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Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment

Indicator: Landuse

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The overall pattern of landuse and landuse change in the ACT changed little during the 2000–03 reporting period. The trend towards greater areas of land used for conservation and urban uses, with a corresponding loss of agricultural lands, has continued.

The main landuses continue to be conservation, agriculture (mainly livestock production), urban settlement, and timber production.

What the results tell us for the ACT

The dominant landuse in the ACT is conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem processes—some 54% of the total area of the ACT is protected in nature reserves (22,072 hectares) and Namadgi National Park (105,845 hectares). Of the remaining land in the ACT, a large proportion (22% or 51,587 hectares) is used for agriculture, almost all of which is dryland sheep grazing. Forestry operations, mostly pine plantations, cover another 7.6% (16,579 hectares of actual plantation).

Combined, these three landuses account for more than 80% of the ACT, contributing to the Territory’s status as the bush capital of Australia.

The urban area covers only 13% (30,154 hectares) of the ACT. Of that, most is built on for housing, offices, schools, shops, and other commercial and community buildings. About 6000 hectares is some type of open space—either zoned as Urban Open Space in the Territory Plan, or land that has been designated for some other use but which has not been built on. About 4300 hectares is covered by roads and adjacent easements, or other transport infrastructure such as the airport. Table 1 contains more details. Figures on actual landuse continue to be refined as recording and mapping techniques improve.

Table 1. Major landuse types in the ACT, 1995 to 2003
Landuse Type 1995* 1997 2000 2003
Conservation 123972 127092 127198 127917
National Parks 105845 105845 105845
Nature Reserves 21247 21353 22072
Forestry operations (Plantations and associated lands)** 24570 24570 24570 24570
Agriculture nd 53055 52795 51587
Grazing 51468 49968
Cropping 266 266 266
Horticulture 125 125 159
Horse paddocks 1196 1196 1194
Urban 29263 29444 29666 30154
Built area 18851 19456 19851
Open space (zoned and other open space) 6231 5848 5941
Transport (roads, airport, railway)*** nd 4362 4362
Waterbodies 1768 1768 1768 1772
Other 4661 4661 4661 4661

Note: totals do not add up to the total area for the ACT because of some overlaps, for example between waterbodies and other uses; * 1995 figures are estimates only, and are used to show indicative trends; ** Forestry data supplied by ACT Forests ; *** nd = no data

What has changed?

The overall pattern of landuse changed little during the reporting period. The urban area continued to expand into grazing lands, and some new areas have been added to the nature reserve system. Large areas of pine forests that were burned in the Christmas 2001 and the January 2003 fires had not been replanted by the end of the reporting period, and it was uncertain whether all of the forestry estate would be replanted.

Accounting methods used to calculate landuse in 2003 have continued to improve over methods previously used, but some figures are still tentative (see About the data).

New nature reserves to protect biodiversity

Some 720 hectares were formally added to Canberra Nature Park during the reporting period—namely the Aranda Snowgums, Lower Molonglo, and Tuggeranong Hill Nature Reserves, and a small addition to the Mulligan’s Flat Nature Reserve. The 685 hectares of the Lower Molonglo Nature Reserve was the major addition. There was also a slight adjustment in the boundary of the Mount Majura Nature Reserve. These additions are to be commended.

The ecosystems that were affected by these changes are listed in Ecological communities.

Urban expansion continues, but slowly

Urban settlements cover some 13% of the ACT. Continuation of the land release program has seen the urban area increase by around 488 hectares since 2000, mostly in Gungahlin and Dunlop, both in the Ginninderra Creek catchment in the north of the ACT. There have also been some new urban areas developed in Conder in the Murrumbidgee catchment in the south of the ACT.

Smaller rural settlements such as Pierce's Creek and Uriarra were destroyed by the January 2003 bushfire. By the end of the reporting period there was no indication of whether these would be rebuilt or abandoned.

