Urban land take

Briefing Published 29 Nov 2018 Last modified 28 Nov 2018
12 min read
Urban land take

Indicator

Indicator
past trend

 

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook for the EU meeting the selected objective by 2020

Land take

EU

Green triangle: improving trend   

 

EEA

Green triangle: improving trend

 

Keep the rate of land take below 800 km2 on average per year from 2000-2020 in order to remain on track to achieving the aim of no net land take by 2050 — Resource Efficiency Roadmap

 

Red circle: it is unlikely that the objective will be met by 2020

Although the EU average annual land take over the 2000-2012 period declined, it remained above the 800-km2 milestone. Significant reductions in the rate of annual land loss to urban and infrastructure extension are therefore required from 2012 to 2020 if the 2020 objective is to be met. Key land take drivers and complementary data sources point to developments in the opposite direction (i.e. an increase in land take since 2012), making it unlikely that the objective will be met.

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2018

The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) includes an objective that land is managed sustainably and promotes the objective of no net land take by 2050. Losing land to the development of buildings and other artificial surfaces affects biodiversity and the delivery of ecosystem services. Between 2000 and 2012, the average area of land taken for development in the EU was estimated to be 926 km2 per year. This is above the 800 km2 per year for 2000-2020 that was identified in the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe as an upper benchmark in order to stay on target to achieve the objective of no net land take by 2050. On average there was less annual land take in the latest assessment period (2006-2012) compared with the assessment period of 2000-2006. This is mainly because less land was taken for housing during the period 2006-2012. In order to stay on target, average land loss for the period 2012-2020 would have to be no more than 611 km2 per year. It is unlikely that such a drastic reduction in annual land take will take place in the years up to 2020. Complementary data sources show that land take accelerated between 2009-2012 and 2012-2015. In addition, key land take drivers — urban population, economic activity and transport activity — have been increasing since 2012, while at present there seem to be no further policy plans to drastically limit land take.

Setting the scene 

The 7th EAP includes an objective that land is managed sustainably and promotes the objective of no net land take by 2050 (EU, 2013). Agricultural land and, to a lesser extent, forests and other semi-natural and natural areas are lost to the development of buildings and other artificial surfaces. This leads to loss of fertile land and affects biodiversity as it decreases habitats — the living space of important species — and fragments the landscapes that support and connect them. Land occupied by man-made surfaces and dense infrastructure is also a significant source of water, soil and air pollution. The sealing of land by these surfaces can also have a negative impact on the water balance and increase the frequency and intensity of flooding. Land take is also a matter of land use efficiency and an aspect of the wider land degradation issue, which is addressed by the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (UN, 2015), particularly goal 15.3 on land. 

Policy targets and progress

There is no specific objective in the environmental acquis that matches the 7th EAP objective of sustainable land management and the promotion of no net land take by 2050. However, the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe (EC, 2011) states that 'if we are to reach the state of no net land take by 2050, following a linear path, we would need to reduce land take to an average of 800 km2 per year (for the EU) in the period 2000-2020'. This average figure is used in this briefing as the benchmark to assess progress. In the 2000-2012 period, the estimated average annual land take for the EU was 926[1] km2 (1 073 km2 for the EEA-33[2]) (EEA, 2017), which is considerably above the level required to achieve the long-term objective of no net land take. However, estimated average annual land take decreased from 1 048 km2 (1 148 km2 for the EEA-33) per year in the 2000-2006 period to 848 km2 (1 043 km2 for the EEA-33) per year in the subsequent 2006–2012 period (EEA, 2017).

Based on the average for the EU-28 during the 2006-2012 assessment period, 52 % of all areas that changed to artificial surfaces were arable land or permanent crops in 2006 (47 % for the EEA-33) (Figure 1). Pastures and mixed farmland were the next most taken category of land, representing 26 % of the total (27 % for the EEA-33), while forests and transitional woodland shrub made up 14 % (16 % for the EEA-33). A similar pattern emerged in the 2000-2006 period.[3]

As these land cover types are substituted to varying degrees by impervious cover, the provision of important services provided by soils, such as storing and filtering water, and the transformation of nutrients and contaminants deteriorates. This specific issue is discussed in more detail in the soil section of the EEA report The European environment — State and outlook 2015 (EEA, 2015). 

Figure 1. Relative contribution of land-cover categories lost to uptake by urban and other artificial land development (2006-2012), EU

From the perspective of the types of development that occur on the land that is taken, at the EU level, the largest area (33 %) was taken by construction sites between 2006 and 2012. These sites represent transitional areas that will turn into some form of urban development in the future. The second largest area (24 %) was taken for industrial and commercial sites. The proportion of newly created mines, quarries and dumpsites was 19 % in the EU-28, while housing, services and recreation made up 18 % of the overall increase in urban and other artificial areas. Although land take for transport infrastructure is underestimated in the Corine Land Cover dataset, it still covered 7 % of the area taken. A similar pattern emerges when looking at all 33 EEA member countries (EEA, 2017).

