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Future Landscapes

Land Use Suitability

Using resilience in receiving water bodies and soils to guide land use suitability decisions and meet community objectives

What Are We Doing?

Land use planning in New Zealand currently focuses on what a parcel of land is capable of producing, with the increasing use of limits such as water takes and contaminant discharges. These limits will be more easily met when land use planning considers the conditions of catchments downstream, and the economic, environmental, social and cultural values of the surrounding community. We call this broader planning perspective ‘land use suitability’.

To enable this shift in perspective, we need more detailed understanding of the land’s natural nitrogen attenuation processes, which dilute contaminants like nitrogen and phosphorus, and the resilience of downstream water bodies that receive contaminants and sediment from the land.

Land Use Suitability research is linking these natural processes with human interventions, mitigations and land-management choices, to make the consequences of our choices clear and predictable.

We will produce tools for central and local government to manage land-use effects, such as contaminant loss, and land evaluation tools for land owners and investors to assess the potential profitability of a diversified landscape.

How Can The Research Be Used?

  • A customised land use suitability (LUS) assessment to underpin every land-use decision would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, highly transferable tools are needed that evaluate and categorise land use suitability in any catchment. The first tool developed by Land Use Suitability research will be a classification system based on national-scale environmental datasets. This will convert quantitative data to categorical or ordinal data and predictions. These are lower in precision than quantitative predictions, so the primary use of the LUS classification will be as a screening tool.
  • A land use planning support tool, the Land Use Suitability Analyser, has been developed. The Land Use Suitability Analyser prototype, developed for the Southland region, generates maps of 3 land use indicators for all catchments in Southland: 1) the potential for production and profit; 2) the relative nitrogen contribution of a land parcel to contaminant load; and 3) the impact of these contaminants in a catchment relative to an environmental objective. This tool brings together multiple existing tools (digital river network, Sparrow catchment model, Overseer nitrogen model, Land Use Capability classification, and spatial data layers with physiographic zones).
  • The LUS concept has been discussed by the Land and Water Forum in advice to the Minister for the Environment about the allocation of nutrient discharge allowances on-farm and in a catchment. Scott Larned has met with Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment staff to discuss applications of the LUS concept.
  • Environment Southland has taken a critical role in co-developing the LUS concept and providing reality checks and guidance about real-world applications. Environment Southland is working on development of the Sources and Flows framework and tested application of Land Use Suitability (LUS) in the Oreti catchment in 2018.
  • 7 industry stakeholders (DairyNZ, RaboBank, Fonterra, Beef + Lamb NZ, the Foundation for Arable Research, LandCorp, IrrigationNZ) are all actively collaborating with the Challenge on developing the land use suitability tools into industry policy or advice.
  • Researchers in this programme are currently seeking regional council partners to apply their research to real-world decision-making processes.

In the Media

Farming for our Future

NZ Geographic, Mar-Apr 2018

“Cynical people would recognise that we’re trying to figure out to what degree we might have our cake and eat it, too. Of course, the truth is, you can’t” – Scott Larned

Troubled Waters

NZ Geographic, July-August 2017

Scott Larned, a NIWA ecologist with a strong interest in how ecosystems interact with water, told me it can take 60 to 100 years for rainwater falling on the upper Canterbury Plains to percolate to the ocean


Community Involvement

  • Land Use Suitability has liaised with 6 regional councils (Environment Southland, Envionment Canterbury, Greater Wellington Regional Council, Waikato Regional Council, Environment Bay of Plenty, Horizons) on their current planning processes and the potential for application of the Land Use Suitability concept.
  • Land Use Suitability researchers participated in the Innovation Market hosted by the Collaboration Lab. Amy Whitehead explained and demonstrated the Land Use Suitability Analyser, and Scott Larned facilitated a discussion of land use, environmental effects and kaitiakitanga in the Te Waihora catchment. The target audience included researchers, entrepreneurs and the Next Generation Influencers.
  • Stakeholder engagement with Māori has focused on the development of predictive relationships between land use and cultural values.

Team Snapshot

Research Outputs


A strategy for optimising catchment management actions to stressor-response relationships in freshwaters

McDowell, R.W., Schallenberg, M., Larned, S.T
Ecosphere, October 2018

Defining a receiving environment × value × contaminant system and determining a specific stressor–response relationship for that system provide valuable decision support strategy to optimize management actions toward a water quality objective. Here, we outline a potential method for using stressor–response relationships to help identify the most appropriate management actions for aquatic ecosystems, using the example of a eutrophic lake.

The land use suitability concept: Introduction and an application of the concept to inform sustainable productivity within environmental constraints

R.W. McDowell, T. Snelder, S. Harric, L. Lilburne, S.T. Larned, M. Scarsbrook, A. Curtis, B. Holgate, J. Phillips, K. Taylor
Ecological Indicators, August 2018

This paper addresses an application of the LUS concept: evaluating the suitability of land for sustained productivity subject to environmental constraints, as defined by water quality objectives. We refer to this application of the LUS concept as ‘Productivity within Environmental Constraints’ (PEC).

Stressor-response relationships and the prospective management of aquatic ecosystems

Larned, S.T., Schallenberg, M
New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, October 2018

We set out a framework for interpreting S-R relationships in terms of functional forms, trajectories, thresholds and slopes. These characteristics convey information about resistance to degradation and recovery, risks of threshold exceedance, and alternate stable states. We then set out steps for implementing threshold-based management strategies, which are based on forecasting S-R relationships and carrying out preventative actions within an adaptive framework.


Shifting from land-use capability to land-use suitability in the Our Land & Water National Science Challenge

Larned, S., Snelder, T., Schallenberg, M., McDowell, R., Harris, S., Rissmann, C., Beare, M., Tipa, G., Crow, S., Daughney, C. and Herzig, A
Science and policy: nutrient management challenges for the next generation, 2017

The LUS classification system will be based on concatenation of three categories: land-use potential, contribution to catchment contaminant delivery, and pressure in receiving environments (Fig. 1). The rationale for this approach is that every unique pair of a land parcel and a receiving environment can be represented by a categorical description of the land parcel, the receiving environment, and the inherent potential for that land parcel to contribute to the pressures in the receiving environment.


Land use suitability assessment of the Southland region

Amy Whitehead
NZ Freshwater Sciences Conference, December 2018

Recent advances in reporting and interpreting water quality trends

Ton Snelder
NZ Freshwater Sciences Conference, December 2018

Land Use Suitability Programme

Scott Larned
Our Land and Water Symposium, April 2017

Land-use effects on aquatic ecosystems - strengthening the evidence base

Scott Larned
NZ Freshwater Sciences Conference, December 2018

A regional council application of tools – taking the road less travelled

Graham Sevick-Jones
NZ Freshwater Sciences Conference, December 2018

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