There was no evidence of loss of community facilities during the 2000–03 reporting period. The ACT Government has already indicated that community facilities such as Birrigai that were damaged by the January 2003 bushfire will be rebuilt.

Table 2. Changes in urban landuse in the ACT, 1997 to 2003
Urban landuse 1997 2000 2003
Commercial - shops and offices 766 839 854
Entertainment, accommodation and leisure 330 356 363
Industrial 586 646 679
Residential 13133 13492 13829
Municipal services 592 592 592
Community facility 3444 3530 3534
    Education 1272 1275
    Recreation (playing fields and sports-grounds) 973 973
    Restricted access recreation (enclosed ovals and golf-clubs) 770 770
    Care (aged-care and child-care) 135 135
    Arts 134 134
    Religious 101 101
    Community groups and centres 94 95
    Health 54 54
    Other (vets) 8 8
Open space 6231 5848 5941
    Zoned urban open space 3184 3210 3232
    Ridges and buffers (no other use indicated)* 1405 1405 1405
    Open space - zoned for other use** 1507 1186 1087
    Future urban 135 47 216
Transport 4362 4362
    Parking 164
    Roads 3717
    Other (e.g. airport, railway)
Total urban area 29444 29666 30154

* Hills, ridges and buffers and river corridors that are grazed or used for conservation are not included in the figures in the urban area; ** See About the data for further information

Housing demand drives development

The drive for continued development for residential purposes comes as much from population growth population.htm as from a trend towards fewer people living in houses that are ever larger, although block-size can often be smaller. The size of houses and block sizes in newer areas such as Gungahlin and Dunlop illustrates this point, as does the conversion of single to multiple occupancy dwellings in existing residential areas.

Other factors, such as interest rates, investment markets (see Economy) and government policy can also affect the rate of new housing constructions, and house prices, in any given period of time.

The influence of occupancy rates (the average number of people living in a dwelling) on the demand for new dwellings is significant. Although Canberra’s population doubled in the 30 years from 1971 to 2001, the number of dwellings tripled (Table 3). The occupancy rate declined from 3.7 persons per dwelling in 1971 to 2.6 in 2001. In the latter year, the occupancy rate of separate dwellings was 2.83, for terrace and row houses 2.07, and for flats 1.57 (Mike Quirk, ACTPLA, pers. comm.). (See Population for other details about occupancy rates in the ACT.)

Table 3: Impacts of changes in Canberra’s dwelling occupancy rates
Year Occupancy rate Population No. Dwellings1
1971 3.7 146,000 39,459
2001 2.6 319,317 122,800
Hypothetical 2001 2.5 319,317 127,727

Note 1. Calculated from the occupancy rate and the population; Source: ACTPLA, ACT Population indicator result,

Table 3 also shows the impact of reducing the occupancy rate by 0.1 persons per dwelling. If the occupancy rate in 2001 was 2.5 instead of 2.6 people per dwelling, an extra 4727 dwellings would have been needed to accommodate the population.

The number of new dwellings actually started in the ACT each year since 1993 is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: New dwelling commencements in the ACT, 1993 to 2001

Graph of number of new dwellings constructed in Canberra each year

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Dwelling Unit Commencements Cat No. 8750.0

Many, but not all, of these new dwellings were in new suburbs. This is clearly shown in Figure 2, with the area of newly-developed urban land in each State of the Environment reporting period not quite keeping pace with the commencement of new dwellings. The difference can be attributed to the increased rate of infill and redevelopment in existing suburbs. The debate about the relative merits of infill compared with greenfields development is an ongoing one that has not yet been adequately resolved by the ACT community.

Figure 2: Comparison of the rate of new development and new commencements in the ACT for previous reporting periods.

Graph showing urban encroachment


Source: calculated from Australian Bureau of Statistics, Dwelling Unit Commencements Cat No. 8750.0, and other State of the Environment data

While the number of building commencements is driven by intrinsic demand, market conditions, such as interest rates, also have some influence (Mike Quirk, pers. comm.) (see also Economy).

