Unsustainable land use threatens European landscapes

News Published 07 Sep 2017 Last modified 10 Dec 2019
2 min read
Photo: © barnyz /Flickr
Accelerating rates of construction, changing demographics, technological changes, and climate change are some of the key drivers influencing the use of Europe’s vast landscapes. A European Environment Agency report published today says that the continent’s land use increasingly sees striking changes and conflicts over land demand which will require reconciling place-based management and macro policies to foster responsible land use.

The EEA report 'Landscapes in transition: an account of 25 years of land cover change in Europe,' takes a closer look at the emerging trends over the last two and a half decades in land use and their environmental impacts. The dominant trend is the continued and accelerating shift from rural to urban use, influenced mostly by economic activities and urban lifestyle demands  such as high mobility and consumption patterns.

The increased covering up of fertile land with buildings, transport infrastructure and industry offers economic benefits but also highlights the need to maintain Europe's natural and landscape resources. Pro-active and integrated policies on land planning, agriculture, recreation, tourism, transport, energy and other sectors can limit the negative effects of land take. In cities, smart and sustainable solutions for urban development — such as recycling old industrial lands into new uses and creating more green spaces — will be needed, the report says.

The report also highlights that good land management can lead to a wide diversity of land use between rural and urban settings. It can also protect fertile lands for food and biomass production by ensuring effective means to promote soil functions, such as carbon storage and prevent soil erosion. As such, managing the land resource well is essential for a wider societal transition to sustainability, the report argues.

People's surrounding physical landscapes can be useful for monitoring changes in society and the environment. However, there are still significant gaps in the knowledge and policy responses to manage land in Europe in an environmentally and societally sound way. One key element to fill these gaps is Copernicus, the European satellite system for monitoring the Earth, which will increase the precision and relevance of land-monitoring data.

Main trends

  • Expansion of urban areas (roads, rail, industrial parks, housing, commercial zones) continues to consume land with productive soil and to fragment existing landscape structures. Of all land cover categories, artificial areas increased the most in terms of both net area and percentage change. This is a constant trend that has been observed since 1990, although the increase of urban expansion in the 2006-2012 period was smaller than in the 2000-2006 period.
  • Europe's agricultural land continues to decrease at an average rate of 1,000 km² per year (according to latest data from 2006-2012). The structure and associated biodiversity of traditional rural landscapes in Europe continues to be affected by land take, agricultural intensification and farmland abandonment.
  • The area of European forests has increased since the 1960s. Today, Europe is one of the most forest-rich regions in the world, with more than 42 % of its land covered by forests. However, forest land cover flows indicate an intensification of forest land use. This may lead to declining quality of forest ecosystems and needs to be balance by conservation measures.


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