Land use (Belgium)
Why should we care about this issue
Belgium is challenged by urban expansion of many cities and urban sprawl which is responsible for several environmental problems such as soil sealing, habitat fragmentation, modification of the natural water cycle (flood risks), loss of biodiversity, energy consumption and atmospheric emissions.
Land is a precious resource for Belgium which is a small country (30 528 km²) with a high population density. Artificial areas currently occupy about 20 % of its territory. But these artificial areas have been increasing at a rapid pace during the last 25 years. Growth in residential housing and transport is mainly responsible for this increased land-take. Belgium, like many other EU countries, is challenged by urban expansion of many cities, and urban sprawl. All this is responsible for several environmental problems such as soil sealing, habitat fragmentation, modification of the natural water cycle (flood risks), loss of biodiversity, energy consumption and atmospheric emissions.
Therefore, Belgium must manage land use carefully in the future. The challenge is on the one hand to allow for the development of social and economic activities (dwelling, transport, agriculture, etc.) based on land, and on the other hand, to protect the integrity of natural resource systems and the output of ecosystem goods and services which can also bring economic and social benefits in the long term.
The state and impacts
The state and trends regarding land are assessed hereunder with two indicators: the land cover composition at the national level and the share of built-up areas in the three regions.
Steady increase in built-up area at the expense of agricultural land in Belgium
Figure 1: Share of the various types of land use in the total soil area in Belgium, 1985-2009
- Data source
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During the last 25 years, the share of built-up and related land has increased, from 15 % in 1985 to 20 % in 2009. It represents an annual growth rate of 1.1 %. This growth in built-up and related land has been mainly at the expense of agricultural land, which decreased from 60 % to 50 %. The forest and wooded land has remained stable, at about 23 %.
Although the proportion of rural areas remains fairly high (80 % of agricultural land, woodland and other land), widespread urbanisation and transport infrastructures are breaking up the land into a larger number of subdivided areas. The sealing of natural soils also influences the hydrological status: water can no longer infiltrate and instead runs off via the paved surface. Because of this, flooding risk is increasing. Moreover, the open space becomes fragmented and this fragmentation causes, among other things, spatial isolation and the reduction of the habitats of fauna and flora. It hereby places additional pressure on the biodiversity.
Increase in the share of built-up area in the 3 Regions, which show however different urbanisation profiles
Figure 2: Share of built-up area in each Region of Belgium, 1985 and 2009
- Data source
Fullscreen image Original link
The shares of built-up area have increased in each region between 1985 and 2009, but the level of these shares is different. The Brussels-Capital Region, being a strongly urbanised area (6,497 inh/km2), has the highest share of built-up area, with 78.4 % of its territory covered by residential and commercial buildings, public infrastructure, transport infrastructure, etc. This figure has yet to be put into perspective since it includes for instance private gardens and recreational and other open land (e.g. major public parks, green areas and sport fields). However, a study estimated that in the Brussels Region, the average rate of sealed surfaces amounts to about 47 % (2006)1. The Flemish Region also presents a high share of built-up area, with more than a quarter of its territory covered by built-up area, and has a high degree of sealing, with 186,000 ha or 13.8 % of the Flemish soil sealed2. In the Walloon Region, the built-up area reached 14.1 % and the estimated proportion of sealed surfaces is much lower, as it represents only 2.6 % of the Walloon territory (44,250 ha)3. In 38 Walloon municipalities (out of 262), urban area has more than doubled compared with 19804. However, Wallonia has a large share of its territory covered by forest and wooded land (about 30 %) which has remained constant during the last twenty years.
1 Bruxelles-Environnement, rapport sur l’état de l’environnement 2003-2006 sur base d’une étude de VANHUYSSE S., DEPIREUX J., WOLFF E. 2006. « Etude de l’imperméabilisation du sol en Région de Bruxelles-Capitale », étude réalisée par l’ULB-IGEAT pour le Ministère de la Région de Bruxelles-Capitale, AED – Direction de l’eau, octobre 2006.
3 Direction Générale de l'Agriculture, des Ressources Naturelles et de l'Environnement - Service Public de Wallonie. Rapport analytique sur l'état de l'environnement wallon 2006-2007 (SOLS6 : L'imperméabilisation et la compaction des sols)
The key drivers and pressures
Since the post-WW2 period, urbanisation has been fuelled by economic and demographic growth. The role of these economic and social drivers is described hereunder in three sections. Section 2.1 shows the evolution of the various built-up area components. Section 2.2 describes and explains the tremendous increase in the residential area and the role of social drivers. Section 2.3 describes the extension of road infrastructure that is responsible for the land artificialisation and fragmentation (2.2).