Overall, during the 2000-2012 period, land take in the EU was shaped by the increased urban population (Eurostat, 2016), economic activity, increased mobility and growth in transport infrastructure; and a number of other drivers, such as the increasing demand for living space per person. Comparing 2000-2006 and 2006-2012 shows that the reduction in land take in the second period was primarily due to less land being taken for housing. At the EU level, between 2000 and 2006, housing, services and recreation took the largest area (32 %), contributing to urban sprawl, while between 2006 and 2012, the same land category was only the 4th largest land take area — a 53 % decrease in terms of km2.[4]

Regional urbanisation rates vary substantially (see Figure 2), with coastal and mountainous regions among the most affected because of the increasing demand for artificial surfaces related to transport, recreation and leisure in these areas.  


Figure 2. Spatial development of land take in EEA member and cooperating countries

Data source: EEA, Spatial development of landtake

As the proportion of land used for production (agriculture, forestry, etc.) in Europe is one of the highest in the world, conflicting land use demands require decisions that involve difficult trade-offs. The decisions on trade-offs between land uses are effectively implemented through spatial planning and land management practice in the individual countries. Although the subsidiarity principle assigns land and urban planning responsibilities to national and regional governments, most European policies have a direct or indirect effect on land planning and urban development. Where properly implemented, the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA; EC, 2001) and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA; EC, 2014) Directives can improve the consideration of environmental aspects in spatial planning.

The average annual land take between 2000 and 2012 lay above the trajectory required to achieve the long-term goal of no net land take. However, annual land take declined between the 2000–2006 and 2006–2012 observation periods. The EU could reach the required trajectory if the amount of land taken reduces significantly during the period 2012-2020 — i.e. to no more than 611 km2 per year on average. It is unlikely that such a reduction in the annual land take will take place in the years up to 2020. Complementary data sources from the land use/cover area survey (LUCAS) statistics (Eurostat, 2017) show that land take accelerated between 2009-2012 and 2012-2015. In addition, key land take drivers — urban population, economic activity and transport activity — have been increasing since 2012, while at present there seem to be no further policy plans to drastically limit land take. It is therefore unlikely that the 2020 objective of keeping the rate of land take below 800 km2 on average per year from 2000-2020 would be achieved.

One way to reduce the rate of land take in future is through the redevelopment of brownfield land. Brownfield sites are derelict and underused or even abandoned former industrial or commercial sites, which may have real or perceived contamination problems (EC, 2012). These sites are mainly found in urban areas of industrialised regions. Redevelopment of brownfield sites gives many environmental advantages: relieving pressure on rural areas and greenfield sites, reducing the costs of pollution, allowing more effective use of energy and natural resources and facilitating economic diversification. Another way to reduce the rate of land take in future is through higher density development, i.e. more buildings or a higher population on a given area of land (EEA, 2016). However, the compact urban form can and should come with improved quality of life, a reduction in climate change risks and the implementation of environmental and human health standards. 

Country level information

Figure 3 shows the mean annual rate of land take in the EEA-39 countries — the 33 EEA member countries (including the 28 EU Member States) and the six EEA cooperating countries — between 2006 and 2012. The graph ranks countries according to increases in land take as a percentage of the initial artificial land stock in 2006. Perhaps surprisingly, the countries with the highest percentage of land take include those that are already highly urbanised and therefore had an already high initial percentage of artificial land stock in 2006. Countries that enjoyed strong economic growth between 2006 and 2012 also had high levels of land take, indicating the need for further decoupling. 

Figure 3. Mean annual land take per country, 2006–2012, as a percentage of 2006 artificial land

NoteEEA-39 comprises the 39 countries presented in this chart. These are the member countries of the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the EEA cooperating countries.

Outlook beyond 2020

If the urban population of Europe continues to grow, the pressure to develop on natural and semi-natural land will continue. If the objective of no net land take by 2050 is to be met, future developments should increasingly either take place on brownfield land or fill in gaps between existing developments (densification), or land take should have to be compensated for by returning artificial land to agricultural, forest or semi-natural land cover types. Such developments could be driven by establishing incentives for 'land recycling', e.g. encouraging developers to use brownfield land or for encouraging spatial planning that favours increasing urban density. The extent to which land take can be reduced in the longer term will also be influenced by the ability of the EU and individual Member States to coordinate their spatial planning and environmental protection objectives.

About the indicator

The indicator shows the amount of land that is converted from natural and semi-natural areas (including forested and agricultural areas) to artificial surfaces used for urban and economic purposes. It includes areas sealed by the construction of buildings and infrastructure, as well as pit mining, urban green areas and sport and leisure facilities.

