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Future Landscapes

Land Use Suitability

Land use suitability tools and assessment processes for increasing land use diversity and delivering better community outcomes.


Challenge funding: $2,750,000

Research duration: June 2016 – December 2019

What Did We Do?

Land use planning in New Zealand currently focuses on what a parcel of land is capable of producing, with the increasing use of regulatory limits. These limits will be more easily met when land use planning considers the conditions of water bodies 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 attenuation processes, which reduce levels of contaminants like nitrogen and phosphorus, and the resilience of water bodies.

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

How Can The Research Be Used?

  • This research developed the land-use suitability (LUS) framework, focused on conveying information about the productive potential of land and the susceptibility of water bodies connected to land parcels. This will support the development of tools for land owners and investors to evaluate a range of land uses suitable for individual land parcels, and for central and local government to estimate land-use effects such as contaminant loss.
  • This research has divided the country into typologies, used simulation modelling for 5 land uses on each typology, and used a combination of empirical modelling and direct transfer to extend from the typologies to coverage of all land parcels in the country. The approach has proven sound, but requires additional data to represent all land uses nationally.
  • A second phase of research will expand the scope to consider a broader range of constraints and pressures, including greenhouse gas emissions. It will add up to a dozen additional land uses, extended to all land parcels.
  • Researchers and collaborators have trialed the LUS assessment processes in real-world decision-making. Hawkes Bay Regional Council partnered with the LUS team to apply their research to decision-making processes. Environment Southland took a critical role in co-developing the LUS concept and providing reality checks and guidance about real-world applications. It tested application of Land Use Suitability (LUS) in the Oreti catchment in 2018.
  • The research team brought together every scrap of available spatial data in the country, in every possible model, to produce maps for every farmable parcel in Southland. A prototype land use planning support tool, the Land Use Suitability Analyser, was developed and tested using the Southland data, bringing together multiple existing tools (digital river network, Sparrow catchment model, Overseer nitrogen model, Land Use Capability classification, and spatial data layers with physiographic zones). This tool focused on nitrogen as the land use pressure of concern, and the impact of changing land use on water quality and farm profit. A national-scale pressure layer, incorporating lakes, was developed.
  • The LUS concept was 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 met with the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment staff to discuss applications of the LUS concept.
  • 7 industry stakeholders (DairyNZ, RaboBank, Fonterra, Beef + Lamb NZ, the Foundation for Arable Research, LandCorp, IrrigationNZ) are all actively collaborating with researchers to develop land use suitability tools into industry policy or advice.

Research Updates

Manawatu soil loss map

Nov 18 2021

A More Accurate Picture of Where Soil Erosion Is Likely

Erosion of topsoil threatens food production, land stability, water quality and ecosystem functioning around the ...
Lake Hayes and Coronet Peak, photo by Bernard Spragg

Mar 23 2021

Understanding Cause and Effect Relationships in Aotearoa's Water

We know what we do on land in Aotearoa affects our fresh water, and changing ...
Interactive Map: TN in excess of current national rules and the potential for mitigation strategies to reduce TN losses by 2035

Dec 7 2020

Nitrogen Loads Exceed Current Regulations in 9 of 15 Regions – but On-Farm Action Could Reduce the Load by One-Third

An interactive map published today allows New Zealanders to see which rivers, lakes and estuaries ...
Total nitrogen in excess of current national rules

Dec 7 2020

Under Pressure: The Lakes, Rivers and Estuaries Where Nitrogen Loads Exceed Limits

Aotearoa’s freshwater quality is degraded, and in some areas much more than others. For the ...
The denitrification process

Sep 15 2020

Revealing Groundwater’s Denitrification Capacity

Denitrification is a natural process that reduces the amount of nitrate entering rivers and other ...
Anne-Gaelle Ausseil from Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research

Feb 25 2020

How Will a Changing Climate Affect New Zealand's Primary Industries?

