buffers (7%), river corridor (5%), and urban open space 2% (Figure L3). This means that nearly 75% of ACT Government land is zoned for natural ecosystems and greenspace. Highly modified land uses such as urban and rural account for around 25% of ACT Government land.
Figure L3: Territory Plan zones for land under the tenure of the ACT Government, 2019.
Rural and plantation forest land use
The ACT has a relatively small agricultural sector. Beef cattle farms are the most common, accounting for 40% of all farms.Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2019, ‘Value of Agricultural Commodities Produced, Australia, 2017–18’, (7503.0), Canberra.
In 2019, there were 8,700 hectares of pine plantations in the ACT, although 1,560 hectares were fallow (inactive and unplanted). Some 10,000 hectares of the pine plantation estate was destroyed in the 2003 bushfires with only the Kowen Forest plantation unburnt. Some burnt plantation areas were replanted with pine trees, particularly where soil stabilisation and water quality protection were a priority, and boundaries were redefined with some areas converted to native vegetation. In 2017–18, 307 hectares were harvested with a value of nearly $5.5 million.Plantation forest data from the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate. The pine forests are also extensively used and managed for recreational activities, including walking, jogging, horse riding and cycling.
Urban expansion The urban land use trends, population and housing projections in this section are taken from: EPSDD, 2018, ACT Planning Strategy 2018, ACT Government, Canberra, accessed 13 August 2019.
Population growth is a key driver of urban land use change in the ACT. The ACT has experienced strong and sustained population growth – in the 10-year period between 2008 and 2018 the population grew by approximately 72,000 people, an average annual increase of 7,200 or 1.7% per year (see ACT’s population section in Human Settlement). In 2018, the ACT’s population was around 423,000 and is projected to increase to 589,000 people by 2041.
The ACT consumes significantly more land for urban development compared to population growth. Between 1991 and 2016, the ACT’s urban land area grew by 57%, compared to a population increase of 43% over the same period. If this ratio of urban growth to population continues, the ACT’s current urban footprint would need to increase by a further 46% by 2041 to accommodate population growth.
This would mean that the current urban area of around 37,000 hectares would grow to 54,000 hectares. This growth pattern does not support a compact and efficient city and would increase travel times and limit transport options, raise infrastructure-servicing costs, and result in significant increases in the ACT’s ecological footprint. Continued urban expansion also places pressure on Canberra’s rural and greenspace environments, and the connectivity of its ecosystems.
It is estimated that the ACT will need 100,000 new dwellings by 2041 to accommodate the projected population growth. This growth will also necessitate the construction of associated infrastructure. The ACT’s growth area is shown in Figure L4. Current estimates suggest there is potential for approximately 29,000 new homes in existing greenfield areas zoned as future urban areas. If no new greenfield areas are identified, this supply is expected to be sufficient until around 2030–40.
Figure L4: Current and future urban growth in the ACT
Minimising the growth in the ACT’s urban footprint
Much of the growth in the ACT’s urban area has been in the form of single low-density dwellings with fewer and fewer people living in them. To minimise the growth of the ACT’s future urban footprint there needs be an increase in population density, the number of medium and high-density dwellings, and the amount of urban infill compared to greenfield development. The relationship between population density and the growth in urban area is shown in Figure L5. The amount of land required for higher population densities is significantly less than that required for low densities, which reduces the need for new urban areas.
Figure L5: Area of land taken by 50,000 dwellings at different population densities
In 2016, Canberra had a population density of 1,062 people per square kilometre, the second lowest of the major Australian capital cities (excluding Hobart and Darwin). This is due to:
- a reduction in Canberra’s household size from 2.9 people in 1991 to 2.5 in 2016
- 55% of ACT households having 2 or fewer people, and
- an increase of 125% in single-person households from 1991 to 2016, the fastest growing household type in Canberra.
Canberra also had the second lowest residential dwelling density compared to other major Australian capital cities, with 437 private dwellings per square kilometre. Nevertheless, housing preferences are changing, with a greater demand for medium-density housing such as townhouses. In 2016, 18% of Canberra’s residential dwellings were medium density, and 17% high density (Figure L6). Single dwellings remain the dominant form of housing at 65%, although its proportionate share has decreased from 80% of residential dwellings in 1991.
Figure L6: Dwelling density in Canberra, 2016.
Greenfield versus infill development
What is greenfield and infill development?
Greenfield urban development is that which occurs outside the boundary of the established urban area. This development extends the urban footprint and requires the construction of new utility, transport and social infrastructure. Infill urban development is undertaken within the existing urban area and provides greater intensity and efficiency of existing land and infrastructure. Urban infill can include the redevelopment of commercial and industrial areas, and the development of unimproved land within the urban boundaries.
Greenfield development places greater pressure on the environment through impacts such as:
- vegetation clearance
- degraded land condition
- increased waterway pollution
- increased recreational use and access tracks
- garden weed invasion, and
- the need for extensive fire management for asset protection.
Greenfield development can also significantly increase demand and consumption of resources as well as greenhouse gas emissions through additional infrastructure and transport needs.
Another consideration for greenfield developments is the potential requirement for the creation of environmental offsets to address potential development pressures. In the ACT, offsets provide environmental compensation for a development that is likely to have adverse environmental impacts on a protected matter (see Indicator B2: Extent and condition of conservation areas in the Biodiversity section).
Urban infill generally has a much reduced environmental impact compared to greenfield development because it requires a smaller development footprint and a reduced need for new infrastructure. The benefits can be increased with sensitive design and adoption of low environmental impact types of land use.
Higher rates of urban infill are required for the ACT to meet a range of social, environmental and economic needs, including commitments to a net zero emissions future, improved public transport and demographic trends favouring greater housing choice.
The ACT Planning Strategy 2018 sets a target for up to 70% of new housing to be provided as infill development within the existing urban footprint.EPSDD, 2018, ACT Planning Strategy 2018, ACT Government, Canberra, accessed 30 November 2019. The rate of infill development in the ACT has varied widely since 2011–12, from a low of 36% of all urban development in 2013–14 to a high of 77% in 2017–18 (Figure L7). The average infill rate between 2011–12 and 2017–18 was 58% of all development. However, the rate of infill urban development has increased since 2013–14, with all years from 2015–16, meeting (or close to meeting) the 70% infill target.
Figure L7: Rates of greenfield and infill urban development, 2011–12 to 2017–18.
If the 70% urban infill target continues to be met, it is estimated that the ACT’s projected 2041 population could be accommodated within a 42,900 hectare footprint (Figure L8). This would mean a 16% increase from the 2016 urban area compared to a 46% increase if the current ratio of urban growth to population continues. Regardless of the size of urban growth in the future, it is clear that urban land development will continue to be an environmental challenge for the ACT.