Source: Richie Southerton


L1: Land use change




Although nearly 75% of ACT Government land is zoned for natural ecosystems and greenspace, urban expansion driven by population growth continues to be an environmental challenge. In addition, the ACT’s projected future urban growth does not support a compact and efficient city. To help reduce future urban growth, the ACT is meeting its 70% urban infill target for the number of dwellings constructed, and the proportion of medium and high-density housing is increasing. However, the area of land required for greenfield housing is far greater than the land used for infill developments.

There is a lack of comprehensive data on land use change in the ACT which remains a significant limitation for land use assessments.


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.

Unless otherwise noted, the urban land use trends, population and housing projections in this section have been provided by the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate.

For background information on this indicator see Background: Land.

Land use data limitations

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 land use and changes in land use areas over time may simply reflect updates in zoning, rather than the occurrence of actual land development. For example, land zoned for urban areas may still be undeveloped or may be rezoned to another land use at a later date without any land development taking place. 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 Biodiversity because some of this zoned land is under the tenure of rural lease holders and not managed by the ACT Government.

The reliance on Territory Plan Zones for land use assessments means that it is currently not possible to accurately determine the actual changes in land use types over time. The lack of actual land use change data is a significant limitation for land assessments in the ACT.

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. Designated land covers around 5% of the ACT’s total area.

The main land use types in the ACT are shown in Figure 1 and Figure 2. Nearly 75% of ACT Government land is zoned for natural ecosystems (conservation) and greenspace and remains by far the dominant land use in the ACT. Highly modified urban land uses account for 10% of the ACT, with a further 15% of highly modified rural and broadacre lands. For more information on the area of conservation areas see Biodiversity.

Figure 1: Main land use types in the ACT.

Data sourced from: Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate.

Figure 2: Territory Plan zones for land under the tenure of the ACT Government, as at 2021.

Data sourced from: Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate.

Note: There may be some variation compared to actual land use area due to the amalgamation of categories used.

Rural and plantation forest land use

The ACT has a relatively small agricultural sector with livestock farms accounting for the majority of rural lands. In 2021–22, the ACT’s agricultural production was worth around $26 million.[1]

In 2023, there were around 8,300 hectares of pine plantations in the ACT, although some 500 hectares were fallow (inactive and unplanted). In 2022–23, 195 hectares were harvested with a value of nearly $7.4 million.[2] All harvested sites are replanted in the winter season, usually within six to 18 months after harvesting. Ecological assessments of environmental and biodiversity values undertaken across the plantation estate in 2022–23 resulted in nearly 300 hectares of fallow plantation land being identified for conservation management. The plantation forests are also extensively used and managed for recreational activities, including walking, jogging, horse riding and cycling.

Unless otherwise noted, the urban land use trends, population and housing projections in this section have been provided by the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate.

Although it is not currently possible to use the Territory Plan Zones to determine land use changes (see Land use data limitations section above), the Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment has estimated the growth in the ACT’s urban area (including urban, commercial and industrial land uses) by comparing aerial imagery over time (Figure 3).

Figure 3: ACT’s urban expansion, 2006, 2018 and 2022.

Source: Map production and area assessments were undertaken by Geospatial Intelligence Pty Ltd.

Note: Urban and intensive areas included lands that had commenced development prior to house construction. Areas such as significant water bodies, nature reserves, mines, quarries, water tanks, waste management facilities and power generation facilities were excluded from the assessment unless situated within a defined urban area.

Between 2006 and 2022, the ACT’s urban area increased from around 22,230 hectares to 24,990 hectares, a growth of 9% or 2,260 hectares. From 2018 to 2022, the urban and intensive land area grew by 500 hectares. Most of this development has been in the Gungahlin district in the north of the ACT, West Belconnen and the Molonglo Valley.

The growth in urban areas is substantial and remains the most significant land use challenge in the ACT. The development of urban areas has resulted in the loss of rural lands, and has increased the impacts on the ACT’s environment and biodiversity. For more information on the ACT’s urban expansion and its impacts see 5. Canberra’s urban boundary.

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 2013 and 2022 the population grew by over 70,000 people, an average annual increase of 7,000 or 1.5% per year (see Human Settlements). In 2022, the ACT’s population was around 457,000 and is projected to grow to 696,000 by 2050, an increase of 239,000 people. It is estimated that the ACT will need 100,000 new dwellings, along with the construction of associated infrastructure, to accommodate the projected population growth.

