Land recycling and densification

Indicator Specification
Indicator codes: LSI 008
Created 14 Jun 2018 Published 27 Jul 2018 Last modified 07 Sep 2018
6 min read
This indicator addresses the use of urban land for further urban development, whether that urban land is currently in use or not. The indicator comprises two concepts of urban development: land recycling and land densification. Land recycling is defined as the reuse of abandoned, vacant or underused land for redevelopment. It includes ‘grey recycling’ and ‘green recycling’. Grey recycling is when ‘grey’ urban objects, such as buildings or transport infrastructures, are built under redevelopment. Green recycling is when ‘green’ urban objects, such as green urban areas or sport facilities, are built. Land densification is defined as the land development that takes place within existing communities, making maximum use of the existing infrastructure instead of building on previously undeveloped land. The indicator examines land recycling relative to total land consumption. Total land consumption is understood as all the land use processes occurring on or ending up in developed land, i.e. urban redevelopment, urban and infrastructure sprawl, and any change in previously developed land. Land recycling includes both the densification and the recycling phenomena. Therefore, land recycling is understood broadly and includes three components: land densification, grey land recycling and green land recycling.

Assessment versions

Published (reviewed and quality assured)

Rationale

Justification for indicator selection

Land is a resource; it is the foundation of society, it is the platform for infrastructure and residential, commercial and industrial areas, and it is a source of economic growth. It delivers ecosystem services such as food provisioning and nutrient cycling, it hosts biodiversity and it contributes to climate regulation and the mitigation of climate change through carbon sequestration. Land contributes to climate change adaptation by helping to manage extreme events such as floods and droughts. However, land is also a limited and non-renewable resource and it is increasingly in demand for food, feed and fibre production, as well as for socio-cultural and industrial needs. Competition for land resources is a reality, and is increasing in the EU and in the EEA-39.

Land take, the change from non-artificial to artificial land cover, reflects ongoing and often conflicting claims on land. Some of the land that is 'taken' for urban development is covered with an impervious surface, which severely hampers ecosystem functioning and the related delivery of ecosystem services. However, when land is 'recycled', land that was developed in the past and has become available for redevelopment again is reused. Urban densification, or infilling, can also prevent the consumption of land that may be very valuable for food production or recreation. Land recycling can be considered a response to the pressures that society puts on land resources, particularly in the urban fringe.

Land recycling in its broadest sense, i.e. including densification, could be key to improving land management and maintaining and developing the green infrastructure that is so important for the provision of ecosystem services. It could also make an important contribution to fulfilling the EU's aim of achieving a circular economy, in which maximum value is derived from resources by the recycling and recovery of materials. Land recycling could also contribute to a green economy, which extends the concept of the circular economy to encourage economic development that is resource efficient and socially equitable and that respects the limits of the environment.

Scientific references

Indicator definition

This indicator addresses the use of urban land for further urban development, whether that urban land is currently in use or not. The indicator comprises two concepts of urban development: land recycling and land densification.

Land recycling is defined as the reuse of abandoned, vacant or underused land for redevelopment. It includes ‘grey recycling’ and ‘green recycling’. Grey recycling is when ‘grey’ urban objects, such as buildings or transport infrastructures, are built under redevelopment. Green recycling is when ‘green’ urban objects, such as green urban areas or sport facilities, are built.

Land densification is defined as the land development that takes place within existing communities, making maximum use of the existing infrastructure instead of building on previously undeveloped land.

The indicator examines land recycling relative to total land consumption. Total land consumption is understood as all the land use processes occurring on or ending up in developed land, i.e. urban redevelopment, urban and infrastructure sprawl, and any change in previously developed land.

Land recycling includes both the densification and the recycling phenomena. Therefore, land recycling is understood broadly and includes three components: land densification, grey land recycling and green land recycling.

LSI008-95590_Illustration_of_methodology

Units

The indicator is measured as the percentage (%) of land recycled (through all three components of land recycling) as a proportion of total land consumption.