Rural New Zealanders are first to experience the most challenging effects of climate change. Farmers ...
Anne-Gaelle Ausseil from Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research

Jan 17 2020

Seminar: Climate Change Impacts on Land Use Suitability

Join us for an MPI-hosted lunchtime seminar session on Climate Change Impacts on Land Use ...
Hyperfarm software in development

Jul 5 2019

Bringing Future Landscapes to Life with a Visualisation Tool

Dr Seth Laurenson and Dr Remy Lasseur, of AgResearch, are helping farmers see the future, ...
The Benign Denitrification team at work

Apr 16 2019

In Some Places, Intense Land Use Will Be Okay

Cattle urine and many fertilisers contain nitrogen, and increasing dairy cow numbers in New Zealand ...
LUS Spatial Explorer prototype

Aug 30 2018

Land Use Suitability Analyser Now Prototyped For Use in Southland

A prototype ‘Productivity within Environmental Constraints’ analyser has been developed by the Land Use Suitability ...

In the Media

Mapping surface erosion on a national scale

Farmers Weekly, 7 December 2021

[Dr Donovan] says the national maps are not likely to be immediately useful to regional councils, catchment groups, or individual farmers who want to understand their farm, but in those cases, he recommends getting in touch to explore the appropriate options to develop a regional, catchment or individual farm map that accounts for specific grazing densities at paddock scales.

Climate measures need to speed up

Farmers Weekly, 28 February 2020

Nitrate leaching will be higher and more variable with more extreme rain leading to more frequent nitrate leaching. The most noticeable increase modelled was in a Southland case study where annual leaching increases significantly with more spring rain and more frequent extreme rain but more research is needed to confirm the trend.

How to prepare for a changing climate

Dairy News, 4 March 2020

The report also identified for dairy, sheep and beef that heat stress will be an increased risk for animal health, with about two additional weeks of risk for moderate heat stress by the 2090s, and a more pronounced risk of severe heat stress. Provision of more shade and shelter will be needed.

Primary industries must speed up adaptation to climate change – report

NZ Herald, 26 February 2020

"We hope this research will further encourage long-term strategic adaptation, such as diversifying cultivars, shifting sowing dates and planning additional shade and shelter" said Anne-Gaelle Ausseil of Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, principle investigator in the research.

Hot cows, less delicious wine: The problems food growers face with climate change

Stuff, 27 February 2020

Depending on the farm or vineyard, adapting to climate change might mean planting different grape varieties, sowing maize for cow-feed earlier, changing fertiliser patterns, or protecting cows from over-exertion on hot days, the research says. The key is to start planning early.

How climate change affects New Zealand wine

Stuff, 17 October 2019

Extreme events may impact on loss of nutrients into rivers, animal heat stress in summer, or late frosts during flowering grapes. How do we make decisions about land use that can accommodate all this?

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.
  • In collaboration with several runanga, cultural assessments were conducted at 170 sites in Otago and Canterbury, assessing land use impacts on Māori cultural values. The results of this work and its potential applications were discussed with three runanga in a hui series.
  • 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.

Team Snapshot

Research Outputs


Developing an indicator of productive potential to assess land use suitability in New Zealand

S. Harris, R.W. McDowell, L. Lilburne, S. Laurenson, L. Dowling, Jing Guo, P. Pletnyakov, M. Beare, D. Palmer
Environmental and Sustainability Indicators (September 2021)

This paper outlines an improved indicator of the inherent productive and economic potential of land parcels (productive potential) (PP). We outline the four layers of information that comprise PP for a land parcel: (1) Feasibility, which defines whether the productivity and quality of a crop is enough to allow the land use to be undertaken; (2) Yield, which is the amount of a product or crop that can be grown; (3) Economic returns, given the yield and other requirements for the land parcel; and (4) Economic Importance, which combines information about the economic returns and the probability of a land use being undertaken. These layers can be combined into a single PP indicator of the value of the land for economic use. The PP indicator can be expressed continuously or categorically and mapped at a national scale. When combined with the Relative Contribution (contribution of a land parcel to lose contaminants relative to other land parcels) and Pressure (load of contaminants lost compared to the load that ensures that environmental objectives are met) indicators in the Land Use Suitability (LUS) system, it allows for identification of areas which are most suitable for intensification by providing for a direct comparison of the economic and environmental outcomes.

