urban planning

Greenfield developments and active travel

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein

It is unrealistic to expect the ACT Government to fund all active travel infrastructure from general revenue as capital works. It cannot be done. Alone the maintenance to a high standard an ever-expanding bike paths network is a challenge.

The sale of land for dwellings will always be a top priority for the ACT Government due to the expected population growth and ever-growing costs of servicing the existing Canberra population. The ACT budget is spent on the services that are regarded by most Canberrans as essential (health, education, etc).

We are proud of Canberra, our bush capital. The environmental regulations will continue to be front-of-mind for estate planners to protected and preserve these environmental assets. The downside is that it comes at a price. There are many places in Canberra where you will not get approval to build a bike path.

Land sales are revenue, so the ACT will prioritise that over finishing suburbs (and bike paths). The land release will remain staged. This type of estate planning is within a bounded area and the bigger picture outside those boundaries, such as cross city cycle highways, are left off the map.

We will need to accept that without capital funding, the active travel infrastructure will never be built all at once, but in a fragmented way.

Riding to work requires cycle highway networks that span the city. With the above constraints, it is achievable but not quick or easy. Without long term planning and enduring effort, it will never be achieved.

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Estate development is a golden goose for the ACT Government, as it has limited funds and receives very little funding from the Federal Government for infrastructure development (see figure 1 and 2 from the article Transport promises for election 2019: the good, the bad and the downright ugly, The Conversation, 15 May 2019). Outside of estates, improvements to active travel are paid for from general revenue, capital investment that the ACT Government can ill afford. Estate development is a long and complicated process and active travel can be lost in process, buried under other priorities. Where the development process is failing the active travel agenda must be identified. If we understand the cause, we can make it work for active travel rather than against it.

Figure 1: Transport promises for election 2019 – by state
Figure 2: Transport promises for election 2019 – by project

Challenges of population growth

Canberra has a rapidly growing population. The population of the older areas, including Belconnen and Woden, are expected to rapidly increase as a result of infill development (also referred to as urban renewal). Much of the available ACT budget available for active travel will be drawn into the improvement of infrastructure in the older suburbs. Light rail is a large investment but a strategically important project for active travel. Unfortunately, it leaves the other modes of active transport a little short-changed. Should on completion the active travel infrastructure in the new estates be unsatisfactory, there will be limited funds left to fix it. It is therefore important to get the planning priorities right.

Figure 3: ACT population growth by district (Latest ACT Population Projections – Treasury, ACT Government, 2020)

Making money from greenfield developments

The alternative to infill development is greenfield developments, such as the Molonglo Valley. Large “rural” areas are transformed in a few years to sprawling suburbs. The developments are large and ambitious and usually consist of more than just one new suburb but rather large areas such as Gungahlin and the Molonglo Valley. The development of suburbs within these larger projects are estate developments.

The ACT concept for estate development is that most of the design and construction are outsourced through consulting, engineering and construction companies. The city planning, zoning, regulation, design standards are the municipal responsibility of the ACT Government and its directorates. After the designs are approved and constructed the assets are “returned” to ACT Government and the land released for sale. The profits from the sale of land in new estates are an important source of revenue for the ACT Government. This has recently been illustrated in the Mid-Year Budget Review 2019-20 (13 February 2020) which estimates “there is $51.3 million less from the Suburban Land Agency and the City Renewal Authority” (The RiotACT) due slow housing sales in new estates.

A tight schedule

The Suburban Land Agency is a statutory authority established under the City Renewal Authority and Suburban Land Agency Act 2017. The Suburban Land Agency is responsible for delivering the ACT Government’s suburban development program. The Suburban Land Agency works to a demanding schedule set by the ACT Government in the land release schedule. The multi-stage release of blocks for sale in new suburbs is the result. The revenue from block sales funds the next stage of the development.

The Molonglo 3 East Planning and Infrastructure Study Project Brief (2 February 2020) states:

“The Indicative Land Release Program, 2019-20 to 2022-23 contains land releases in Molonglo 3 East. At the time of preparation of this brief, 200 dwellings are planned for release in 2022-23. Land release will continue in a staged process in the years following. This timeframe indicates that Estate Development Planning will need to commence for the area by mid-2020-21.”

With such a tight schedule active travel can be left behind.

The burden of environmental protection

The environmental legislation is the ACT is quite rigorous. For the Molonglo Valley, these two documents are important:

  • Molonglo Valley Plan for the Protection of Matters of National Significance: NES Plan September 2011
  • Molonglo River Reserve: Reserve Management Plan 2019

The Molonglo River Reserve lies in the heart to the Molonglo Valley suburban development program and divides the north and southern suburbs. This is not ideal for several reasons.

The proximity to the suburbs makes environmental management more difficult. The valley is the natural destination for runoff from the surrounding suburbs. The Reserve Management Plan stipulates that the planners must make provisions to protect the reserve from pollution. This requires substantial and expensive civil works to maintain unsure the environmental standards are met.

The sequencing of the suburbs is likely to be determined by this. Every large waterway needs to be capped and secured, and environmental barriers put into place before the suburb can be built around it. The agency moves on the next creek. “Sequencing of the development based on stormwater management requirements” are mandated in Molonglo 3 East Planning and Infrastructure Study Project Brief (2 February 2020).

Urban planners would like the suburbs to be interconnected. This is not surprising as the Molonglo River Reserve lies across the entire east-west axis of the development. The river valley is wide and deep. The existing and planned road bridges have lengths of about 250 m. The number of crossings in the valley have been reduced from 12 to 6. Most will be level crossing. Trunk routes such as for cycle highways are not permitted along the corridor of the Molonglo River Reserve. Trunk routes are to be located outside of the Molonglo River Reserve in the suburbs.

The “predominately gently and undulating to rolling land” of the Molonglo Valley make a good and direct corridor more difficult. Slopes in the Molonglo 3 East area are between 5 to 15% Molonglo 3 East Planning and Infrastructure Study Project Brief (2 February 2020). For cycling, this is regarded as steep (Austroads standards). Having chosen a direct corridor for the cycle highway there is then the problem of the civil works required to make it sufficiently flat. A path will wind across the undulations or follow contours should it be built on the lie-of-the-land (common in Canberra). The Suburban Land Agency has decided the best approach is to grade the landscape to iron out the undulations, as can be seen in Whitlam, then complete all civil construction works including those required for environmental protection and then, and only then, to consider the construction of any infrastructure. This approach is acceptable for an Active Travel Network as long as the direct corridor for the cycle highway is preserved in the later Concept Plan for the estate. This is currently not assured.

It should be noted that what you see is “integrated” design, where the environmental protections are built into the design of the suburb and may not even be visible. This increases the complexity of the design but that seems to be workable. It also excludes “quickly building a bike path”, as the process is such that until all the design boxes are ticketed, the construction will not begin. This design methodology seems to eliminate the design of construction of a stand-alone bike path, and given the restrictions of the Reserve Management Plan, where would you build it? This is why I suggest the alternate approach of using the planning mechanism to plan, reserve and preserve cycle corridors across the whole of the development.

The importance of statutory versus strategy

The active travel and climate change strategies are wonderful, and active travel planning documents are great. Here are just a few.

  1. ACT Climate Change Strategy 2019-25 (ACT Government, 2019)
  2. Active Travel Facilities Design – Municipal Infrastructure Standards 05 (MIS05) (ACT Government, April 2019)
  3. Building an Integrated Transport Network: Active Travel (ACT Government, May 2015) (aka. Active Travel Framework)
  4. Integrating Safe System with Movement and Place for Vulnerable Road Users (Austroads,2020)
  5. Moving Canberra 2019-2045: Integrated transport strategy (ACT Government, 2018)
  6. Planning for Active Travel in the ACT: Active Travel Infrastructure Interim Planning Guideline (ACT Government, January 2019)

Some of these documents are not statutory. Statutory documents are important as if it is not a statutory requirement, and not the Territory Plan, it is not likely to be built well. It is just a matter of priorities. Many aspects of the planning process that are statutory. When time, money and resources are short, these are given priority, at the cost of others that are not. There is also a lot more legal leverage for statutory process in an environment where so much of the work is done by private firms. If it cannot be defended before ACAT it is unlikely to be followed.

The power of endorsement in the planning process

 “A job not checked is not done. “


This is true for estate planning too. Engineering is about compromise, and compromise is about setting priorities. The plans need to be monitored and checked on a regular basis to ensure that active travel has not fallen between the cracks. The planning process that allows such control is called “endorsement”. The active travel office must check the plans and guide active travel into the Concept Plans and Territory Plan. This is a full-time job and should be approached in the way EPSDD (environment) approaches its duties. Figure 4 shows the TCCS endorsement on the Whitlam Residential Estate CONCEPT MASTER, but this is just the roads as the concept master does not include Active Travel Routes. I do not know if the Active Travel Office has a similar veto right. I have yet to see a plan for the Active Travel Network that they have endorsed.

