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Land use (Germany)

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German Federal Environment Agency
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German Federal Environment Agency
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23 Nov 2010
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German Federal Environment Agency
Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 13 Apr 2011 Feed synced: 23 Nov 2010 original

In a densely populated country like Germany, it is of vital importance to maintain the available space for many diverse uses, for example settlement, recreation and traffic, the production of food and renewable resources, economic and public use as well as nature conservation and its further development. At the same time, it is necessary to preserve land and soils and their ecological functions as the basis for life and a resource and habitat for humans, animals and plants and as an element of the ecosystem.

Furthermore, the growing use of space by settlements and traffic is leading to a vicious circle of traffic generation, expansion of traffic routes, enlargement of settlements and new traffic and a constant increase in material and energy consumption for additional buildings, vehicles and infrastructures, as well as additional noise, pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.

The state and impacts

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 13 Apr 2011 Feed synced: 23 Nov 2010 original


Structure of land use

The surface area of Germany in 2008 was 35 711 135 ha, including the jointly administered German-Luxembourg condominium.

In 2008, agriculture accounted for 52.5 % of the surface area – 18 764 594 ha, including moorland and heathland areas and has decreased slightly since 2004. The decrease in the amount of land available for agriculture was in the past a continuous process, in particular in the areas surrounding major conurbations, primarily the result of a continuing increase in the area used for settlement and traffic.

At 30.1 % (10 734 892 ha), the forested area in 2008 accounted for 0.3 percentage points more of the surface area than in 2004. Its growth was mainly at the expense of so called “other areas” e. g. former military training grounds. Forested areas, as well as water, moorland and heathland ones, have special ecological importance for groundwater recharge, air filtering, protection against erosion. They also serve predominantly as a venue for the leisure needs of people.

The settlement and traffic area is the most dynamic of land-use growth areas, growing by 151 650 ha (0.4 percentage points) by end 2008 compared with end 2004. At 4 713 725 ha, it accounted for 13.2 % of the total surface area.

In 2008, the water area represented 2.4% (848 150 ha) of the surface area of Germany. This has grown by 20 247 ha by end 2008 compared with end 2004 on account of the extraction of raw materials such as gravel, sand or lignite with subsequent flooding of the extraction sites, as a result of which a post-mining landscape with new lakes is created.

Settlement and traffic area

The constantly increasing use of land for settlement and traffic purposes removes large areas from natural cycles and fragments the habitats of larger species. The Länder Working Group for Soil Conservation (LABO) estimates a sealed area of about 46 % of the settlement and traffic area, that is to say around 6 % of the federal territory.

The settlement and traffic area in Germany grew by 104 ha/day from 2005 to 2008. This was slower than from 2004 to 2007, when growth was running at 113 ha/day. This growth was achieved largely at the expense of areas used for agricultural purposes.

The decline is mainly due to a drop in investment in the construction sector caused by economic conditions. A real reversal in the trend cannot therefore be guaranteed – an increase may be expected in the event of economic recovery. In its national sustainability strategy, Germany has set itself the target of achieving a reduction to 30 ha/day in the increase in the take-up of land by 2020. A complete reorientation of settlement and traffic policy at the level of the Federal Government, the Länder and municipalities will be required to meet this target.

The key drivers and pressures

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 13 Apr 2011 Feed synced: 23 Nov 2010 original


Take-up of land by private households

Although the German population has declined over the past few years, clear growth has been observed in the settlement and traffic area. One especially significant factor for land use is the increase in the living area per inhabitant and the construction of private residences on green-field sites, which currently account for around one third of newly developed areas.

Private households occupy 52 % of the settlement area. This area is used mainly for residential purposes – the settlement area of private households not used for residential purposes includes recreational areas, allotments and graveyards.

Between 1996 and 2004, the settlement area occupied by households for housing, leisure or public services increased by 15.9 %. The building and adjacent open area (houses with their yards and gardens) used for residential purposes only increased rather less, by 14.4 %. It may be noticed, that space consumption by one-family houses is far more important than space consumption by many-family houses. While the rate of construction of one-family houses in the old Länder roughly follows demographic trends, in the new Länder from 1994 to 2004 there happened a temporary boom of urban sprawl due to the accumulated demand of people, following the ideal of an own house with garden.

In comparison, the living area actually used inside dwellings increased by 13.8 % between 1995 and 2006. Various factors play a role in the rather different development of the living area actually used and the built-on and open-air areas used for residential purposes. These include an increasing proportion of vacant dwellings, a significantly increasing proportion of more space-intensive one-family houses among new-builds, and an increasingly dense concentration of buildings, in particular in inner-city areas.

The number of one-person and two-person households has each increased by around 12 % in the past decade, while the number of households with three and more persons decreased by 7 %. The trend towards smaller households is having an adverse effect on the utilisation of living space. The living space per person in one-person households, 62.5 m2, is significantly higher than in two-person households – 43.4 m2. The members of households with three and more persons use an average area of only 28.5 m2.