Nitrogen loads to New Zealand aquatic receiving environments: comparison with regulatory criteria

Ton H. Snelder, Amy L. Whitehead,Caroline Fraser, Scott T. Larned & Marc Schallenberg
New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, July 2020

There is concern about the deteriorating nutrient status of aquatic receiving environments in New Zealand. We estimated the amount by which current nitrogen (N) concentrations and loads exceed criteria in rivers, lakes and estuaries nationally. Criteria corresponded to national ‘bottom-line’ (i.e. minimal) environmental objectives set by government policy. Three metrics were evaluated: (1) degree of compliance describes the current TN loads in receiving environments relative to criteria; (2) catchment N status describes the acceptability of catchment N loads compared to criteria; and (3) excess load indicates the amount by which the N load exceeds the maximum allowable load (kg yr−1). Non-compliance with N criteria was broadly distributed nationally particularly in low-elevation catchments. Catchments with unacceptable N status constituted at least 31% of New Zealand’s land area, which corresponds to at least 43% of the country’s agricultural land. The national excess load was estimated to be at least 19.1 Gg yr−1. We are 97.5% confident that estimated excess loads exceed zero for nine of 15 regions and for the nation as a whole. The analyses provide a strategic assessment of where reductions in N emissions are required to achieve the minimal national objectives.

Incorporating Māori values into land management decision tools

Shannan K. Crow, Gail T. Tipa, Kyle D. Nelson & Amy L. Whitehead
New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, July 2020

Environmental sustainability and the long-term wellbeing of Māori (the indigenous people of New Zealand) are interdependent and degradation of landscapes risks the progressive degradation of Māori wellbeing. The present study developed an analysis framework based on Ki Uta Ki Tai (holistic-mountains to the sea- management philosophy advocated by Ngāi Tahu) for exploring relationships between landcover and Māori values to enable predictions of cultural values through space and time. We used this framework to predict how two Māori values (Overall Health and Cultural Land Use) have been altered as a result of landcover change between 2001–2012 in three Canterbury catchments. The area of native vegetation declined while exotic pasture increased between 2001–2012, and there were corresponding declines in both cultural health scores. These results suggest that the change in landcover has reduced the ability of the landscape to support Māori values. This framework for assessing changes in Māori values with respect to changing environmental conditions may identify opportunities for Māori to better engage in land use management decisions.

Evidence for the effects of land use on freshwater ecosystems in New Zealand

Scott Larned, Jonathan Moores, Jenni Gadd, Brenda Baillie and Marc Schallenberg
New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, December 2019

We used the pressure-state-impact (PSI) framework to assess evidence of land-use effects on New Zealand freshwater ecosystems. There was substantial evidence of land-use effects, particularly where land use/land cover (LULC) classes were used as pressure variables. Proportions of catchment area in urban and pastoral LULC were consistently, positively correlated with contaminant levels in water bodies and negatively correlated with ecological-health indicators. Other consistent PSI associations included positive correlations between cattle stocking rates and river contaminant levels, increased fine sediment and decreased ecological-health scores in rivers following forest harvest, and increased river contaminant levels at sites with stock access.

Development of a model using matter element, AHP and GIS techniques to assess the suitability of land for agriculture.

J. Seyedmohammadi, F. Sarmadian, A. Asghar Jafarzadeh, R. McDowell
Geoderma, October 2019

Land suitability assessment is an essential step for land use planning and development. Over the last decade, many researchers, organizations, research institutes and governments have tried to provide a comprehensive procedure for the optimal use of agricultural land, but have failed to balance competing issues in a systematic way. Matter element is a multiple criteria decision analysis (MCDA) technique which has shown high potential for solving complicated issues. We used data from 167 soil profiles covering 12,000 ha of land located in Ardabil province, northwest of Iran to assess criteria using MCDA techniques and analyze criteria in an AHP-matter element model, to generate a land suitability map for barley production.