There has been high growth rate of residential, industrial and commercial land, with residential land being the largest built-up area in Belgium
Figure 3: Built-up area used for different functions in Belgium, 1985 and 2009
- Data source
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The built-up and related areas are made up of land used for different functions. In 1985, the function which occupied the larger area was transport and communication followed by residential land, other uses, industrial land and commercial land. Between 1985 and 2009, the land occupied by each of these functions has increased. The most significant increase occurred for residential land, which reached 2,501 km2 in 2009 against 1,582 km2 in 1985, exceeding the land used for transport and communication in 2009. The annual growth rate of residential land was 1.9 % over this period (0.3 % for land used for transport and communications). Commercial and industrial land also registered significant annual growth rate over this period, with 1.7 % and 1.6 % respectively.
There has been a rapid increase in the residential area per inhabitant in comparison with the growth of the population and the number of households in Belgium
Figure 4: Population, number of households and residential area per inhabitant in Belgium, 1985-2008
- Data source
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The growth of residential land during the last 30 years (Fig.2) is due to the increase in the number of households. The number of households grew from 3.61 million in 1981 to 4.57 million in 2008, i.e. an average annual increase of 0.9 %, in comparison with the rise of the total population (0.3 % per year). Other factors played a role in the increase of residential land, such as the ideal of a detached house with a garden, the desire of some municipalities to attract new residents (for tax income) and often better real estate prices per square metre. Although young families generally still continue to flee the city, urban populations remain largely at the same level due the replacement by other social groups. That all has led to a tremendous increase in the residential area per inhabitant that grew at an annual rate of 1.4 % between 1980 and 2008. The main consequence of this evolution on land use is urban sprawl.
There has been a steady increase in road infrastructure since 1970 in Belgium
Figure 5: Evolution of transport infrastructure in Belgium, 1970-2007
- Data source
Fullscreen image Original link
The growth of residential, commercial and industrial land went hand in hand with the growth of road infrastructure. Figure 3 shows that the number of km of road infrastructure increased significantly between 1970 and 2007, from 94,218 km to 153,076 km. This is an annual growth rate of 1.3 %, while during the same period the rail infrastructure decreased at a rate of -0.6 % per year and the water transport infrastructure at a rate of -0.04 % between 1970 and 2000 (no data for 2007).
This extension of road transport infrastructure is also due to the location of Belgium in Europe. Belgium is located at the centre of western Europe and is an important centre of transit. The country’s economic activity, which is strongly export oriented, is based on a dense road and rail network (one of the densest in the EU)1. The road infrastructure density is very high in Belgium2, with 4.99 km per km² of territory in 2005. After Malta, Belgium is the EU country with the second highest density of the total road network3. The density of motorways is also particularly high with 5.8 km/100 km² of territory in 2007 (11.59 km/km² in the Brussels region, 5.15 km/km² in the Flemish Region and 4.74 km/km² in the Walloon Region)4. Per thousand km², Belgium has four times as many motorways as the EU average5.
The density of rail infrastructure is lower, with 0.12 km per km², but is very high in comparison with other European countries. Belgium has the second densest rail network in the EU (after the Czech Republic)6, about twice as dense as the EU average7.
2 Eurostat, Federal Public Service Mobility and Transport, and Directorate-general Statistics and Economic information.
4 Studiedienst van de Vlaamse Regering. http://www4.vlaanderen.be/dar/svr/Cijfers/Pages/Excel.aspx. Data from Federal Public Service mobility and transport and Directorate-general Statistics and Economic information
The 2020 outlook
If current legislation would remain unchanged, the increased demand for houses and business premises will ensure a further expansion of the built-up areas.
The Environment Outlook 2030 for Flanders by the Flemish Environment Agency describes developments in the sectors of the economy, and the consequences thereof for the pressure on and quality of the environment. The Nature Outlook 2030 by the Research Institute for Nature and Forest concentrates on the consequences for the quality of the environment and the use of land for biodiversity.
The Environmental Outlook 2030 investigates how the quality of the environment might develop in Flanders and what impact policy could have on this. The future developments have been depicted using three policy scenarios with increasing levels of ambition:
- The reference scenario investigates how far the current environmental policy reaches.
- The Europe scenario investigates what may be required to realise the European ambitions concerning climate change, air quality and water quality in the medium term.
- The visionary scenario investigates how the environment may be safeguarded for present and future generations1.
The population growth steers the future land use in Flanders to a great extent.
- In the reference scenario, the increased demand for houses and business premises ensures a further expansion of the built-up areas, by 17 % in the period from 2005 to 2030, or almost 7 ha/day. This is primarily at the expense of agriculture. The urbanisation primarily increases along the major roads. In this respect the developments for housing and trade within a distance of 450 m from major roads will be 21 % higher in 2030 than in 2005. As a result, exposure to air pollution and road traffic noise will increase. In general, exposure to traffic noise and the number of potentially severe nuisances will increase for Flanders.
