Indicator: LD-15 Area and proportion of land surface occupied by human settlements, structures and activities that support human settlement


Direct land use for intensive human settlements (built-up areas) has been compiled by Geoscience Australia. Different parts of the country were surveyed at different times. Although the earlier survey period (Series 1) is quite long (1965 to 1996) and the second period (Series 2) is relatively short (1999 to 2004), making the periods themselves difficult to compare, it is clear that the area of land used for intensive human settlements is increasing rapidly.

State Series1 Area_km² Series3 Area_km² %change BUA S1 and S3
National 6288.2047 9060.6283 44%
VIC 1799.0728 2340.8549 30%
NSW 1853.7807 2594.3518 40%
QLD 928.75734 1789.7892 93%
NT 44.066508 82.580189 87%
SA 596.43697 759.47597 27%
TAS 155.60997 238.87732 54%
WA 773.39706 1081.8137 40%
ACT 135.17724 172.88516 28%
test total 6286.2986 9060.6283 44%
% change BUA S1 & S3 No. LGA's
20-40% 102
40-60% 93
60-80% 56
80-100% 35
>100% 135
new BUA's 28
no BUA's in LGA 81
BUA's = Built-up Areas

Source: Geoscience Australia 2005, Unpublished.

Land use in Australia 2006
Land use % of total
Agriculture 61.5
   Grazing natural vegetation (rangelands) 56
   Dryland grazing (improved pastures) 2.5
   Cropping 2.8
Minimal use 15
Traditional Indigenous uses 12
Biodiversity conservation 6.1
Forestry 2.0
Water 1.7
Managed resource protection 1.4
Urban uses
Total 100

Source: Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry 2006, National Land Use 1996-97 Summary Statistics, viewed 21 Sep 2006,

What the data mean

Nationally, about 3000 K2 of land was utilised for urban development between the two survey periods. Across Australia, this amounts to a 44% increase in built-up area, while in Queensland, the built-up area has increased by 93% between the two series. In the Northern Territory, the increase is 87% and in Tasmania, 54%. In nearly 25% of local government areas (135 of a total of 581), the built up area has more than doubled between the two series.

While urban use is certainly increasing, urban development still occupies less than one percent of the Australian continent, as does mining, while agriculture occupies a much more significant 61 per cent of the continent.

Data Limitations

The extent of the land’s contribution of living space to human life is not environmentally significant in its own right. However, increases in land area occupied by human structures and human activities imply that this land is no longer available for other functions. It will be useful to track any such changes against future declines and/or improvements in the aspects of the land environment that are vulnerable to degradation, especially degradation as a result of occupation by human structures and activities.

The data show the change between two survey periods . However, the survey periods themselves are significantly different in duration, as shown in the table below. This means that the period between the surveys may be anywhere between 3 and 39 years, although the mean difference is 20 years.

LGA Series Range dates Series 1 dates Series3 dates
earliest 1/01/1965 1/03/1999
latest 11/05/1996 17/04/2004
mean 1/12/1982 3/02/2002
median 31/08/1981 9/03/2002

Comprehensive data showing land used for all modern human purposes are not available, other than as the difference between native vegetative cover as at European settlement and the present native vegetative cover (see Indicator The proportion and area of native vegetation and changes over time ). In 2001, the National Land and Water Resources Audit estimated the total land cleared or modified since European settlement to be 982 051 km2. However, it cannot be assumed that all this cleared and modified land is currently occupied by human activities.

However, “activities” needs to be defined for the purposes of this indicator. For example, is rangeland that is still largely under its original vegetative cover but which is sparsely grazed by cattle “occupied” by a human activity? Is a national park an area that has been set aside for the human activity of enjoying natural values?

Issues for which this is an indicator and why

Land - Contributions of land to human life - Space occupied by human activities 

Area and proportion of land occupied by human activities are straightforward measures of how much land space is occupied by such activities.

Other indicators for this issue:

Human Settlements - Pressures created by human settlements on the environment - Urban form 

The amount of urbanised area and changes in this area over time is an indicator of the level and rate of use of land by human settlements.

Other indicators for this issue:

Human Settlements - External pressures on human settlements - Population growth and distribution 

The amount of urbanised area and changes in this area over time is an indicator of the demands of population growth and distribution.

Other indicators for this issue: