Personal tools


Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Sound and independent information
on the environment


Land use (Portugal)

Why should we care about this issue

Land Land
Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Portugal is a medium-sized coastal country in south-western Europe, consisting of a mainland in the Iberian Peninsula and the Atlantic archipelagos of the Azores and Madeira (inhabited by 5 % of the population). Even though population density (115 people/km2) is very similar to EU density, there are many regional asymmetries between north and south, coastal and inland areas. Higher population densities can be found along the west coast and in the Algarve region. On the other hand, population density in the Alentejo region is less than 20 people/km2. Around three-quarters of the population live in urban areas and urbanisation has led to the establishment of two large metropolitan areas (Lisbon and Oporto); a coastal zone (between Oporto and Lisbon) with intense but diffuse urbanisation; linear urbanisation along the south coast, mainly consisting of second homes and hotels, and a network of small and medium-sized towns and cities in the interior (MAOTDR, 2007).

Land use changes have modified the Portuguese landscape, ecosystems and environment. Urban areas are responsible for a huge consumption of resources at the expense of agricultural lands. Rural landscapes are also undergoing change, with intensification of farming and forestry activity on one hand, and abandonment of the land, on the other.

In coastal zones complex ecological systems have to co-exist with intense human occupation. These areas are subject to constant pressure as they are the focus of increasingly intensive urbanisation and tourism.

Land is a limited resource under permanent threat. Although municipal planning began in the 1980s there were no integrated policies on spatial planning until 1990. In 1998, framework legislation was passed establishing the basis for spatial and urban planning. In 2007, the Portuguese National Plan for Spatial Planning Policy (acronym PNPOT in Portuguese) was published. This is a strategic document establishing guidelines for the organisation of the territory in order to guarantee territorial cohesion and integrated territorial development (MAOTDR, 2007).


For additional information on spatial planning






The state and impacts

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Land use change mapping activities carried out between 2000 and 2006 reveal that during this short period of time, approximately 8.6 % of the national territory was modified, attesting to an active dynamic of change. These modifications include the expansion of artificial surfaces (an increase of 10 % or 28 000 hectares), construction of dams (in particular, the Alqueva dam and the extension of its influence) and the conversion of agricultural areas into natural areas, and vice-versa (APA, 2009). 

The most significant modifications concern forest classification. Given the prevalence of forests in the centre of the country, this region of Portugal registered the most significant modifications of land use during the period 2000-2006. A contributing factor to the changes in this sector are the numerous forest fires which affect the country every year and have a huge impact on the landscape and land cover.


Land Cover, 2006

Fig. 1 - Land Cover, 2006


Source: IGP, 2009


For additional information on CLC2006


Land use changes between 2000 and 2006

Fig. 2 - Land use changes between 2000 and 2006

Source: IGP, 2009


In 2006, a total of 71 % of continental Portugal was given over to forest and agriculture and approximately 15 % was a mixture of agriculture and natural areas. Artificial surfaces represented 3.5 % and natural vegetation 8.6 % of land cover (IGP, 2009). In spite of land use modifications, the overall distribution remains comparable to that registered in 2000. Forests and areas of natural vegetation continue to dominate land cover in continental Portugal and remain the focus of the most dynamic modifications.

Although tracts of forest land have been converted to other uses, new forests have also been planted. Between 2000 and 2006, there was a net increase of 30 000 hectares in forest cover. In contrast, areas covered by natural vegetation declined by 27 000 hectares or 3.5 % (APA, 2009).

Water bodies are one of the land use types which have registered the largest growth: a total of 18 000 hectares between 2000 and 2006. The increase in artificial surfaces is continuing on the upward trajectory it has been following since 1986, mostly at the expense of agriculture areas. This also contributes to the generalised and increasing trend of soil sealing. Between 2000 and 2006, this class increased by 10 %, mainly as a result of disperse urbanisation, a common trait in the Portuguese landscape.


Land Cover, 2006

Fig. 3 - Land Cover, 2006

Source: IGP, 2009; APA, 2009


Land use changes by class (ha) between 2000 and 2006

Fig. 4 - Land use changes by class (ha) between 2000 and 2006

Source: IGP, 2009; APA, 2009


Land use changes by class (% in relation to 2000) between 2000 and 2006

 Fig. 5 - Land use changes by class (% in relation to 2000) between 2000 and 2006

Source: IGP, 2009; APA, 2009


Between 2000 and 2006, over 28 000 hectares of agricultural, forest and other semi-natural and natural land was converted to urban areas and other artificial developments. Exactly 50 % of that amount was taken from forests and 40 % from agriculture.

Urban sprawl and soil sealing are continuing apace in Portugal and both tendencies are expected to increase in the future.