Valuing our open space

The extensive open space network, totalling some 5941 hectares in 2003, still lends force to Canberra’s raison d'Ítre as 'the bush capital', particularly when the other, non-urban landuses such as conservation and grazing, are taken into account.

Open space has been calculated in a different way in this report than in previous State of the Environment reports. Land identified as ‘urban open space’ in the Territory Plan has a formal status and can be changed only with a formal variation to the Plan following approval by the Legislative Assembly. Called ‘zoned urban open space’ in Table 2, there has been little change in the total area during the reporting period. Most changes involve small additions in new suburbs. (See About the data for more information.)

Similarly, there has been no significant change in the areas of hills, ridges and buffers in the urban area, although some proposed variations to the Territory Plan will add several hundred hectares during the 2003–06 reporting period (see Conserving Biodiversity ConservingBiodiversity.htm). These changes should be reflected in SoE2007.

Much open space in urban areas is not included in the ‘Urban open space’ category in the Territory Plan. Identified as ‘Open space - zoned for other use’ in Table 2, these areas may include undeveloped land, such as an undeveloped residential house-block in a new suburb. They also include land which has not been built on in more established suburbs and is considered by locals to be part of the open space network. Many people are not aware that these areas are often shown in the Plan as being reserved for some other use, typically residential or commercial landuses. The controversy over development of a block on the corner of Nettlefold Street and Coulter Drive, Belconnen is an example of how community values about open space may be at odds with zoning in the Territory Plan and a proposed land development program.

The area reported in Table 2 as 'Open space - zoned for other use' was reduced by around 100 hectares during the 2000–03 reporting period, most of which is accounted for by completion of residential areas in new suburbs. Some small developments, such as a new block of flats or a new shop in previously undeveloped land, also occurred. This contrasts significantly with the 1997–2000 reporting period, when a sizeable infill program saw new residential developments on land that the community would previously have thought of as being their ‘open space’. The area converted as part of this could be as high as 323 hectares; however, precise figures are not available because it is difficult from the data available to distinguish between, for example, redevelopment of existing residences into multiple-occupancy dwellings, and new constructions on previously undeveloped blocks in older suburbs.

Transport infrastructure

The area of the ACT covered by transport infrastructure is 4362 hectares. Little change occurred during the current reporting period, as most major roads into newer suburbs were constructed in the previous period. Of the 4362 hectares, some 2095 hectares of that actually paved (from OCE 2000). Parking lots cover some 164 hectares, a total that has not changed during the reporting period, despite significantly less land being identified for parking in the previous report. The difference is due to mapping methods. At this stage it is not possible to separately identify the area of roads in each of the landuses—the residential area, for example, includes the area of roads and community paths. As stated in the 2000 State of the Environment Report, in future we hope to be able to separately identify the area used for transport infrastructure.

Other differences in the urban area between this report and the previous State of the Environment reports are accounted for by changes in how the 'broadacre' category in the Territory Plan has been interpreted. These are detailed in About the data and affect the areas of Urban and Agriculture landuses reported.

Agriculture loses out again

The area of land used for agricultural production has continued a steady decline. This reporting period saw a loss of 1208 hectares from grazing areas, leaving 51,587 hectares of agricultural land in 2003 (see Table 1). Some 720 hectares of this arises from the declaration of new conservation areas. The remaining 490 hectares was lost mainly to urban encroachment (see Figure 2).

Although only 16% (38,000 hectares) of the ACT is held under rural lease, according to ACT Government staff other areas are grazed, and these areas were included in the total for agriculture. (See About the data for more detail.)

A small but locally significant change in agricultural land is a 124 hectares increase in the area used for horticultural production since 2000. Some of this is in new olive plantations and some is in vineyards. Although the areas involved are small, the resulting crops are high value compared with meat and wool production. They also have a higher local environmental impact because of the increased landuse intensity—with (typically) an increase in the amounts of fertilisers and other farm chemicals, and the introduction of irrigation.