The ACT has historically consumed substantial areas of land for urban development compared to population growth. This trend has continued in recent years, although the ratio between the area of urban development and population growth has declined. For example, between 2016 and 2021 the ACT’s urban area grew by 5.5%,[4] whereas the population grew by 13%. In comparison, over the 1991 to 2016 period the ACT’s urban land area grew by 53% with a population increase of 43%. Despite this, if the ACT’s historic density patterns and urban growth continues unchanged, the urban footprint would need to increase by more than 50% by 2050 to accommodate the ACT’s growing population. This would mean that the current urban area would need to grow by more than 14,000 hectares by 2050.

The ACT’s potential and current urban growth areas are shown in Figure 4. Estimates suggest there is potential for approximately 28,000 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. Cross-border (NSW) urban developments at Ginninderry may supply land for new dwellings through to 2052. Recent and future land developments in the ACT also include:

Figure 4: Current and future urban growth in the ACT.

Source: Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate.

The ACT’s projected future urban growth does not support a compact and efficient city. Urban expansion 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.

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 (see Greenfield and infill development). 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.

In 2021, Canberra had a population density of 1,154 people per square kilometre — about three-quarters of Adelaide’s density of 1408 people per km2. This is the second lowest of the major Australian capital cities (excluding Hobart and Darwin). Drivers of low population density in the ACT include:

Housing preferences are changing in the ACT, with a greater demand for medium and high density housing. While low density single dwellings remain the dominant form of housing in the ACT, its proportionate share has decreased from 65% of total dwellings in 2016 to 61% in 2021 (Figure 5). Low density single dwellings have also dropped considerably since 1991 when they accounted for 80% of residential dwellings. High density housing accounted for 21% of the total dwellings in 2021, increasing from 17% in 2016. There was no change in medium density housing between 2016 and 2021, remaining at 18% of the total dwellings. High density and medium density housing are becoming popular housing choices in the ACT for almost all household types, with 13,388 medium and higher density dwellings built between 2016 and 2021.

Figure 5: Dwelling density in Canberra, 2021.

Data sourced from: Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Note: Low density comprises separate houses. Medium density is made up of semi-detached, row or terrace houses, townhouses etc. with one, two or more storeys as well as flats or apartments attached to a house. High density comprises flats or apartments in any number of storied buildings. Only low, medium and high-density residential dwellings are included in the total.

To reduce the need for greenfield development, 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. Greenfield urban development is that which occurs outside the boundary of the established urban area.

Greenfield development places greater pressure on the environment and can also significantly increase the demand for and consumption of resources. Another consideration for greenfield developments is the potential requirement for the creation of environmental offsets to address potential development pressures. Increased rates of infill development align with the ACT’s key social, environmental and economic policies including commitments to a net zero emissions future, protection of biodiversity and ecosystem health, improved public transport and greater housing choice.

For more information on greenfield and infill developments, and the impacts of urban growth on the environment, see Background: Land and 5. Canberra’s urban boundary.

The ACT Government uses Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data on building approvals to calculate the proportion of greenfield and infill urban development — it is not calculated using ACT Government planning data. The ABS data includes building approvals by suburb on both ACT Government released land and on privately owned land.

For greenfield developments, only housing approved in the designated time period are considered to be greenfield dwellings. Any subsequent approved dwellings are counted as infill developments, even if they are built on undeveloped land within an area formerly classed as greenfield. This is because any later builds are considered to be within the ACT’s previously defined urban footprint. In addition, knock-down and rebuild dwellings (that is, replacement of an existing dwelling) is also counted as infill development. These determinations of greenfield and infill dwellings appear to favour a higher infill contribution to housing in the ACT.

It is important to note that calculations of greenfield and infill urban development are only done for the number of dwellings built, including apartments. Consequently, apartments and other housing that provide a large number of dwellings on a small footprint heavily influence the achievement toward the 70% infill target. Despite this, the assessments do provide an indication of the utilisation of developed areas to increase the ACT’s housing stock.

The current calculation of the ACT’s 70% infill target does not measure the actual area of land used for urban developments in greenfield and infill areas. If land area was used instead of dwelling numbers, the ACT would not be meeting its 70% infill target because the land required for greenfield developments is much greater than for that used for infill developments.

Between 2015–16 and 2021–22, new housing development met, or was close to meeting, the 70% infill target with annual rates of infill varying from 68% to 81% — an average infill rate of 74% (Figure 6). This shows that in terms of the number of dwellings constructed, most new housing in the ACT occurs within the existing urban footprint.

Figure 6: Rates of greenfield and infill urban development, 2015–16 to 2021–22.

Data sourced from: Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate.

Data on land use in the ACT is poor with assessments reliant on planning zones rather than actual physical changes. Consequently, it is difficult to assess land use changes.