Land uptake by urban development (between 2000 and 2006)

Fig. 6 - Land uptake by urban development (between 2000 and 2006)

Source: IGP, 2009; APA, 2009


The significant spatial transformation of Portuguese territory has created a complex set of problems for spatial planning (MAOTDR, 2007):

·         Insufficient safeguards and enhancement of natural resources (resulting in soil and water quality degradation and increased risk of desertification);

·         Inefficient risk management (in relation to seismic activity, forest fires, floods, droughts and coastal erosion);

·         Disorderly urban expansion causing fragmentation and degradation of surrounding areas (affecting quality, ecology, production and landscape potential and contributing to the depopulation and deterioration of other areas);

·         Inefficient and non-sustainable transport and energy management in terms of environment and economics (insufficient transport intermodality, too much dependency on private vehicles and insufficient development of other transport modes such as rail; high energy and carbon intensity of economic activities and mobility solutions and high dependency on foreign energy sources – oil, coal and natural gas);

·         Inadequate territorial distribution of infrastructure.


In summary, over the last 25 years, Portugal has seen huge change in its urban areas, predominantly those located along the coast, where a constant accumulation of population has contributed to a loss of quality of life, while other territories have suffered from desertification.

Higher population growth rates have been most common in the municipalities located along the coast, mainly in the metropolitan areas of Lisbon and Oporto (housing 39 % of the total population), while the remaining municipalities have lost inhabitants, with some exceptions in cities that host universities or specialised industries. More than one quarter of all population resides in the Lisbon area (at the beginning of the 1960s this proportion was one sixth).



  • APA (2009). Relatório do Estado do Ambiente. Agência Portuguesa do Ambiente. Amadora

  • MAOTDR (2007). Programa Nacional da Política de Ordenamento do Território. Ministério do Ambiente, do Ordenamento do Território e do Desenvolvimento Regional, Lisboa.



The key drivers and pressures

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

The main driving forces shaping the Portuguese landscape and territory are mostly social, economic and policy-related. The most important features are characterised by:

  • Migration of population from the interior to the coast resulting in land abandonment and degradation on the one hand and overcrowding of coastal zones on the other;
  • Search for employment in the larger cities (mainly Lisbon and Oporto) and pursuit of a better quality of life;
  • Demand for second homes (mainly in the south – Algarve region);
  • Municipality funding schemes involving income from construction licenses and real estate taxes, a fact which has encouraged many municipalities to make it easy for the construction sector to flourish in their territories;
  • Forestation of large areas with fast-growing tree species (such as eucalyptus – used to feed wood pulp factories) which has shaped the landscape, mainly in the centre of the country;
  • Abandonment of some agricultural species as a result of subsidies which, in some cases, has led to land abandonment;
  • Huge expansion of the road network over the last 20 years. Portugal is among the countries that has invested most in road infrastructure and possesses the highest number of km of roads per inhabitant and area. By way of comparison, in 2005, Portugal had 22 km of highways per 100 000 inhabitants while EU had 13 km.


For additional information on land

The 2020 outlook

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Apart from PNPOT, associated prospective studies and some other minor studies based on Corine Land Cover data, no comprehensive studies have been made on future trends in relation to land. The territorial model envisaged for the country by PNPOT for future territorial policies to 2025 is structured in four areas:


  • Natural resources and spatial planning of forests and agricultural areas;
  • Urban systems;
  • Risks;
  • Accessibility and international connectivity.


With regard to population, this has been growing slightly in recent years, mostly due to immigration rather than natural growth. However, the Portuguese population is ageing fast and generation replacement has stopped, which is expected to have severe implications in the future.

The road network is expected to continue to grow with the implementation of the National Road Plan. In particular, motorways are due to be completed between Coimbra and Viseu, Sines and Beja. A new network of high speed trains is also being planned, comprising five routes. The Lisbon – Madrid, Lisbon – Oporto and Oporto – Vigo axis has been defined as the priority axis and a definite schedule for construction has been established. The axis linking Aveiro – Salamanca and Évora – Faro/Huelva is still being studied.


Total length of motorways in Portugal

Fig. 7 - Total length of motorways in Portugal


Source: Eurostat, 2009




  • Eurostat (2009). Panorama of Transport, 1990-2006



Existing and planned responses

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Initiatives related to land have been gaining ground in political discussions at EU level. Territorial cohesion has been debated in an intergovernmental context since the 1990s and the same is true in Portugal. PNPOT, published in 2007, is a strategic instrument for territorial development for Portugal. It was formulated according to the guiding principles of the European Spatial Development Perspective, the guidelines of the Lisbon Strategy and in coherence with the National Strategy for Sustainable Development.

Soil policy, fundamental for spatial planning and urban rehabilitation, dates from 1976. There is an urgent need to update current legislation, among other things to prevent property speculation. A new soil policy is one of the explicit objectives of the government programme for 2009-2013 which, together with the decentralisation of territorial planning, will promote such aspects as a new approach to coastal area problems and a new policy for cities. The new soil policy should clarify and regulate public administration and citizens’ rights, especially for land owners and others involved in land use change. It is also important to reinforce supervising competences and improve the mechanisms of plan execution in the planning system.

In coastal areas the focus will be on carrying out integrated coastal zone management in connection with marine strategy, especially in the areas of risk management and beach revitalisation, but also to introduce a governance model that will guarantee integrated, but efficient, management of coastal areas, given the multiplicity of jurisdictions.

The policy for cities will give special emphasis to urban rehabilitation measures. Urban sustainability will also be promoted through specific measures to reduce greenhouse gases and promote sustainable mobility.






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)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100