Policy context and targets

Context description

Ongoing land take and soil sealing have long been a cause for concern at EU level.

Resource efficiency has become a top environmental priority, identified as one of the seven Flagship Initiatives of the Europe 2020 Strategy, which supports a shift towards a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy for sustainable growth. Accordingly, one of the objectives of the EU's Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe is that 'by 2020, EU policies take into account their direct and indirect impact on land use, and the rate of land take is on track with the aim of achieving no net land take by 2050'.

The recognition that our land resources must be conserved is also articulated in the EU's Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP). The 7th EAP states that 'the degradation, fragmentation and unsustainable use of land in the Union is jeopardising the provision of several key ecosystem services, threatening biodiversity and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters. (...) Every year more than 1 000 km2 of land are taken for housing, industry, transport or recreational purposes. Such long-term changes are difficult or costly to reverse, and nearly always involve trade-offs between various social, economic and environmental needs'. In this regard, the EU made a commitment in the 7th EAP to limit land take by setting the goal of 'no net land take, by 2050'.

One of the key responses to the question of how land governance can reduce pressure on land resources by limiting land take and soil sealing is to increase land recycling. In this regard, Science for Environment Policy Future Brief 14 (EC, 2016) highlights the key role of the reuse and redevelopment of brownfield sites in achieving the ‘no net land take’ goal. The SOER 2015 thematic briefing on land systems (EEA, 2015) also states that, in order to prevent an increase in land take, incentives for 'land recycling' are worth pursuing.

In the European Commission's 'Guidelines on best practice to limit, mitigate or compensate soil sealing’ (EC, 2012), one of the best practices mentioned is 'creating incentives for recycling land instead of developing new sites, for example requiring proof that no reasonable alternative to conversion of new land exists, and highlighting the potential of brownfield sites (many of which are well embedded in existing infrastructure and are not contaminated, thus avoiding overestimation of development costs)'.

There are also specific examples at country level of approaches to land planning that include land recycling as a priority. For instance, in Germany, the council of the joint community Barnstorf decided, in 2009, to follow a sustainable land management approach: in principle, it was decided that, in the future, residential and commercial areas should be created through internal development, recycling and reuse, allowing for the conversion of greenfield sites in only exceptional cases depending on public costs and benefits (EC, 2012).

Targets

There are no specific quantitative targets for land recycling in Europe. There are different policy documents that mention land recycling as an important response to reduce the negative impact of soil sealing, land take and/or urban sprawl when it comes to urban development.

In this regard, the European Commission's Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe (COM(2011) 571) introduces for the first time a 'no net land take by 2050' initiative that implies either that all new urbanisation should occur on brownfield sites or that any new land take will need to be compensated for by the reclamation of artificial land.

This should be interpreted to mean that land recycling and densification rates must show an increasing trend, which would result in a direct contribution to reducing net land take, thus facilitating the achievement of the policy objective.

Related policy documents

  • A resource-efficient Europe
    A resource-efficient Europe – Flagship initiative of the Europe 2020 Strategy The flagship initiative for a resource-efficient Europe under the Europe 2020 strategy supports the shift towards a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy to achieve sustainable growth. Natural resources underpin our economy and our quality of life. Continuing our current patterns of resource use is not an option. Increasing resource efficiency is key to securing growth and jobs for Europe. It will bring major economic opportunities, improve productivity, drive down costs and boost competitiveness.  The flagship initiative for a resource-efficient Europe provides a long-term framework for actions in many policy areas, supporting policy agendas for climate change, energy, transport, industry, raw materials, agriculture, fisheries, biodiversity and regional development. This is to increase certainty for investment and innovation and to ensure that all relevant policies factor in resource efficiency in a balanced manner.
  • 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’
    Published: 2013-11-20 Corporate author(s): Council of the European Union , European Parliament Subject: biodiversity , economic growth , environmental impact , environmental protection , EU programme , investment , management of resources , pollution control
  • Guidelines on best practice to limit, mitigate or compensate soil sealing
    Commission Staff Working Document SWD (2012) 101
  • Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe
    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) 571  

Key policy question

What is the extent of land recycling in Europe?