The indicator is based on the interpretation of satellite imagery from 2000, 2006 and 2012 (the most recent) and ancillary data by the countries. The main dataset (Corine Land Cover) used by the indicator does not map features with an area of less than 25 ha (5 ha for change) and less than 100 m across. This leads to the exclusion of small areas of land and small changes due to man-made features, particularly in the peri-urban countryside. It also means that land taken by linear transport infrastructure (e.g. roads and railways) is underestimated, as it is too narrow to be picked up. On the other hand, land take areas accounted for contain unsealed surfaces such as suburban gardens and other smaller green plots.

 

Footnotes and references

[1] Differences in the EU estimated average annual land take figures for 2000-2006, 2006-2012 and 2000-2012 in this briefing compared with the 2016 version of the briefing are due to some re-submissions as well as the use of an improved accounting methodology (ETC-ULS, 2016).

[2] EEA-33 comprises the 28 EU Member States and the 5 non-EU countries that are member of the European Environment Agency (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey).

[3] In the EU (EEA-33), over the 2000-2006 period, 49 % (47 %) of all areas that changed to artificial surfaces were arable land or permanent crops, 29 % (29 %) were pastures and mixed farmland and 13 % (14 %) were forests and transitional woodland. The underlying data are available on demand.

[4] The underlying data are available on demand.

 

EC, 2001, Directive 2001/42/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the assessment of the effects of certain plans and programmes on the environment (OJ L 197, 21.7.2001, pp. 30–37).

EC, 2011, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions 'Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe' (COM/2011/0571 final).

EC, 2012, Commission Staff Working Document, 'Guidelines on best practice to limit, mitigate or compensate soil sealing' (SWD(2012) 101 final/2). 

EC, 2014, Directive 2014/52/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 April 2014 amending Directive 2011/92/EU on the assessment of the effects of certain public and private projects on the environment (OJ L 124, 25.4.2014, pp. 1–18).

EEA, 2015, Soil, SOER briefing, European Environment Agency (http://www.eea.europa.eu/soer-2015/europe/soil) accessed 8 February 2018.  

EEA, 2016, Land recycling in Europe — Approaches to measuring state and impacts, EEA Report No 31/2016, European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2017, 'Land take indicator (CSI 014/LSI 001)', European Environment Agency (http://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/land-take-2/assessment-1) accessed 8 February 2018. 

ETC-ULS, 2016, ‘Generalization of adjusted CLC layers’ (https://forum.eionet.europa.eu/etc-urban-land-and-soil-systems/library/5.-copernicus-rfs16_006-sc-56586/7-task-7-clc-adjusted-layers-clc-cube-be-revised/draft-technical-report) available upon demand, accessed 8 February 2018.

EU, 2013, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 'Living well, within the limits of our planet', Annex A, paragraph 23 (OJ L, 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200).

Eurostat, 2016, Urban Europe—Statistics on cities, towns and suburbs — Eurostat (http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/3217494/7596823/KS-01-16-691-EN-N.pdf/0abf140c-ccc7-4a7f-b236-682effcde10f) accessed 8 February 2018.

Eurostat, 2017, Sustainable development in the European Union. Monitoring report on progress towards the SDGs in an EU context. 2017 edition (http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/en/web/products-statistical-books/-/KS-04-17-780) accessed 8 February 2018.

UN, 2015, Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, A/RES/70/1, United Nations, New York.

 

 

Environmental indicator report 2018 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No19/2018, European Environment Agency

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Land take Land take Land take as a result of the expansion of residential areas and construction sites is the main cause of the increase in urban land coverage in Europe. Agricultural zones and, to a lesser extent, forests and semi-natural and natural areas are disappearing in favour of the development of artificial surfaces. This affects biodiversity since it decreases habitats and fragments the landscapes that support and connect them. Between 2006 and 2012, the annual land take in the European countries (EEA-39) assessed in the 2012 Corine land cover (CLC) project was approximately 107 000 ha/year. The figure for the 2000-2006 period was approximately 118 000 ha/year. In the 28 countries 1 covered by all three CLC assessment periods (1990-2000, 2000-2006 and 2006-2012), annual land take decreased by 10.5 % between 2000 and 2006, and by 13.5 % between 2006 and 2012. In absolute values, the annual land take in these 28 countries was 114 000 ha/year (1990-2000), 102 000 ha/year (2000-2006) and 98 500 ha/year (2006-2012). Between 2000 and 2006, more arable land and permanent crops were taken by artificial development than between 1990 and 2000, while fewer pastures and less mosaic farmland were taken over the same period. In fact, between 2006 and 2012, the types of land most taken for artificial development were arable land and permanent crops, followed by pastures and mixed agricultural areas.   1 The 28 countries covered by all three CLC assessment periods are AT, BE, BG, CZ, DE, DK, ES, EE, FR, GR, HR, HU, IE, IT, LT, LU, LV, ME, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, RS, SI, SK, TR and UK.

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