Quantifying the extent of anthropogenic eutrophication of lakes at a national scale in New Zealand

J. Abell, D. Özkundakci, D. Hamilton, R. McDowell
Environmental Science and Technology, August 2019

Quantifying environmental changes relative to ecosystem reference conditions (baseline or natural states) can inform assessment of anthropogenic impacts and the development of restoration targets. We developed statistical models to predict current and reference concentrations of total nitrogen (TN) and total phosphorus (TP) in surface waters for a nationally representative sample of ≥1033 New Zealand lakes. Changes between reference and current concentrations were expressed to quantify the magnitude of anthropogenic eutrophication. Overall, there was a clear increase in lake trophic status. On average, the mean TN concentration approximately doubled between reference and current states, whereas the mean TP concentration increased approximately 4-fold. This study provides a modeling framework that can be applied to lakes elsewhere.

Integration of ANP and fuzzy set techniques for land suitability assessment based on remote sensing and GIS irrigated maize cultivation.

J. Seyedmohammadi, F. Sarmadian, A. Asghar Jafarzadeh, R. McDowell
Archives of Agronomy and Soil Science, November 2018

Land suitability assessment can inform decisions on land uses suitable for maximizing crop yield while making best use, but not impairing the ability of natural resources such as soil to support growth. We assessed the suitability of maize to be produce in 12,000 ha land of Dasht-e-Moghan region of Ardabil province, northwest of Iran. We modified and developed a novel set of techniques to assess suitability: fuzzy set theory, analytic network process (ANP), remote sensing and GIS. A map of suitability was compared a map created using a traditional suitability technique, the square root method. Owing to greater flexibility to represent different data sources and derive weightings for meaningful land suitability classes, the ANP-fuzzy method was a superior method to represent land suitability classes than the square root method.

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.

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).

Anthropogenic increases of catchment nitrogen and phosphorus loads in New Zealand

Snelder T, Larned S, McDowell R
New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, October 2017

Spatial regression models were used to predict yields (kg ha−1 yr−1) of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) discharged from catchments throughout New Zealand under natural and current conditions. The models were derived using loads (kg yr−1) of TN, NO3-N, TP and DRP calculated for 592 river water quality monitoring sites. Anthropogenic increases in yields above natural levels were associated with the proportions of catchments occupied by the intensive agricultural land cover and were unevenly distributed across regions. Anthropogenic increases in national loads of TN, NO3-N, TP and DRP exported to the ocean were 74%, 159%, 48% and 18%, respectively. Increases in loads exported to the ocean varied considerably at smaller scales, with catchments having significant load increases between 4- and 26-fold for N and 6- to 9-fold for P. Predictions of yields and loads reported here have utility in the development of strategies to manage nutrients.

Estimation of nutrient loads from monthly water quality data

Snelder TN, McDowell RW, Fraser C
Journal of the American Water Resources Association, December 2016

Causes of variation between loads estimated using alternative calculation methods and their repeatability were investigated using 20 years of daily flow and monthly concentration samples for 77 rivers in New Zealand. Loads of dissolved and total nitrogen and phosphorus were calculated using the Ratio, L5, and L7 methods. Estimates of loads and their precision associated with short‐term records of 5, 10, and 15 years were simulated by subsampling. The L7 method generally produced more realistic loads with the highest precision and representativeness. Short‐term load estimates poorly represented the long‐term load estimate. The results highlight there is no single preferred load calculation method, the inadvisability of “unsupervised” load estimation and the importance of inspecting concentration‐flow, unit load‐flow plots and regression residuals. Regulatory authorities should be aware that the precision of loads estimated from monthly data are likely to be “optimistic” with respect to the actual repeatability of load estimates.

Optimizing land use for the delivery of catchment ecosystem services

Doody DG, Withers PJA, Dils R, McDowell R, Smith V, Barry C, McElarney Y, Dunbar M, Daly D
Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, August 2016

Despite widespread implementation of best management practices, sustainable farming is neither practical nor possible in certain locations, where protecting water quality and promoting agricultural production are likely to be incompatible. Some strategic prioritization of land‐use options and acceptance of continually degraded waterbodies may be required to ensure optimization of multiple ecosystem services in catchments. We examine approaches to prioritization and propose catchment buffering capacity as a concept to manage the pressure–impact relationship between land use and aquatic ecosystems. Here, we outline a conceptual framework to assist prioritization: (1) establish a water‐quality target, (2) quantify the gap in compliance to achieve the desired target, (3) assess catchment sensitivity to change, and (4) determine the adaptive capacity of catchment communities to reach the target.