The spread of settlements is accompanied by the familiar environmental consequences of land use change such as loss of fertile soils, increased traffic generation and increased material and energy consumption. However, the currently observable trend towards a decrease in population and an increase in vacant dwellings and industrial wasteland should not be taken to indicate associated proportional environmental relief, since many buildings as well as supply and transport infrastructures continue to exist even in the face of a shrinking population. These still need to be operated, serviced and maintained. This results in increasing ecological pressures per head of the population. But there are also economic pressures per head of the population, because the buildings and infrastructures serve increasingly fewer users and must be paid for by them.

The requirements which responsible settlement planning and housing policy will have to meet in the future are, on the one hand, bringing about the most space-saving, environmentally and socially acceptable settlement development possible in regions that are still showing sustainable growth and, on the other hand, implementing the most cost-effective, environmentally and socially acceptable adaptation possible of the buildings and infrastructures to meet future needs in stagnating or shrinking regions.

Fragmentation and isolation of habitats by growing settlements and traffic

The increasing use of land in Germany for settlement and traffic is not only leading to permanent consumption of landscape, but also having a far-reaching adverse effect on the functionality and efficiency of ecosystems and the landscape. For the majority of animal and plant species, any further fragmentation and isolation by the traffic routes will mean an irreversible loss of natural habitat.

The length of inter-urban roads in Germany increased between 1991 and 2006 by around 4 700 km from 226 700 to 231 400 km. In contrast, the German Federal Railways network contracted by 7 200 km between 1991 and 2006 – from 41 100 to 33 900 km.

Whereas the decrease in the rail network is mainly attributable to branch line closures, the decrease in federal highways is mainly attributable to the fact that these have been re-designated as highways of the federal states (Länder) or as regional or local main roads. The traffic burden on these roads has admittedly been relieved, by the construction of a parallel federal motorway, but even after reclassification they continue to be used as quite important trunk roads with corresponding traffic volumes.

Depending on the traffic volume, local main roads can also have a fragmenting effect.

Between 15-20 % of the growth in traffic can be attributed to the expansion of traffic infrastructure – so called ‘induced traffic’. In the field of freight transport such expansion causes transport costs to fall, with the result that outsourcing, ‘just-in-time’ deliveries, etc., continue to be profitable. In the field of passenger transport, the journey time saved through an improved infrastructure in turn leads to more traffic. The length of the single trips covered has thus been increasing for years, although not the actual number of trips. The expansion of the road network also causes shifts in the modal split towards less environmentally friendly modes of transport.

In contrast, sustainable and environmentally compatible spatial development calls for the maintenance of large unfragmented areas that are not negatively affected by traffic.

In order to provide animal species that need a lot of space, such as the red deer, lynx or wildcat, with sufficiently large habitats and also to make recreational areas available for people, in which motorised traffic produces neither visual nor an acoustic negative effects, the Federal Government aims to preserve the current share of total unfragmented land not negatively affected by traffic at 100 km2 at least.

In 2005, 26 % of the surface area of Germany (94 427 km2) was covered by unfragmented low traffic areas (UZVRs) with an average size of 168 km2. In the east, the percentage of land area accounted for by UZVRs – 23 % in Saxony and up to 64 % in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania – is significantly above that of the federal states in the west of the country – 4 % in North Rhine-Westphalia and 36 % in Lower Saxony.

The UZVR indicator is supplemented by the effective mesh size indicator (Meff in km²), which shows the mean degree of fragmentation of the land area. The effective mesh size is an estimated mean value of the mesh size of the traffic network, which, in addition to the size of all the UZVRs, also takes account of the structure of the fragmentation of the entire region under consideration.

The use of the two partial indicators combines the advantages of both methods:

  • UZVRs: large unfragmented low traffic regions > 100 km² are apparent as areas that merit special protection and are readily identifiable;

  • Meff: a wide-area indicator that is particularly relevant in regions in which scarcely any large unfragmented low traffic regions remain.

Distribution of UZVRs and values of the effective mesh size (Meff)

Federal state1)

Land area



(in km

(as a % of the land area)

Quantity of UZVRs4)












35 752



2 736








70 549



15 026








29 477



16 608








21 115



2 097







Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania

23 174



14 771







Lower Saxony

47 618



17 085







North Rhine-Westphalia

34 084



1 230








19 847



3 823








18 414



4 176








20 445



7 218








15 763



3 182








16 172



6 190








357 030



94 427







1) Saarland and the city states are not listed in the table because of their small surface area

2) Statistical offices of the central government and the Länder, 2005

3) Esswein, H. & Schwarz-v. Raumer, H.-G. 2005

4) 31 UZVRs > 100 km2 lie in border regions between federal Länder and in terms of their area are attributed pro rata in each case to the federal Land concerned, although they are counted once only in the total for Germany. Accordingly, the sum of UZVRs in the Länder does not correspond to the number of UZVRs for Germany

Source: Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN), Data on Nature 2004 and 2008

Unfragmented low traffic regions can also have a positive effect on the urban climate as a result of improved air circulation and air exchange in the immediate vicinity of densely populated urban areas. It is also important to maintain open spaces that are extensively unfragmented and not exposed to noise pollution to enhance people’s experience of nature.

