The following submission was produced by Greater Canberra for the ACT Legislative Assembly’s Inquiry into climate change and a just transition. The full submission is available on the inquiry web-page.


Greater Canberra is a community organisation dedicated to advocating for reforms to planning, housing, and infrastructure policies to create a more affordable, liveable, and sustainable city. We welcome the opportunity to provide this submission to the Standing Committee on Environment, Climate Change and Biodiversity. 

Our submission has two components:

  • This Overview paper provides a brief summary of how creating a denser and better connected Canberra will be key to both climate change mitigation and adaptation in the ACT,
  • The attached Research note, originally published in June 2023, explores how existing planning restrictions that prevent denser housing are increasing Canberra’s carbon emissions and delaying our transition to a clean economy.

We thank the committee for this opportunity to discuss the important interactions between Canberra’s urban design and the environmental and climate challenges that lay before us.

Canberra’s urban design is holding back climate action

The ACT is generally recognised as a leader in climate action, having made rapid progress in greening our electricity grid, electrifying commercial activity, and reducing gas use in the home. However, largely thanks to these efforts, transport now makes up a majority of our city’s emissions. 

Canberra is heavily reliant on fossil fuel cars as a means of passenger transport, with around 90% of kilometres travelled by residents being in a car, as either a passenger or driver. While electric vehicles are expected to replace fossil fuel car use over time, this transition will take a significant amount of time, due to the long life of existing vehicle fleets. Projections by AEMO suggest that even under a successful net zero transition scenario, around 40% of the vehicle fleet across Australia will be powered by fossil fuels by 2040. 

Relying entirely on increased electric vehicles to decarbonise Canberra’s passenger transport sector is also costly for low-income families who will have to bring forward the purchase of new vehicles, and does not solve the air pollution, congestion, or equity issues associated with reliance on personal vehicles. For these reasons, reducing use of cars is essential to rapidly and sustainably reducing Canberra’s carbon emissions. 

Unfortunately, Canberra’s existing urban design and planning rules are acting as barriers to the take up of clean transport options such as walking, cycling or public transport. In particular, Canberra’s current planning rules generally favour low-density over higher-density urban forms, and often attempt to separate different types of land uses. For instance:

  • Over 80% of Canberra’s existing residential land is zoned RZ1, meaning it generally permits only one home per block,
  • There is limited ability to build mixed-use commercial, retail, or housing developments in either Canberra’s residential or retail zones.

This spread out and low-density approach to urban planning favours car use and increases carbon emissions because it requires individuals to take longer or more complex trips to get to employment or key amenities. 

To take an extreme example, consider the likely car usage associated with an additional home in the suburb of Reid, as opposed to the new suburb of Jacka. Residents of Reid have convenient access by foot or bike to key employment centres and amenities in Civic or Braddon, and can easily take advantage of nearby high-frequency bus routes to get to other areas of Canberra. While amenities and public transport access in Jacka will likely grow over time, it is highly likely that residents will continue to rely on cars for the vast majority of trips for the foreseeable future. Despite this, Canberra’s planning and heritage systems strictly limit new housing in Reid, while significant investment is being made to convert grassland into roads and detached housing blocks in Jacka. 

Further discussion of the impact of Canberra’s urban design on transport emissions can be found in our research note at Attachment A.

Density is key to environmental justice and climate adaptation

Canberra’s urban design also interacts with other crucial areas of climate policy outside of transport emissions, notably with regard to land use and climate adaptation. 

On land use, Canberra’s restrictive zoning laws are adding to the pressure on the natural environment and green spaces around our city. By restricting the amount of new housing that can be built in existing residential areas, our current planning laws increase demand for new residential land on Canberra’s suburban fringe, or in new developments across the border in New South Wales. These greenfield developments are particularly costly for the environment not only because they often involve clearing trees and grassland for housing, but also because new roads and other enabling infrastructure is required to be built from scratch. By comparison, replacing or retrofitting older housing stock to create more compact new homes means new residents can make use of existing or upgraded public infrastructure such as roads, footpaths, and electricity connections. 