Specific policy question

How significant is land densification in Europe in relation to land take?

Specific policy question

How significant is grey land recycling in Europe in relation to land take?

Specific policy question

How significant is green land recycling in Europe in relation to land take?

Methodology

Methodology for indicator calculation

The land recycling indicator is calculated from the Copernicus Urban Atlas dataset. The Urban Atlas dataset provides pan-European comparable land use and land cover data for FUAs. In order to assess land recycling, information on changes between two periods is needed. The Urban Atlas 2006 dataset includes 301 FUAs with more than 100 000 inhabitants (UA2006 FUAs) as defined by the Urban Audit. The Urban Atlas 2012 dataset contains 697 FUAs, including the 301 existing UA2006 FUAs plus 394 new FUAs (most EU-28 cities have over 50 000 inhabitants).

Therefore, the land recycling indicator can be computed for only those 301 FUAs for which information is available from the Urban Atlas Change (2006-2012) dataset.

The concept of land recycling (in its broad sense) comprises both the densification of existing urban infrastructures and the recycling of abandoned land. In other words, it refers to the use of urban land for further urban development.

Land recycling is calculated from land cover flows (lcfs), i.e. changing land cover categories, which correspond to the different recycling and densification phenomena. Each lcf corresponds to a set of land cover/land use changes, which are detailed in related methodology documents (Milego, 2015). They were adapted from the definitions of lcfs used for the Corine Land Cover inventory, considering the specificities of Urban Atlas classes.

In particular, lcf11 corresponds to land densification, lcf12 corresponds to grey recycling, and lcf13 and lcf38 refer to green recycling. Below, the definition of each of the lcfs representing land recycling is given:

  • lcf11 — urban development/infilling: conversion from discontinuous urban fabric, green urban areas and sport and leisure facilities to dense urban fabric, economic areas and infrastructures;
  • lcf12 — recycling of developed urban land: internal conversions between residential and/or non-residential land cover types; construction on urban greenfield sites is not included here but rather under LCF11;
  • lcf13 — development of green urban areas: extension of green urban areas over developed land and, in the peripheral areas of cities, over other types of land use;
  • lcf38 — sprawl of sport and leisure facilities: conversion from developed and non-urban land to sport and leisure facilities.

LSI008-94498-Illustration-for-methodology_v9.png

The indicator reflects the extent of all land recycling processes as a proportion of total land consumption. Total land consumption includes all the processes of urban redevelopment, urban sprawl and any other change occurring on previously developed land. The indicator is calculated according to this formula:

LSI008-FORMULA1

where:

LCF1= urban land management

LCF2 = urban residential sprawl

LCF3 = sprawl of economic sites and infrastructures

LCF5 = conversion from forested and natural land to agriculture

LCF7 = forest creation and management

LCF8 = water body creation and management

LCF9 = changes of land cover due to natural and multiple causes

(a) excluding conversions from ‘Construction sites’ and from ‘Land without current use’, but including flows to these classes.

(b) flows occurring only on artificial land cover (previously developed land).

In order to better understand and assess the various land recycling processes, the three components of the indicator can be analysed separately relative to land take (i.e. urban, commercial and industrial sprawl). These components are land densification, grey land recycling and green land recycling.

Those three components are calculated in the following way:

Densification related to land take =

LSI008-FORMULA2.png

(a) excluding conversions from ‘Construction sites’ and from ‘Land without current use’, but including flows to these classes.

Grey land recycling related to land take =

lsi008-formula3.png

(a) excluding conversions from ‘Construction sites’ and from ‘Land without current use’, but including flows to these classes.

Green land recycling related to land take =

lsi008-formula4.png

(a) excluding conversions from ‘Construction sites’ and from ‘Land without current use’, but including flows to these classes.

(b) flows occurring only on artificial land cover (previously developed land)

For these three components, the results do not reflect the extent of densification or recycling as a proportion of total land consumption, but compare the amount of land subject to densification or being recycled with the amount of land taken.