Existing and planned responses

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 13 Apr 2011 Feed synced: 23 Nov 2010 original


The progressive use of new land and landscape dissection by the construction of traffic routes leads to habitat destruction and fragmentation – a principal cause of the continual loss of biological diversity.

Consequently, there is a need to counteract the rise in transport volume through environmentally friendly land-use planning, to decouple the amount of traffic (tonnes kilometres, passenger kilometres) from economic performance (gross domestic product GDP) and to ensure that mobility is environmentally friendly and makes sparing use of resources.

The principal determinants of traffic growth – settlement structure, trade links, changed lifestyles, and the availability of a transport infrastructure – must be influenced through the following measures:

  • Functionally mixed towns and cities in which people not only work and make purchases but which are also sufficiently attractive to serve as residential and recreational locations and contribute to a settlement structure that is more compact in terms of its buildings and is consequently low in traffic. Fiscal incentives, for example, can reduce the amount of new areas required for settlement purposes, encourage the reutilisation of brown-field sites and increase building density.
  • In order to ensure mobility and an optimal supply of goods with the least possible impact on the environment for all population groups, measures intended to shift the traffic to less polluting means of transport – rail, bus, bicycle, walking – must be implemented.
  • The transfer of freight traffic from road to rail and ship has not yet been adequately achieved, although a trend towards an increasingly large share for rail – 1991: 20.6 %, 2001: 15.7 %, 2008: 17.3 % – has been observed since 2001. However, given that, in absolute terms, the total amount of road transport (tonnes kilometres) is rising rapidly, the railways’ share of goods transport is increasing too slowly for the target of the Federal Government to be met by the agreed deadline. According to the sustainability strategy, the share of freight transport by rail should account for 25 % of the total freight transport performance by 2015 – and the share of inland waterways transport is actually falling (2001: 12.6 %, 2008: 9.6 %). Here the target of the Federal Government for 2015 is 14 %.

Integrated coastal zone management – National ICZM strategy

On 22 March 2006, the Federal Government adopted a national strategy for integrated coastal zone management (ICZM) in Germany and in so doing implemented a corresponding recommendation by the EU (Recommendation 2002/413/EC).

As a process and instrument, ICZM is intended to bring together the various economic and social demands for the utilisation of the coastal region – fisheries, shipping, port management, industry and trade, land-based traffic infrastructure, agriculture and forestry, wind power, settlement development, tourism, etc. – and the interests involved in the protection of the coastal region – prevention of pollutant discharges, economical use of the ‘area’ resource, nature conservation, flood prevention – and at an early stage to highlight development opportunities, potential conflicts and solutions to these conflicts. In view of the increasing utilisation pressure, the aim is to develop the coastal region, both on the seaward side and on shore, in an environmentally compatible and economically sustainable manner, bearing in mind the efficiency and capacity of the coastal environment.

Innovative instruments: tradable land-use certificates

The objection levelled against binding quantitative targets for spatial planning is that they are too inflexible to permit an on-the-spot reaction to unforeseeable economic or social requirements and developments. In order to introduce greater flexibility and to meet 30 ha/day in the increase in the take-up of land by 2020 target, the introduction of a trade in area quotas has also been proposed, along similar lines to the tradable certificates in the area of climate protection. The controlling effect of traditional planning remains in force at the same time, however, so that protected areas, designated areas and priority areas retain their integrity.

In the year 2009, the new Federal Government decided in the coalition agreement between the governing parties (=program of the newly installed government, negociated between CDU, CSU and FDP), on the basis of research results and pilot projects, to embark on a nationwide pilot project for the trade in area quotas. Preparations for this will be made in the next few months. The Federal Environment Agency is actively involved in the preliminary work for this pilot project.

Enormous potential of brown-field sites within localities for internal development

The 30 ha/day target of the Federal Government means that any future use of land for new development must be transferred from outlying areas (=greenfields) into the interior areas, by allocating new developments to existing empty sites or redundant abandoned sites or by moderate infill on previously developed sites. In the event of a constant demand, and in order to meet the 30 ha/day target, three quarters of any new developments would have to be allocated in future to the inner areas of agglomerations and one quarter to the outlying area.


The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

European Environment Agency (EEA)
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1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100