While community groups often raise concerns about environmental destruction as a reason to oppose new development in their community, these concerns often have little to do with the actual climate impact of these developments. Given the ongoing need for new housing in the ACT and around Australia, opposing modest mid-density development in existing suburban areas comes with clear trade-offs in terms of greenfield development. All too often, reducing the height of development in existing suburbs simply displaces this growth to more environmentally sensitive areas.

Focusing Canberra’s growth in former grasslands on our suburban fringe also means putting residents at increased risk of extreme heat and bushfires as these threats become more common. Not only are many of Canberra’s fastest growing suburban areas at high risk of future bushfires, but these areas will tend to have higher urban heat than older suburbs, given the generally high amount of roofed or paved areas and the less mature trees. Through legislating planning rules that favour compact, efficient, and dense housing, reducing the share of our public realm taken up by tarmac, and encouraging the use of lighter coloured roofs, Canberra would all help create a more sustainable growth model for our suburbs.

By comparison with greenfield development, upzoning existing residential areas to support medium density can result in rapid, substantial housing creation while maintaining existing canopy cover. The rezoning of previously low density areas near the Northbourne light rail corridor - such as in Dickson near Dooring and Stockdale Streets, see Figure 1 below - is a good recent example of this kind of growth model. 

Figure 1: Dickson - a good example a densifying suburb with strong canopy cover

Photo: 29 Stockdale Street Dickson, ~2018/2019 constructed.

Ultimately, to preserve our environment and adapt to our changing climate, Canberra needs planning rules that encourage building up, not out, with high-quality green space in between. 

Canberra’s future as a leader on climate innovation

Chapter 8 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Working Group 3 report on climate mitigation begins as follows:

“Although urbanisation is a global trend often associated with increased incomes and higher consumption, the growing concentration of people and activities is an opportunity to increase resource efficiency and decarbonise at scale.” 

To provide just one example, more compact cities have greater ability to efficiently amalgamate waste streams, leading to more commercially viable recycling options as feedstocks are more substantial and logistics costs are minimised. In areas with low population density the benefits from recovering materials could be undermined by the emissions of transportation

As the IPCC’s report goes on to argue, not only is the creation of compact, well-connected cities key to reducing carbon emissions, but cities themselves can and should play a unique role in developing the systems and innovations that will drive decarbonisation and adaptation across the economy:

“Packages of mitigation policies that implement multiple urban-scale interventions can have cascading effects across sectors, reduce GHG emissions outside of a city’s administrative boundaries, and reduce more emissions than the net sum of individual interventions.”

Canberra is in a unique position to be a leader in climate action. Between government, industry, and educational institutions, our city hosts some of the most innovative and knowledgeable experts on climate policy in Australia. By creating the housing and connective infrastructure necessary to bring this expertise together in the national capital, and taking advantage of the political will that exists within the ACT Government for bold action, Canberra could become a true leader on climate policy. 

Unfortunately our planning and infrastructure priorities are not consistent with these climate action goals. Rather than providing abundant, sustainable housing with strong connections to employment, amenities, and educational institutions, our city’s urban design often leaves our residents physically and socially isolated. Rather than making it easy and inexpensive to get around using clean transport options, many Canberrans - including our most ambitious climate leaders - are reliant on fossil fuel powered cars. 

Given the need for swift action to reach net zero carbon emissions, the ACT Government has a clear window of opportunity to change our current status quo. To this effect, we recommend two key policies:

  1. Legalise density everywhere - consistent with the principles of the Missing Middle Canberra open letter, the ACT Government should make it legal to build medium-density housing across Canberra. Higher density housing and mixed-use development should also be permitted in areas with strong clean transport options, such as along rapid bus routes, and around local shops. 
  2. Prioritise people, not cars - to rapidly and efficiently reduce Canberra’s carbon emissions, urban infrastructure investment and design needs to prioritise walking, cycling, and public transport connectivity. Key goals include making active travel safe for all, reducing parking requirements for new housing, and ensuring seamless clean transport connections to key amenities. 

Canberra is already a dynamic and innovative community that has made great steps towards a sustainable economy and a just transition. It’s time to ensure our housing, urban design, and infrastructure live up to these goals.