Canberra’s Western Edge: the new urban development frontier

Most Canberrans would be unaware that the ACT Government has flagged plans for the Territory’s urban footprint to radically expand to the west. Identified in the Government’s 2018 ACT Planning Strategy, this year’s Budget indicates, with its allocation of $2.3m to the Western Edge Investigation, that planning is about to begin in earnest.

Bordered by the Murrumbidgee River and the regions of Weston Creek, Molonglo Valley and Belconnen, the “Western Edge” refers to 9,800 ha of undeveloped land to the west of Canberra. Much of the area is made up of rural leasehold land whose purchase by the Suburban Land Agency in 2015 garnered much public interest. Despite, at the time, stating that there were no plans for the land to be developed for 20-30 years, the 2021 Budget announcement indicates that early planning studies are afoot.

The Conservation Council holds the view that Canbera’s urban footprint should not expand beyond the current areas identified for new greenfield development in Gungahlin and Molonglo, and that Canberra’s urban footprint should not extend out to the Western Edge. There are two key reasons for this – firstly, cities that sprawl are less sustainable, and secondly, the area tagged for future urban development has already been identified as having significant environmental values. 

The challenges of urban sprawl are there for all to see in Australia’s capital cities: poor access to services – including public transport and employment – leads to increased traffic congestion and air pollution, and high costs of services. Instead of continuing to grow outwards, a 2018 OECD report recommended that, “policy makers should reconsider maximum density restrictions, revisit the design of urban containment policies and develop new market-based instruments to promote densification where it is most needed.” The ACT Government has a policy of 70 per cent infill and 30 per cent greenfield development. While this is a laudable target, it won’t postpone forever the pressure to expand Canberra’s urban footprint.

The Planning Strategy clearly identified the Western Edge as the new development frontier going forward. Many of the blocks have been held as rural leases, and are likely home to nationally significant grasslands and woodlands. Large trees across the landscape provide habitat for birds and other species, as well as playing an important role in ecosystem connectivity – that is, keeping the landscapes connected so that species are able to move between different areas. 

Bluett’s Block is one such site within the Western Edge Investigation area that is incredibly ecologically diverse and includes high-quality habitat, hence holding significant conservation values. Furthermore, Bluett’s Block is likely to house many threatened and rare species- most notably, rare marsupial populations of Dunnart and Antechinus. The site also plays an important role in connectivity from the Murrumbidgee River through to Black Mountain Nature Reserve near the centre of Canberra.

Urban development is a leading cause of habitat loss in Australia and globally. Homes for people are being built at the expense of homes for other species. In the face of a global extinction crisis, we continue down this path at our own peril, as our own livelihoods are dependent on other species flourishing. When we consider these global challenges, we often think they apply to people in other far off and less fortunate countries; yet right here in the ACT we will have to grapple with that very same dilemma in the coming decade. 

As we pursue that great Australian dream – a standalone house that now seems to come with two living areas and three bathrooms and a double garage – we should pause to consider the impact of our housing choices on our local environment. As a community, it’s time to reimagine what it means to live smaller, more sustainable lives. We must meet the challenge of providing housing for people within the urban footprint that is liveable, energy efficient and sustainable, and creatively using the shared space that is available to us. Perhaps then we could forego development west of the city in favour of caring for the natural ecosystems that exist there, and draw a line around the pervasive and damaging environmental threat of ever-expanding urban development.