- In the Europe scenario, the urbanised surface area also expands, by 13 % between 2005 and 2030. Smaller building plots ensure greater density with greater opportunities to preserve open spaces. The risk of flooding as a result of climate change is at the same level as with current land use. The Europe scenario absorbs the increase in population and additional housing needs better than the reference scenario.
1 For land use, due to a lack of information, the visionary scenario was not developed in the Environmental Outlook 2030. This report only investigates the reference scenario and the Europe scenario which both expect an increase in the built-up area.
Existing and planned responses
Land use planning is a regional competence in Belgium which explains that most responses are taken at the regional level.
Spatial planning is governed by a Spatial Policy Plan. The Spatial Policy Plan (1998-2007) has not been successful in reaching more spatial coherence and compact development in urban areas. A new Flemish Spatial Policy Plan covering the period 2020-2050 will focus on climate change, sustainable development and spatial changes.
The Flemish Region is the most fragmented and second-most sealed-off region in Europe due to the way in which and where development takes place. The total length of linear development is 6000 km long and sprawling subdivisions with detached houses with large gardens in rural areas and along urban perimeters continue to prevail. During the last decennia more than 2 600 hectares of open space were built up. Although the Spatial Policy Plan (1998-2007) contains guiding planning principles gearing towards more compact and concentrated development in urban areas and aims towards more spatial coherence, it has not yet lived up to the targets set (60 % growth in urban areas and 40 % growth in rural communities). Urban development principles guide new developments towards a more concentrated built-up environment. The new Flemish Spatial Policy Plan (2020-2050) will focus on climate change, sustainable development and spatial changes. Besides this, there is also a growing cooperation between the environmental, spatial and transport policy fields and their corresponding planning processes.
Spatial planning is governed by the Wallon Code on land use planning, urbanism, patrimony and energy, which has lead to 23 sectoral plans (plans de secteur (PDS)) defining zones which can be built on and zones to be used for agriculture, forests, or wildlife. Since 2005, any new zone to be urbanised must be compensated.
In the Walloon Region, 23 sectoral plans (plans de secteur (PDS)) aim to manage the pressure that urbanisation puts on the territory by defining zones which can be built on and zones to be used for agriculture, forests, or wildlife. The PDSs are governed by the Wallon Code on land use planning, urbanism, patrimony and energy (Code wallon de l’aménagement du territoire, de l’urbanisme, du patrimoine et de l’énergie - CWATUPE), who submitted numerous revisions since 1962, some of which dealt with changes to the definition and use of zones covered by the PDSs. Since 2005, any new zone to be urbanised in the Walloon Region must be compensated either by a modification in the PDSs going in the other direction, for a similar-sized area not to be urbanised (agricultural, forest, natural, etc.), or by alternative compensation defined by the Walloon Government. Furthermore, the implementation of urbanisation projects depends on an urban and environmental report, which must look at the impact that the projects may have. In addition, the Walloon Region supports (voluntary and non-binding) municipal plans for nature development (PCDN).
planning is governed by the 2001 regional plan on land use (Plan
Région d’affectation du sol)
specifies the overall use of the different zones in the region. All buidings permits have to comply with it.
‘Le Plan Régional d'Affectation du Sol’ is the plan of reference for spatial planning within the Brussels-Capital region (urban region). It determines the overall use of the different zones in the region and all building permits have to comply with it. Though many ‘green spaces’ are protected by several measures, urbanisation continues – however, at a lower rate than during the 1980s – at the expense of green areas and non-built-up areas. The Brussels-Capital Region is indeed confronted with a considerable growth of his population (the Federal Planning Bureau foresees a growth of the population of about 170,000 inhabitants between 2007 and 2020).
This reduction of green spaces is mainly observed within the peripheral municipalities of the region where large non-built-up areas (fallow and residual agricultural land) are converted into residential and office zones. The Brussels coalition agreement 2009-2014 foresees several actions and goals concerning spatial planning and urbanisation, among others: continuation of the policies of renovation of existing buildings and of improvement of the quality of public spaces (including greening of zones), conversion of empty office spaces into residential spaces, actions against unoccupied housing, implementation of the concept of ‘sustainable districts’ for urbanisation projects on virgin lands, protection of areas with high biological value, adoption of a regional plan for nature development, etc.
The Brussels-Capital Region, with the financial support of FEFER, also carries out a program (Brussels Greenfields) which aims at cleansing the polluted sites around the canal in order to support the development of new economic activities. A regional plan aiming at reducing the floods (plan regional de lutte contre les inondations 2008-2011) has also been adopted by the government. It's based among others on the restoration of the hydrographic network and on measures aiming at reducing impacts of urbanization on soil sealing.
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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