THE CONFLICT BETWEEN URBAN GROWTH AND NATURE

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Introduction

The Ginninderra Falls Association (GFA) was established for the purpose of encouraging the creation of a national park along the Murrumbidgee River and Ginninderra Creek. A conservation corridor has now been created in a narrow part of that area but it adjoins a newly-designated urban area. We are concerned that design compromises around the corridor, and the waterways in general, will be inherently destructive of biodiversity values, especially considering human pressures within the corridor and along its edges. Further damage will come from the inevitable measures that will be taken inside the corridor to reduce fire risk to people and property within the new suburbs proposed adjacent to the corridor. Negative effects of urban areas on adjoining conservation reserves include feral pets, vandalism, illegal dumping, poaching of animals and plants, changes in urban wildlife and introduction of invasive species.

We appreciate that there are many pressing issues in decision-making. The ACT Government has shown over recent years that it is aware of the hazards of climate change and the need to adapt our practices so as to maintain the delicate environment that supports life on this planet. To date, the focus has been largely on forms of energy generation. Whilst this is vital, many other problems arise from continual population growth in our finite world. Dealing with this has resulted in a backward step in that Canberra was designed in the 20th century to be a modern garden city and, thus, avoid the less desirable features of old cities.

The problem

World population has grown from around two billion in 1950 to 7.8 billion in 2021, over just seventy years. Canberra’s population over the same period has increased from 19,920 to 462,000. [1] To cope with this, town planning has reverted to the old intensive development practices so as to cram more people into a given area. This has resulted in a loss of greenery and tree cover around houses, along with further reducing the features that have managed to support some wildlife within our suburbs.

There is a contradiction in that more intensive cities cram more people into a smaller area so as to reduce destruction of habitat necessary for the survival of plant and animal species which contribute to the balanced world environment that has supported human life to date. At the same time, however, this practice reduces the possibility of maintaining a green cover that effectively minimises the heat island effect associated with increasing densification. It also reduces the opportunity for city residents to encounter wildlife in their local environment.

The ACT Government is accompanying its densification of established areas by designating new suburbs in greenfields areas adjacent to the Molonglo Valley and on the western edge of Belconnen, extending towards the Murrumbidgee River. These suburbs, however, do not have the same space for trees and other greenery as was planned originally for the older suburbs. This practice ignores three major threats to our survival – loss of species other than human beings, the risk of contamination and reduction of water supplies for both drinking and farming downstream in our major food bowl along the Murrumbidgee River, and the bushfire hazard associated with proximity to the western ranges.

Loss of species – an example

The ACT area was originally settled by colonists in the 1820s and 30s. There are 19th century reports by people such as William Romaine Govett (1807-1848), assistant surveyor in the Surveyor-General’s Department of New South Wales. In 1836, in London’s Saturday Magazine, Govett described how, in the space of twelve years, the whole area south of Lake George had gone from beautiful virgin country to one where “the tide of civilised population had already swarmed across the country. Native fauna had been killed off and replaced with sheep and cattle”.

Another more recent report to ACT Government Genealogy Project (Minister Chris Burke, MLA, August 2012) indicates the extent of native fauna. “According to early settler accounts the Limestone Plains and woodland slopes were rich in native game: emus, kangaroos, snakes, lizards on land. Aboriginal people made toeholds in trees and climbed them to catch possums. The rivers, ponds and flood plains promoted bird life: wild turkey, emu, wood ducks, black ducks, and teal. There were numerous plants such as the yam daisy. The comb and honey of the native bees could be found in tree hollows. [2]

In the open forests of scribbly and brittle gum, with its grassy understorey, there were wild turkey, koalas, snakes, lizards and bandicoots which would probably have been caught while foraging for vegetable foods. They were easily roasted straight on the hot coals. Rich oily meat of goannas and emus and the pork-like white meat of echidnas were still eaten until the 1940s. The mountain streams were full of yellow belly, platypus, spiny crayfish, yabbies and mountain cod”. [3]

It is only now that serious research is being performed to identify and quantify the remaining species. Many critically endangered or threatened species have been identified, such as the Scarlet Robin and Superb Parrot. One example is the Little Eagle, which is known to have foraged and nested in the Ginninderry area of housing development. These birds usually live in woodland, open forest and grassland, nesting in mature trees on hillsides in open woodland and along tree-lined watercourses. Approximately 80% of the estimated area of lowland woodland in the ACT at the time of European settlement has been lost. [4]

This species was first identified as suffering a decline in numbers in 2004. Over a decade later, the Little Eagle Research Group was established to provide data to aid in assessing the potential impact of this housing development, with particular regard to the proposed Stages 8 and 10 along Stockdill Drive. The group’s aim is stated to be “to describe the population ecology of the Little Eagles”, according to the most recent (fourth) annual report. [5] To date, there has been no conclusion as to the survival of the Little Eagle in the face of continued residential development in their restricted breeding grounds. In the last few years, however, Little Eagles have had less breeding success generally in the ACT than in similar country near Armidale [6], suggesting that development pressure here is affecting them.

The first stage of development was located behind a 200m exclusion zone placed around a known nesting tree near the Strathnairn Arts Centre. No breeding has been identified in the area since the land clearance and construction works began. The abandonment of this nest was predicted in 2015 “because of an inadequate buffer radius around the nest tree and increased habitat destruction from property development”. [7] A buffer zone of at least one kilometre in width around established nests is recommended to protect the Little Eagle from major developments such as urbanisation. [8] A very high-tension power line and substation has now been constructed along Stockdill Drive, adding to the potential detriment to Little Eagle and other local bird species.

Development of Canberra over the decades has reduced habitat areas for many woodland and grassland-dependent species to small fragments with minimal connectivity. On page 1 of Canberra Bird Notes, Volume 46, Cornelis Boekel states that:

Across the fragments a land banking approach has resulted in land use being progressively transferred from biodiversity values to the built environment. The high edge-to-area ratios of some of the fragments reflect land use planning and design compromises that are inherently destructive of biodiversity values, especially taking into consideration human pressures along the edges and the inevitable measures taken inside the fragments to reduce fire risk to people and property outside the fragments.

Conclusion

The GFA is concerned that development pressure is undermining the important efforts to redress climate change and biodiversity loss. The precautionary principle appears to be ignored in planning in the face of this pressure. Much more intelligent consideration is needed to determine a more sustainable approach.


[1] https://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/canberra-population

[2] Bluett, W.P. 1954, The Aborigines of the Canberra District at the arrival of the White Man

[3] Kabaila, Oeter Rimas 1997, Belconnen’s Aboriginal Past: a glimpse into the archeology of the Australian Capital Territory

[4] https://www.environment.act.gov.au/nature-conservation/conservation-and-ecological-communities/threatened-species-factsheets/little_eagle

[5] http://canberrabirds.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/CBN-46-1-final-for-web2.pdf pp.57-63

[6] Stephen J.S. Debus, University of New England, annual report to NSW Local Land Services, July 2021

[7] http://canberrabirds.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/CBN-44-3-final.pdf

[8] Stephen J.S. Debus et al, Breeding habitat, nest site characteristics and productivity of the Little Eagle (Hieraaetus morphnoides) near Armidale, New South Wales (2020).

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