RURAL | Land Use Strategy

Posted on 05/12/2022


Australia has no land use strategy or policy; let alone a collective consciousness and learning of Country and the sacred. Rather, land use is managed and governed through a policy mix (often competing and contradictory) with the states constitutionally having most responsibility for land use through planning and resource policy. ClimateWorks’s projects on land use argue for the need for more cohesive and comprehensive approaches targeting vital goals addressing climate change and biodiversity loss. Leveraging land use is necessary and challenging due to patterns of ownership and fragmentation and competition for land.

The earlier post reporting on land clearing research from the Australian Conservation Foundation indicates the challenges associated with a national land use strategy. A patchy mix of policies has developed across all levels of government but in which massive loopholes disable cohesive land use governance and information management. If not all, then most, climate change and biodiversity loss action – all transitions – requires land use transformation. While state planning regimes share significant similarities this does not constitute a national strategy as many policies and regulations form a policy mix.

In Land Use in Australia, Richard Thackway acknowledges the importance of land use in shaping the sustainability of the country:

There is a strong link between spatial and temporal patterns of land use and prevailing environmental, economic and social
conditions. Therefore, information on land use and management is fundamental to the development and implementation of land use policy and planning … Under the influence of a rapidly changing climate, informed land use policies and planning are critical to developing effective responses to natural resource management imperatives, including biodiversity protection, water quality, water and food security, as well as sustainable production from agricultural areas, forests and rangelands

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Thackway points to a critical breakdown in multi-scalar approaches to land use which effectively derails collective participation and continues to prioritise “short-term, narrowly defined economy development rather than environmental, social and economic indicators”. Such indicators can be of limited or mixed value given the kind of developments in reflexive monitoring that are emerging from transitions approaches. However, land use monitoring is underway in Queensland with data openly available and supporting alignment of land use and policy.

A lot of small ‘sustainabilities’ don’t necessarily accrue to sustainability – such as the development of sustainable (circular, net zero) housing in car dependent greenfield (former agriculture) sites located many kilometres from services and employment. A principle (of sorts) of systems thinking is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I question how frequently this positive development emerges given the acceleration of GHG emissions and biodiversity loss (as a result of land clearing, suburban sprawl etc). Even when land is designated for development, there is a need to consider socio-spatial alternatives to the pattern of development that seems to prevail in Australian cities. Although the housing profile is changing with significant intensification in coastal areas; a dual dynamic of sustainable and unsustainable patterns tends to continue as transition pathways accelerate to favour more sustainable patterns. How do we know when land use change poses potentially devastating impacts?

ClimateWorks identifies 10 transitions that are needed in land use and food systems as diagrammed below. The types of flows and processes identified here are critical in rural design.

Given the recent change in government and its commitment to meeting GHG emissions targets, a national land use policy or strategy seems timely and offers a pathway for addressing many issues that the environmental portfolio is tackling. Even if the Federal Government were to bundle its policies under an overarching statement or vision for land use over the next 100 years, that could be an important land use policy innovation. This is fundamentally how the Rudd Government’s Major Cities policy was integrated into a policy mix including transport, infrastructure and climate change goals (prior to the City Deals). That we continue to have raging debates about places that should be preserved (eg Tarkine, Ramsar areas) is evidence enough that national and state priorities and protections are far from sufficient. Stronger links between science and policy are necessary. For Thackway:

Land use policies and planning transform landscapes, affecting the long-term mosaics of unmodified, modified, removed and replaced vegetation ecosystems. In turn, land use policies, planning instruments and decisions affect the viability of landscapes to generate publicly acceptable mixes of ecosystem services, including clean air, healthy crops, clean water, and parks and reserves for the protection of nature and recreation. Again, such key issues require coordinated national land use policies and initiatives.

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Thackway also notes changing national coordination and policies

A commitment by all Australian governments, including states and territories, over almost 20 years is responsible for the relatively large area designated for reserve and off-reserve protection of biodiversity. Regrettably, this coordinated national approach largely
ceased in 2010, when the Australian Government withdrew resources from the process.

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Irving’s chapter on wilderness recommends its greater integration in approaches to protected areas. There’s something almost poetic about wilderness ideals and values enlivened in planning and policy.

ClimateWorks Land Use Futures highlights different approaches to land use and refers to the Planning Institute of Australia’s Climate-Conscious Planning Systems report which outlines 10 principles for planning. Planning, in general, has become so focused on the urban that non-urban and rural places are treated as ‘other’. PIA has acknowledged the climate emergency and passed a declaration committing to climate action. There’s little to disagree with in their report which proposes strengthening planning systems. Strengthening planning systems, say through higher level strategy and objectives, is not the same as transforming planning systems and shifting the values that underpin them. The incrementalism and the capture by vested interests can render it ineffective in transitions; this is potentially one reason that researchers have observed that urban and regional transitions take a shadow track to mainstream policy and planning processes. Planning needs to be more responsive to science and emerging types of knowledge like sustainable transitions; this means transforming professional education.

Rural design cuts across land use issues, with reliance on Indigenous knowledge, science and spatial data, spatial arrangement and relations; facilitating multi-stakeholder engagement and coordination as well as learning, and advocacy. Thackway, Brown, Marsh & Harris proposes that “Land use planning then becomes a continual learning process for farmers and policymakers, and landscape and land managers”. They propose a collective (or social learning) approach for regenerative planning which resonates with transitions approaches. Fundamentally, rural design potentially connects land use and design to engage the kinds of issues raised in Land Use in Australia and the ClimateWorks Land Use Futures project.


Thackway, R. (ed) (2018) Land Use in Australia: Past, Present and Future. Australian National University: Canberra

Posted in: ruraldesign