Land use (Finland)
Why should we care about this issue
The population density in Finland is 17.4 persons/km2 (excluding the sea area), i.e. every person has almost six hectares of space. The density is the lowest in EU, and in Europe, only Norway has a lower population density. The share of forest, 77 %, is also the highest in EU. The abundance of space does not allow a careless use of land.
The decisions on how the land is used affect the wellbeing of nature and humans. Reductions in landscape diversity are detrimental to biodiversity and the ecosystem services. Also, adaptation to climate change requires successful decisions about land use.
The existing land-use planning legislation and guidelines aim to promote a favourable living environment and ecologically, economically, socially and culturally sustainable development.
The state and impacts
Corine Land Cover
The Coordination of Information on the Environment (CORINE) programme was initiated by the European Commission in 1985. One of the priority topics was land cover. The Corine Land Cover aims to collect information on the biophysical characteristics of land cover.
The first Corine Land Cover (CLC) was finalised in the late 1990s. Finland did not participate in this project because Finland was not a member of EU at that time. Finland has produced the two subsequent Corine Land Cover databases, CLC2000 and CLC2006. The CLC nomenclature is a three-layer classification with 44 classes on the most detailed level.
The same method was applied in both projects to produce the CLC data. The method is based on automated interpretation of satellite images and data integration with the existing digital map data. Additionally, in the CLC2006 project some classes were interpreted manually.
Figure 1 shows clearly that the largest part of Finland is covered by forests (green areas). Urban areas are red.
Figure 1. Corine Land Cover map 2006 over Finland
One of the main aims of the CLC projects is to enable comparison of the results and the detection of changes in land cover. The changes were identified using the five-hectare resolution.
The total area of changes between 2000 and 2006 is about 7 000 km2 corresponding to about 2.1 % of Finland's area (excluding sea areas).
Most of the changes in Finland are due to forest management, i.e. forest cuttings and re-growth make 91 % of the area of all changes. Approximately 3 500 km2 of forest has changed into transitional woodland/shrubs and conversely nearly 3 000 km2 new forest has emerged.
Only 1 % of the detected changes are due to the increase in built-up land while establishment of new agricultural areas makes almost 7 % of the changes. The major part of the new agricultural areas is converted from old peat production areas.
The detection of changes between 2000 and 2006 has been done tentatively using the national material underpinning the European scale CLC results. The national material has a higher resolution, enabling the comparisons on the one-hectare scale instead of the five-hectare scale. In general, the use of the higher resolution leads to an increase in the area where changes are observed, and in some cases the difference between the areas that the different resolutions are able to produce is significant.
Forests cover a major part of Finland. Depending on the definition, forest land covers 66–73 % and the total forestry area about 78 % of Finland's land area. The Finnish Forest Research Institute carries out regularly forest inventories. The first inventory covered years 1921–1924, and the results of the 10th National Forest Inventory (NFI) are now available. Forests provide a number of vital ecosystem services including their functioning as carbon sinks. According to the latest NFI the net sequestration capacity of Finnish forests has nearly doubled during the last 20 years and in 2008 it was 42 million tonnes CO2. According to a recent report by FAO, in Finland the carbon stock in living forest biomass is 832 million tonnes in 2010. This is one of the highest carbon stocks amongst European countries. Carbon stock per hectare in Finland is, however, one of the smallest. Thus similar changes in the forest area lead to smaller changes in the carbon stock compared to many other European countries.
The number of farms has nearly halved since 1990 and was 66 938 in 2007, according to the agricultural statistics. At the same time, the total area of arable land has increased slightly and is now about 7–9 %, depending on the definition of the land area. Accordingly, the average size of arable land of farms has increased. This increase varies by production sector. Since 1995, in the farms with milk husbandry or pig husbandry the average size has nearly doubled and with poultry husbandry slightly more than doubled. Crop husbandry or horse husbandry farms have grown less.
The crop husbandry is located mainly in south-west Finland and in the western part of central Finland, and the major part of animal husbandry lies to the east and north. The geographical distribution of the different production sectors has earlier been more even.
The length of the highway network was 78 161 km in 2010. In addition there is a little over 5 100 km of light traffic routes in connection with the road network. The length of the street network is approximately 26 000 km, private roads 350 000 km, forest roads 135 000 km, and railroads 5 900 km. It can be estimated that the land take of the whole traffic network is around 1-2 % of the land area of Finland. This share is not high when compared to other countries, even though Finland is large and sparsely populated.
Summerhouses or summer cottages are a specific feature of importance to the Finns. There are now more than 400 000 summerhouses and about 800 000 persons belong to a household who owns a summerhouse. Nowadays about 4 000 new cottages are built and about 3 000 are renovated annually. For many, a summerhouse on the shore of a lake or sea is the most desirable. From a land-use point of view, construction along the shoreline is problematic. Therefore, specific care is taken in planning and permits. Shorelines where no developments have yet been planned are generally protected from future construction developments, as stipulated in the Land Use and Building Act.
