Net land take in cities and commuting zones in Europe (8th EAP)

Land conversion to artificial surfaces impairs the ecological functions of land and makes ecosystems less resilient. In Europe, this conversion takes place primarily in cities and commuting zones. Between 2012 and 2018, the net land take in the EU in these zones was 450 km2 annually. The land that was taken was mostly croplands and pastures, followed by forests. For the EU to reach its aim of ‘no-net-land take by 2050’ there needs to be significant reductions in the net land take over the years and this seems, at present, uncertain and challenging. It is unclear how the main drivers of land take will change and whether reconverting artificial surfaces to land will increase sufficiently in the future while current projections indicate a likely expansion of built up areas in the coming years.

Published: ‒ 25min read

Land take entails the conversion of land to artificial surfaces, which impairs the valuable ecological functions of lands. This leads to less resilient ecosystems, decreased potential for carbon storage and biodiversity maintenance, increased surface run-off during floods and increased effects of heatwaves in cities. It also results in reduced quality of life via the diminished ecological land functions as well as via the direct loss of natural areas for relaxation, regeneration and outdoor activities.

The EU’s biodiversity strategy for 2030 addresses land take as one of the major threats to biodiversity, whereas the soil strategy for 2030 sets the aim of ‘no net land take by 2050’. The European Commission proposed a nature restoration law , which includes, among others: no net loss of green urban spaces by 2030, a 5% increase by 2050, a minimum of 10% tree canopy cover in every European city, town and suburb, and net gain of green space that is integrated to buildings and infrastructure.

Land take mostly (but not exclusively) occurs in cities and their commuting zones — these are also known as functional urban areas (FUAs). Over the 2012-2018 period, the majority (78%) of the net land take happened in commuting zones. The net land take in FUAs during 2012-2018 amounted to 2,696km2 or 450km2 annually.

Most land take in FUAs took place in arable lands — a loss of 1,415km² or 47% of all land take. Loss in arable land can impact food security, carbon sequestration and the maintaining of biodiversity. The second largest land take took place in pastures — a loss of 945km² or 36% of all land take. Pastures are among Europe’s most important biodiversity hotspots and carbon sinks, so being under such pressure is a cause for concern. The area of forests loss (326km2) was about one quarter of the area of arable lands lost. Forests present significant carbon stocks accumulated through growth of trees and an increase in soil carbon, and are important for habitat provision, flood protection and climate regulation. For the same reasons, although wetlands represent a very small area of FUA territory (2.5%) any loss — and there has been a total loss of 6km2 in 2012-2018 — is cause for concern.

Assuming a linear evolution in land take, for the EU to meet its aim of reducing its net land take to zero by 2050 would require that from 2019 onwards the EU reduces its net land take by 14km2 annually. This would mean that by 2030 the EU needs to reduce annual net land take to 282km2.

Major drivers of land take include population growth, the need for transport infrastructure, cultural preferences and economic growth. It is unclear how these drivers will evolve in the coming years and therefore it is uncertain whether the EU would be reducing its net land take by 2030 sufficiently to stay on track with meeting its 2050 no net land take goal. The recently adopted (2021) Soil Strategy for 2030 sets a series of actions and their implementation could contribute to reducing land take. However, according to a European Commission studybuilt-up areas are likely to expand by more than 3%, reaching 7% of the EU territory by 2030.

Discouraging diffuse urban expansion while promoting compact city planning and the re-naturalisation of land instead would be an important means to reduce the land take rate in the future and reach the 2050 no net land take goal.

None of the EU countries have re-naturalised more land than that converted to urban areas (Figure 2). There are positive signs in a few countries, however: in Czechia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Romania, the re-naturalisation of former urbanised areas appears.

At the national level, compared to their 2012 FUA area, net land take in the EU was highest in FUAs in Romania, Poland and the Netherlands (an increase of between 0.5% and 1%). Croatia, Latvia, Slovenia and Spain increased their urbanised areas the least (below 0.1% increase in FUAs).

EU net land take in arable lands was highest in Denmark, Austria and Italy (>65% of all land take), followed by Czechia, Germany, Hungary, Malta, and Slovakia (around 60% of all land take) (Figure 2).

In most countries, land take did not impact forests, except for Estonia, Finland and Sweden (circa 40% of land take), however this accounted for less than 50km2 of forest loss. In Ireland and Lithuania, more than 70% of all land take impacted pastures, although in absolute terms, the impacted areas were smaller than 50km2.

Land take in pastures were highest in Ireland, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Romania, where artificial surfaces increased by circa 0.5% of the FUA area. Wetland loss due to land take was very little as a percentage of the FUA territory. The highest value was observed in Belgium, with 1.6km2 of net wetland loss.

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