For further details, please refer to the methodology references.

Methodology for gap filling

There is no need for gap filling. The calculations are carried out based on all FUAs in Europe for which Urban Atlas Change (2006-2012) data are available.

Methodology references

  • Land recycling in Europe: EEA Report No 31/2016 Land take, or the change from non-artificial to artificial land cover, reflects on-going and often conflicting claims on land. Some of the land that is 'taken' for urban development is covered with an impervious surface, which severely hampers ecosystem functioning and the related delivery of ecosystem services. However, when land is 'recycled', land that was developed in the past and has become available for redevelopment again is reused. Land recycling can be considered a response to the on-going pressures we as a society apply to our land resources, particularly in the urban fringe.

Data specifications

EEA data references

Data sources in latest figures

Uncertainties

Methodology uncertainty

The methodology behind this indicator has been carefully developed and tested, as described in the methodology reference document.

The method was based on a former calculation of land recycling using Corine Land Cover data. This previous method was adapted to a new data source, Urban Atlas, which provides much more resolution and precision in terms of the urban environment. Taking into account the nature of the land recycling and densification phenomena, changing the minimum mapping unit from 5 ha (Corine Land Cover method) to 0.25 ha (Urban Atlas method) has allowed a huge improvement in terms of precision.

In the calculations for the land recycling indicator, the relevant changes are grouped and classified into lcfs, following agreed definitions, and the ratios between lcfs are calculated. Despite careful methodological considerations, one potential issue relates to the extent to which land recycling is an intended/planned or unintended process. Land recycling may occur without any consideration of any beneficial environmental impacts or there may be geographical constrains that force the recycling of land. These issues will be explored in future work.

Data sets uncertainty

This indicator uses the Copernicus Urban Atlas Change (2006-2012) dataset as a data source.

With a spatial resolution of 10 m, Urban Atlas is mainly based on a combination of (statistical) image classification and the visual interpretation of very high resolution (VHR) satellite imagery. Multispectral SPOT 5 and 6 and Formosat-2 pan-sharpened imagery with a 2 to 2.5 m spatial resolution is used as input data. The built-up classes are combined with density information on the level of sealed soil derived from high resolution layer imperviousness to provide more detail on the density of the urban fabric. The Urban Atlas data are complemented and enriched with functional information (on road networks, services, utilities, etc.) from ancillary data sources such as local city maps and online map services.

The minimum mapping unit of Urban Atlas is 0.25 ha for urban classes and 1 ha for rural classes.

Rationale uncertainty

The definitions of lcfs representing land recycling and land densification have been established following the principles applied initially to the Corine Land Cover classes and adapted to the specifications of Urban Atlas. There are a couple of classes in the Urban Atlas dataset that correspond to intermediate states and might introduce some degree of uncertainty. Those classes are ‘Land without current use’ and ‘Construction sites’. The class ‘Construction sites’ is important for the calculation of the overall consumption of land cover. However, as this class represents only a transitional or intermediate land consumption class (as opposed to a final land consumption class), it has not been included in the calculation of land recycling if it is the original land class, i.e. before land change. The same approach has been used in the case of the class ‘Land without current use’, because, similar to ‘Construction sites’, areas of ‘Land without current use’ are in a transitional state.

On the other hand, whenever either of these two classes are the result of the transition, those transitions are included in the calculation of land recycling.

For further details, please refer to the methodology section and related documents.

Further work

Short term work

Work specified here requires to be completed within 1 year from now.

Long term work

Work specified here will require more than 1 year (from now) to be completed.

General metadata

Responsibility and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Eva Ivits-Wasser

Ownership

European Environment Agency (EEA)

Identification

Indicator code
LSI 008
Specification
Version id: 1
Primary theme: Land use Land use

Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled every 3 years

Classification

DPSIR: Response
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)

Related content

Data used

Latest figures and vizualizations

Relevant policy documents

Document Actions
European Environment Agency (EEA)
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