Green infrastructure: Continental planning in the national interest

A green infrastructure plan for Australia could ensure that changes in land use and climate are more easily managed.

Green infrastructure: Continental Planning in the National Interest is about planning and designing a green infrastructure for Australia, a framework within which biodiversity can be sustained in the long term.

A shift in the way we consider “infrastructure” provides a response to infrastructure provision, which is preoccupied with “grey” infrastructures such as transport and telecommunications. Such a refocus will outline various complementary benefits that could result from the implementation of a national, interconnected green infrastructure of protected areas. Indeed, in the long term there may be no need for grey infrastructure if the green infrastructure of the nation is ignored.

1. Australia’s Eighty-five IBRA Bioregions and 405 Subregions superimposed with current protected areas in green.

1. Australia’s Eighty-five IBRA Bioregions and 405 Subregions superimposed with current protected areas in green.

The research is underpinned by two broad principles. First, in accordance with the International Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a minimum 10 percent of Australia’s existing bioregions must be protected. Second, the spatial design of the Australian landmass must maximize connectivity between otherwise isolated fragments of existing habitat.

Numerous sources point to the necessity of land preservations that are based upon representative coverage of terrestrial bioregions, an example being the CBD, one of the more tangible outcomes of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Implicit in this agreement is the obligation for signatory nations to conserve a minimum of 10 percent of each bioregion in their territory through legislation. In Australia, this has been expressed in federal government planning for a Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative (CAR) reserve system, which has led to a mosaic of protected areas across Australia’s eighty-five Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia (IBRA) bioregions and 405 subregions.

2. Progress towards 10 percent protection: red denotes less than 10 percent protection.

2. Progress towards 10 percent protection: red denotes less than 10 percent protection.

If we consider percentage representation across bioregions as the yardstick in measuring progress towards the CBD 10 percent target, then through a mapping process involving the superimposition of protected areas a number of observations can be made (images 1 and 2).

The protected areas in this depiction are those that have some legislative protection, pursuant to the CBD. This includes, but is not limited to, national and state parks, Indigenous protected areas and conservation reserves, both private and public. While the effort to conserve a CAR system is admirable, landscape ecology teaches that we need to not only save but also connect fragments. Indeed, the maintenance of ecological connectivity is well established as a precautionary principle when considering the planning and design of landscapes to ensure ecological resilience. However, in Australia the spatial implications of this principle have not been fully explored at a continental scale despite significant efforts made in other continents.

In Europe and North America, bold planning moves such as the Pan-European Ecological Network (PEEN) or the Wildlands Project attempt to provide such continental-scale landscape connectivity in an attempt to maintain the ability of genetic populations to redistribute to new spatial configurations, of particular importance when considering the impacts of climatic change. Such projects are typical of proposed conservation/landscape systems or “infrastructures,” which are often packaged with persuasive mapping and graphics where geographical distance, land use, boundaries and tenure are frequently disregarded through macro “moves.” Some Australian examples of similar bold initiatives include the Gondwana Link, Kosciuszko 2 Coast and the Trans-Australia Eco-Link. So what happens when we apply the precautionary principle of connectivity with that of the CBD goal of 10 percent protection to the Australian landmass?

3. The national grid: satisfying both CBD target and connectivity principles.

3. The national grid: satisfying both CBD target and connectivity principles.

Ideally, for Australia to have a truly resilient ecology it would require transcontinental habitat corridors forming a complex network over the entire nation. To begin with, an ideal system can be abstractly mapped through the employment of a grid, in this instance based on the national twenty-five-kilometre graticule. This simple grid will satisfy both maintenance of connectivity and the provision of 10 percent protected territory (image 3).

Of course, this mechanistic approach ignores any appreciation of the existing landscape but it is not intended as a plan, it simply represents an allocation of space to biodiversity which can be incrementally adjusted in a site-specific manner at a finer scale through a focused study area.

Therefore, to test the practical complexity of such a national system, a twenty-five-kilometre-wide transect establishes this study area. The transect has been chosen to traverse the typical range of human-influenced landscape types, from “urban” to “wilderness,” over the breadth of its journey from coastal Perth towards the interior, centred on latitude 31°52‘30”S (image 4).

4. The transect at 31°52’30”S.

4. The transect at 31°52’30”S.

Through designing the transect in some detail over its entire length, breakdowns of the typical complexities and contingencies involved in ensuring adherence to CBD targets while also maintaining and/or re-establishing ecological connectivity can be undertaken. The planning and spatial design of new reserves and corridors will begin with the ideal grid, which will then be incrementally assessed, adjusted and designed to form a new matrix of protected lands (image 5). The research will provide the opportunity at a nationally relevant scale to establish what is involved in reconstructing and maintaining such continuous, representative linkage. If, through this study area, the viability of maintaining these aims to form one continuous landscape system can be proved, then it follows that it can be implemented nationally.

5. Testing the practical complexity of the national grid within the transect: an exploration of complexities and contingencies has begun.

5. Testing the practical complexity of the national grid within the transect: an exploration of complexities and contingencies has begun.

It is hoped that benefits of this research will expand the perception of green infrastructure in Australia from merely providing ecological services to a model of national reconstruction that could ensure that Australia’s biodiversity endures the challenges of climatic and accelerated land use change in the twenty-first century. Furthermore, such a system has many complementary benefits, including contributing to dialogue surrounding CO2 sequestration, agroforestry, land restoration, salinity mitigation, water security and the creation of Aboriginal pathways on a regional scale.

If we can get the internet to every home in Australia through a national broadband infrastructure, then, similarly, a national green infrastructure should also be possible. This is what landscape architecture might mean by a Big Australia.

Geoscience Australia, “GEODATA TOPO 250K Series 3, 1:250,000 scale vector map data (DVD),” (Canberra: Government of Australia, 2007).
Government of Western Australia, “Geospatial Data, Landgate, Midland,” (Perth: Government of Western Australia, 2010).



Published online: 25 Apr 2016
Words: Simon Kilbane


Landscape Architecture Australia, February 2011

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