The key drivers and pressures
The growth of the highway network has been relatively slow. In 1940 the length was 68 000 km and around 1950 even slightly below 60 000 km. Since then about 20 000 km new highways has been built. The forest road network serves mainly forestry activities such as transport of timber. The network has expanded rapidly. During 1975–1995 about 4 000 km of forest roads were constructed annually. In the last few years, growth has been around 800 km/year. The basic improvement of forest roads has been on the increase and in 2008 nearly 3 500 km of road were improved. The forest road network causes fragmentation of forested areas.
The population in the urban municipalities has been increasing steadily and was 3 644 491 persons in 2009. Similarly, the population in densely populated municipalities has increased to 851 259 persons, slightly less than the population in rural municipalities which was 855 677. About 16 % of the Finnish population lives in rural municipalities. In addition, the largest urban areas usually have the fastest population growth.
Immigration from rural to urban areas is expected to continue. The depopulation of rural areas has environmentally negative consequences, for example when it increases transport demand.
The changes in urban structures in the 33 largest urban regions in Finland have been examined. The final report presents the findings. About a third of the densely populated area in Finland was built after 1980, and the population in that area increased by almost 10 percentage units. The area grew faster than the number of population which is typical to urban sprawl. This trend was slower in the 1990s. One of the observations was that the increase in population was channelled to the fringe areas especially in the late 1980s. Since then the trend has been discernible in fewer urban regions of which one is the capital city Helsinki.
 Ristimäki, M. et al.: Kaupunkiseutujen väestömuutos ja alueellinen kasvu. [Population changes in urban regions and urban growth]. Suomen ympäristö 657. Ympäristöministeriö 2003. (in Finnish)
The 2020 outlook
In a report produced by the Ministry of the Environment, views on the long-term development of land use and spatial structure in Finland are presented. In future, especially globalisation and economic development based on know-how, but increasingly also the ageing of the population and climate change will have an impact on the location of functions and activities. Since decisions on land use and spatial structure have long-term effects, they should be given a sustainable direction so as to support competitiveness, ecological sustainability and the well-being of the citizens.
For Finland to be successful in the global economy, the spatial structures should be linked to developments in Europe and adjacent areas. Advantage should be taken of the opportunities offered by the Baltic Sea, and the emergence of cross-border development zones should be promoted. A polycentric spatial structure will support the strengths of each region and the utilisation of advantages in location and existing structures. Improved accessibility requires inputs, but these should be environmentally safe. Finnish regions have a particular strength in their varied environments, which provide an excellent framework for high-quality living environments, more extensive tourism, and the utilisation of natural resources.
 Perspectives for spatial structure and land use in Finland, Ministry of the Environment (Finnish Environment 31en/2006)
Existing and planned responses
Monitoring of the living environment and urban structure
- Living and households
- Workplaces and commuting
- Land use and urban structure.
In the future also natural environment and landscapes, recreational areas, community development and energy, environmental nuisances as well as social environment will be included in the monitoring.
The monitoring of the urban structure aims to collect information on the state and trends of the urban structure. Monitoring addresses the physical and functional entity formed by dwellings, workplaces, services and green areas as well as the connections between them.
Land-use planning has a central role in the development of the living environment. As importantly, land-use planning also promotes sustainable development. In Finland, land-use planning has several levels.
The regional land use plan is created and approved by the Regional Council and confirmed by the Ministry of Environment. The local authorities create and approve the local master plans and the local detailed plans. All these three types of plans are drawn up in a participatory process. The provisions in the higher plans are binding for the lower plans.
The Government defines the national land-use guidelines. The national land-use guidelines are a tool for Government to steer policy on land-use issues that are important for the whole country. The guidelines relate to the regional and urban structure, the quality of the living environment, communication networks, energy supply, natural and cultural heritage and use of natural resources. The national land-use guidelines were revised in November 2008.
In the revision, the main emphasis was put on a more coherent urban structure, reduction of the volume of traffic, energy issues in land-use planning, adaptation to climate change, and housing production, transport and land use in the Helsinki region.
Legislation on land use and building
The most important legislation controlling land use, spatial planning and construction in Finland is contained in the Land Use and Building Act, which came into force in 2000. The general objectives of the Act are, among others, to organise land use and construction to create the basis for high quality living environments, and to promote ecologically, economically, socially and culturally sustainable developments. The more specific objects are related to controls over land-use planning and construction.
More detailed regulations and controls on land use and construction are included in the Land Use and Building Decree. The Land Use and Building Act is complemented by the National Building Code.
See also: Living environment and urban structure, Eco-efficiency and energy consumption in buildings, and International co-operation on spatial planning (Ministry of the Environment)
 The Revised National Land Use Guidelines of Finland, Ministry of the Environment
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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