Also of local significance is the loss of the only dairy farm in the ACT in 2001–02. The land has since been used for turf production. Specific data for the area of land involved were not available for this report.

The overall amount of agricultural production in the ACT is far too small to support the fresh food and fibre needs of more than 300,000 people who live here.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data (see Table 4) indicate that the gross value of agricultural production in the ACT for 2001–02 was $19.6 million. An estimated 1% decline in value from the previous year was attributed to the drought rather than changes in landuse OR was attributed more to the drought than changes in landuse. Ongoing drought and the 2003 bushfires would have subsequently reduced the total value in production even further, particularly for livestock products (meat and wool).

Table 4. Value of agricultural production in the ACT, 2001–02
Agricultural product Approximate value
Livestock products (wool, milk and eggs) $12.4 million
Livestock slaughterings and other disposals (cattle and sheep with some poultry) $4.6 million
Crops (fruit, grapes, nursery production and hay) $2.6 million

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2003)

Forest plantations areas have not changed

As for previous State of the Environment reports, ACT Forests has clarified that only 16,579 hectares are actually under cultivation for softwood production. Within the forestry estate a further 1243 hectares are roads, rocky outcrops and other features which render the land 'unplantable'. On the basis that roads have not been separated out from figures for other landuses, the 1243 hectares have been included as part of the timber production figures. (See About the data for more detail about timber production figures.)

Some 10,385 hectares, almost two-thirds of the ACT forest estate, was burned during the reporting period—either in the Christmas 2001 fires or in the January 2003 fires. The burned areas were replanted quickly after the Christmas 2001 fires, but at the end of the reporting period Government was still considering whether or not to replant all of the areas burned in the January 2003 fires. The next State of the Environment report will discuss the outcomes of Government decisions.

As reported in the previous State of the Environment reports (OCE 1997, 2000), the established pine forests, such as Kowen, Stromlo, Uriarra and Pierces Creek, are in the northern part of the Territory. After harvesting, 500–1000 hectares of land are planted with new pine forest each year. No native forests or woodlands have been cleared for plantation since the mid–1970s. New plantations have been developed on areas already cleared of native vegetation.

About the data

As in the 2000 State of the Environment Report, we have continued our attempt to report actual land use in the ACT, as opposed to planned land use. The Territory Plan, the main vehicle for landuse planning on ACT-managed lands in the Territory, was used as a basis with supplementary information sourced from tenure and lease data, from aerial photography for 2001 and local knowledge provided by ACT Government officers. Landuse information for National lands, which are managed by the National Capital Authority, was sourced from the National Capital Plan.

Over the last four state of the environment reports, four broad landuses—conservation, agriculture, forestry and urban—have been reported. Progressively we have also been able to break down 'urban' use to show 'residential', 'commercial', 'industrial' and 'green space'.

In this report we built upon the treatment of rural lands—classified as variously ‘rural’ and ‘broadacre’ in the Territory Plan. Broadacre land, which can be used for a variety of purposes (see the Territory Plan website) is typically on the periphery of the urban areas. In 2000 it was reported as 'urban', 'agriculture' or 'future urban', paying more attention to actual use. In this report, the category of ‘future urban’ has been refined to more closely reflect actual use. (See notes under each of those uses below.)

Main landuse categories

Conservation—includes all land identified as meeting the criteria for listing in the National Reserve System. Most of the area marked as 'hills, ridges and buffers' on the National Capital Plan has been incorporated into the ACT's Canberra Nature Park for conservation purposes. While the Canberra Nature Park forms a very important role as urban green space, the thousands of hectares of Canberra Nature Park that are in and around the city are included in the figures on conservation.