Climate change impacts on land use suitability

Anne-Gaelle Ausseil, Tony van der Weerden, Mike Beare, Edmar Teixeira, Troy Baisden, Mark Lieffering, Jing Guo, Liz Keller, Richard Law, Alasdair Noble
Contract Report LC3573 Prepared for Deep South and Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, August 2019

This report aims to assist land managers and natural resource planners to assess the resilience of agricultural land uses across New Zealand and to inform decision making for land and water management regarding future climate. The research used several biophysical models to look at production systems (pasture, crop, horticulture) in three case study areas – Hawkes Bay, Waikato and Southland – and project into the future the changes in production and the impacts on receiving environments (in particular nitrate leaching), under different climate scenarios.

Essential freshwater: Impact of existing periphyton and proposed dissolved inorganic nitrogen bottom lines

Ministry for the Environment with assistance from the LUS research team
Publication reference number ME 1467, September 2019

This report for the Ministry for the Environment applies methods developed in the LUS research programme to help resource management professionals understand the implications of the nitrogen provisions in the government's September 2019 'Essential Freshwater' proposal.

A spatial analysis framework to assess responses of agricultural landscapes to climates and soils at regional scale

Edmar Teixeira, Anne-Gaelle Ausseil, Eric Burgueño, Hamish Brown, Rogerio Cichota, Marcus Davy, Frank Ewert, Jing Guo, Allister Holmes, Dean Holzworth, Wei Hu, John de Ruiter, Ellen Hume, Linley Jesson, Paul Johnstone, John Powell, Kurt Christian Kersebaum, Hymmi Kong, Jian Liu, Linda Lilburne, Sathiyamoorthy Meiyalaghan, Roy Storey, Kate Richards, Andrew Tait, Tony van der Weerden
Innovations in Landscape Research, Springer Berlin, to be published 2020

This chapter describes the structure, datasets and processing methods of a new spatial analysis framework to assess the response of agricultural landscapes to climates and soils. Georeferenced gridded information on climate (historical and climate change scenarios), soils, terrain and crop management are dynamically integrated by a process-based biophysical model within a High Performance Computing environment. The framework is used as a research tool to quantify productivity and environmental aspects of agricultural systems. An application case-study using New Zealand spatial datasets and silage maize cropping systems illustrates the current framework capability and key areas for enhancement.

The Land Resource Circle: supporting land-use decision making with an ecosystem-service-based framework of soil functions

Linda Lilburne, Andre Eger, Paul Mudge, Anne-Gaelle Ausseil, Bryan Stevenson, Alexander Herzig, Mike Beare

Land information has in the past focused on the key land and soil properties that physically or chemically support or limit the use of land. With the increasing focus on the environmental, social, and cultural impacts of land-use decisions beyond the boundaries of individual land parcels, there is a growing need for more extensive resource information to support assessments of the benefits, impacts, and trade-offs of land-use decisions. We present a new framework for providing land resource information to support an ecosystem-service-based approach to land-use decision making. The new framework, called “the Land Resource Circle”, is first conceptually defined, then its use is explored in a hypothetical example. The Land Resource Circle is designed as a flexible and comprehensive information resource that can be used for multiple purposes, including spatial planning, land assessment, and increasing awareness of soil-related constraints to sustainable use of land.



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.


Webinar: Climate Change Impacts on Land Use Suitability

Anne-Gaelle Ausseil
MPI webinar, March 2020

Land Use Suitability

Scott Larned
Our Land and Water Symposium, August 2019


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

Scott Larned
NZ Freshwater Sciences Conference, December 2018

Land use suitability assessment of the Southland region

Amy Whitehead
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

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

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