Figure 4: TCCS endorsement of the Whitlam Residential Estate CONCEPT MASTER-201834628-01

It should be made statutory that the Active Travel Office is required to endorse the Concept Plans and even the “indicative plans” in phase 1 and 2 of the Planning and Infrastructure study (as you see is the case for EPSDD below). The Planning and Infrastructure study makes recommendations for the Concept Plan which is also a statutory document and part of the Territory Plan. There is nothing new about this in general, as it is standard practice for light rail and environment matters. It appears to be inadequate for active travel.

An example of mandated endorsement by EPSDD: Molonglo Valley Stage 3 Planning and Design Framework (ACT Government, February 2019), 6.17 BUFFER TO KAMA NATURE RESERVE, page 24: “the buffer and its treatment are to be consistent with Kama Interface Management Report” and “the indicative design plan is required to be endorsed by the Conservator of Flora and Fauna, the Parks Conservation Service.. “

Put active travel in the Concept Plan

The Concept Plan is an important statutory document that is used for whole greenfield development, right down to the individual estate. What is found on the Concept Plan will be built. Cycle highways need to be put in this plan, and on a map, so that they are reserved and preserved. The development process tends to focus on Community Routes within the estate area. Estate development has fat lines around the boundary of the estate were the project ends. This does not help the commuter to ride to work. The routes across areas need to be designed as one continuous network, suited for direct, safe and high-speed travel. Local routes will not be laid out until later in the process, but cycle highways need to be laid out from the very beginning in the Concept Plan and Territory Plan.

It is never too early to start

Cycle highways networks are best achieved by planning the routes from the onset of greenfield development. At the earliest stages of the urban planning process, routes should be planned, reserved and preserved. The City Master Plan should include a plan for a cycle highway, providing connections for commuters across the city in all directions. The town centres are obvious destinations. Add the corridors to the Territory Plan, reserve and preserve them at a time these areas are but paddocks, forest or bushland. Urban planning at a city level must be done a long way out. Some of the paths may not be completed for 30 years but at least the route has been secured and it will be built, eventually.

An example of the benefits of early intervention in the planning of the greenfield development can be seen in figure 5 for the Molonglo Valley. The figure shows alternate route design for cycle highways through the Molonglo Valley compared with the actual design from Structure Plan Molonglo and North Weston (19 December 2008). This cycle network links Coombs to Woden, Tuggeranong, Belconnen and Civic, and requires only one good pedestrian and cycle bridge over the Molonglo. The principle applied here is that a cycle highway needs to be as direct as possible to reduce distance and travel time. 

Figure 5: An alternate route design for cycle highway through the Molonglo Valley compared with the actual design from Structure Plan Molonglo and North Weston (author, 19 December 2008)

It is telling that the most recent planning documents for the Molonglo Valley show that the Active Travel Network is largely the same as the design proposed in Structure Plan Molonglo and North Weston (19 December 2008). The poor design found in the origins of the greenfield development can be locked in. The legacy of such errors can be great as a large greenfield development can have a 30-year construction period. The planning for the Molonglo Valley started in 2004 and the estates are unlikely to be completed until 2030 or later. 

A cycle highway way may not be completed until the end of the greenfield development. The Civic to Coombs cycle route need only be 8.3 km with good design, as opposed to the 15 km as it is now. The design from the Structure Plan Molonglo and North Weston (19 December 2008) is poor and rectifying it will be costly. Such works are not likely to be completed until after all the estates are developed and then it will be a capital cost for the ACT Government, which it can least afford. Not just cost but the time for rectification of errors should be considered. Bike paths improvement in the ACT can take up to a decade to complete in a long drawn out planning, funding approval and construction process. It could be as late as 2040 before we see a bridge crossing at Coombs and there is no certainty.

Knowledge and understanding

City planning and development is highly procedural and regulated. The complexity is immense. Consultants and engineers do their best to accommodate all the requirements into the “integrated” design. They are professionals but this does not mean they know everything. They may not be living in this state or may never have visited Canberra. Their familiarity with ACT standards and planning processes can vary greatly (Active Travel Design workshop, 12 December 2018). The ACT Climate Change Strategy identifies active travel as a priority for change. We cannot presume that planners adequately understand the active travel priority or active travel design guidelines. Change leadership and change management are essential to ensure the benefits will be realised.

Photo by Brett Sayles on
Photo by Brett Sayles on

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