Timber production—figures have been provided by ACT Forests. This is not to be confused with the total 24,570 hectares that are managed by ACT Forests. That total includes some conservation areas (504 hectares of the Molonglo Gorge Nature Reserve) and a further 5826 hectares that for various reasons cannot be planted. Some of those 5826 hectares are effectively conservation areas, but are not managed specifically for conservation. When an alternative use is known, it has been classified as that for the purpose of this report.

Agriculture—includes all land identified with the help of ACT Government staff as being covered by a rural lease. Land was identified as being used for grazing, horticulture, or cropping on the basis of local knowledge. Grazing lands included areas which are ‘casually’ grazed for management purposes. This includes some areas which were identified in the 2000 State of the Environment report as ‘future urban’, as they were grazed from time-to-time. Large areas of unleased land in new suburbs, which clearly had not had any construction activity at the end of the reporting period are also assumed to have been grazed under agistment. Conservation areas which are grazed occasionally as a management strategy are not considered to be rural and are classed as conservation.

Urban—includes all commercial and industrial land on the Territory Plan, and residential land where building and/or development have commenced. As in 2000, this category also includes broadacre land that was reported as 'agriculture' in the 1997 State of the Environment Report but is reported this time as 'urban', specifically, Exhibition Park, the Racecourse, the Cemetery and Crematorium and Quarterhorse racetrack (71 hectares) at Gungahlin, and the Airport (684 hectares). We considered that these activities were more closely and causally associated with urban functions than with agricultural ones.

Open space—includes the 'open space' category of the National Capital Plan, particularly Commonwealth Park around Lake Burley Griffin and Weston Park, Yarralumla, and the Territory Plan category 'urban open space' which is described in more detail in the Territory Plan website. These areas are classified as ‘Zoned urban open space’ in this report.

Other landuse categories

Open space - zoned for other use—this category also includes parcels of land that have not been developed. In other words, the green areas are, as much as possible, how the land is currently being used and not necessarily its intended use. These areas are classed as ‘open space - zoned for other use’ in this report. The reason is that communities have often come to consider these areas as part of their local open space, and development in those areas represents a real change in landuse. In newer areas, such as Gungahlin, this category is used for undeveloped land in sections in which construction activity had begun (they were otherwise assumed to be grazed under agistment leases—see also the description above for Agriculture).

Future urban—in this report land classed as future urban is those areas within new suburbs that the community would fully expect to be developed. There was no grazing lease and no known agistment lease, and ACT Government staff were not aware of any licensed grazing. This differs from the 2000 State of the Environment Report in which land in a new suburb was allocated its use according to the Territory Plan as soon as development started anywhere in the suburb. This resolved the problem of including some hectares as residential which, correctly speaking, were still future urban. From an environmental viewpoint, it allowed a better estimate of the amount of urban encroachment in each reporting period.

Community facilities—the figure for 'Community facilities' is taken from the Territory Plan, and includes facilities such as schools whether they were being used as schools at the end of the reporting period, or not. Community facilities data from the ACT Planning and Land Authority also provided specific data about the actual use and helped identify schools and other facilities.

Other—this category includes quarries, the arboretum, CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology, Commonwealth Department of Defence use (3953 hectares), 450 hectares of mountains and bushland between Namadgi National Park and ACT pine plantations, and some river corridors with no identified use. Unlike previous state of the environment reports, some major areas of broadacre land such as the Majura Field Firing Range were not incorporated into the rural category. They fall into the ‘other’ category.

Water bodies—this category includes Lake Burley Griffin, Lake Ginninderra, Lake Tuggeranong and the river systems in the ACT, but excludes water which is classified as 'river corridors' or 'conservation' areas in the Territory Plan. As indicated in the 2000 State of the Environment Report, areas of these waterbodies have been removed from the conservation figures to place the area in what will be a larger, and more logical, category of 'water bodies'. However, smaller waterbodies, such as farm dams, are still included in rural landuses.


Australian Bureau of Statistics—see Australian Bureau of Statistics

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2003) 2001–02, Value of agricultural commodities produced in Australia, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, Publication No. 7503.

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