Land systems

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 23 Nov 2020
12 min read
Photo: © Hristina Hristova/EEA

'Land take' dominates in Europe, with artificial areas and agricultural intensification, resulting in land degradation, worsened by high fragmentation on 30% of land area. Conflicting demands on land impact significantly on the land's potential to supply key services.

Limiting 'land take' is already an important policy target at national or sub-national level. Balancing land-recycling, compact urban development, place-based management and green infrastructure will provide positive effects. 


Across Europe and the world, accelerating rates of urbanisation, changing demographic and diet patterns, technological changes, deepening market integration, and climate change place unprecedented demands on land. Yet the availability of land is finite. This imbalance is unsustainable. Land must therefore be 'governed' in such a way as to preserve its potential to deliver goods and services.

These services are lost or weakened (due to disrupted water and nutrient cycles) when land is sealed for the development of housing, industry, commerce, or transport infrastructure. Some forms of land use and management, e.g. driven by agricultural intensification and abandonment, result in degradation processes, like soil erosion, soil organic matter decline, habitat loss, or reduced nutrient cycling. Land fragmentation exacerbates these effects.

Such negative impacts can be referred to as dysfunctions and disservices and can further affect the economy or human healthThey ought to be a cause of concern as the land medium integrates three spatial dimensions: the two horizontal ones of land cover/land use, and the third, the vertical one of soil and the underlying geology. Soil properties thus largely define the quality of land. The land system then embodies the relationship between human activities on land, socio-economic conditions, the natural environment, and the systems of governance that manage these interactions.[1] Linking its components through cause and effect, it thus refers to the chain of driving forces, pressures, state, impacts, and responses to which the land is subject (Figure 1).

Following this logic, land use (by sectors/policies), land management (indicating a different use intensity), and soil characteristics jointly define the land's functions.

Addressing the issues raised, the European Union's (EU) 7th Environment Action Programme (7th EAP)[2] aims to ensure that by 2020 land is managed sustainably. Concretely, this commitment requires coordinated governance and integration of environmental considerations (including water management and biodiversity protection) into territorial planning decisions on land use. Land policy targets would also help achieve this goal, and the 7th EAP specifically suggests a target of 'no net land take' by 2050. This resonates with the UN Rio+20 Summit[3] call for a land-degradation-neutral world in the context of sustainable development, a goal to which the EU has subscribed.

Figure 1: The land system

The land system

Place-based[4][5] land allocation and management is needed in order to integrate land functions across multiple sectors, sustainability dimensions, and governance levels (global, EU, national, regional and local) (Figure 2). Interaction between various actors is central to such a cooperative process, also a key driver for territorial cohesion as described in the Territorial Agenda of the EU.[6]

The EU policy agenda can thus set a frame to promote place-based planning and solutions that make the most of an area's inherent features. Land decisions should therefore reflect such solutions, while being adapted to the local conditions and assets, including soil, terrain, climate, and communities' knowledge.

Figure 2: Dynamics in the land system guiding land allocation and management

Figure 1: Dynamics in the land system guiding land resource allocation and management

Key trends

Land-cover change in Europe is not dominated by agriculture demand as it is in other parts of the world.[7] Accounting of land in Europe based on the most recent full data set shows that artificial areas[8] gained most land between 2000 and 2006 (2.7%). On the other hand, semi-natural vegetation and wetlands, as well as agricultural land and open spaces/bare soils, showed slightly decreasing trends. Meanwhile, forested land and water bodies showed very small net increases.[9][10] Trends and figures obviously differ between countries (or other areas of spatial aggregation). 

Land use and land management changes over the period 1990 to 2012 confirm these trends, even though the rate of increase in forest areas appears to have slowed down towards the end of this period.[11] Increasing management intensity, land use outside the EU (e.g. through consumption of imported goods[12][13]), and farmland abandonment are the main drivers.[11]

The increased share of artificial areas is essentially the result of 'land take',[14] close to half of which was driven by demand for housing, services, and recreation between 2000 and 2006.[10] While land thus provides space for human activities, land take also implies substituting the original (semi-)natural land cover to varying degrees with impervious surfaces. Thus, the connection with natural cycles is lost and the services delivered by soils, including those important in the face of climate change mitigation and adaptation, are curtailed (see also SOER 2015 briefing on soil). Between 2000 and 2006, almost half of the land take came at the expense of arable farmland and permanent crops (EEA Land take indicator). Land take thus also puts pressure on the biomass production potential of the land resource. Further, development of transportation infrastructure and built-up areas leads to landscape fragmentation. Fragmentation has a number of ecological effects, such as the decline and loss of wildlife populations, an increasing endangerment of species, changed water regimes, and a change in recreational quality of landscapes.[15]

General trends of annual land take[16] in Europe showed a slow-down in the periods 1990 to 2000 and 2000 to 2006: from 1 078 km2/year to 914 km2/year (based on data for 28 countries). A higher-resolution, new data source suggests that artificial surfaces are underestimated. For example, the change rate in impervious areas,[17] indicates an increase by 1 252 km2/year between 2006[18] and 2009[19] for the same set of countries.[20] Even though not directly comparable, the land take data may indicate a slowdown of urban development on the outskirts of cities and the countryside, leading towards an increase in density in urban areas, suggested by the impervious area increase. This is an aggregated European trend, which hides diverging patterns between different territorial units. These patterns may reflect different approaches to spatial planning. European averages also obscure trends in sensitive zones: e.g. in coastal areas the annual rate of urban development (0.66%) was higher than the average for all areas (0.52%) between 2000 and 2006.[21]

Preliminary results for 20 countries indicate that, compared to 2000–2006, overall land cover change increased during 2006–2012. For the same countries, artificial surfaces increased faster than in 2000–2006, by 2.1%.[22] 


Limiting land take is already an important land policy target at national or sub-national level.[23] In order to avoid increases in land take, incentives for 'land recycling' are worth pursuing. Land recycling refers to regeneration of land that was previously developed, but is currently not in active use or available for re-development.[24] Between 1990 and 2000 2.5% of new artificial surfaces were created on land already used or destined for development (excluding construction sites) (based on data for 24 countries).[25] Between 2000 and 2006 this fraction decreased to 2.0%. However, these figures include densification of artificial land, rather than solely indicating recycling.

Potentially negative land-use impacts can also be mitigated: compact urban development and investment in urban 'green infrastructure'[26][27] have positive effects on the delivery of ecosystem services.[28] A study of this issue concluded that 'economic growth and Cohesion funds can, but do not necessarily have to be detrimental to the environment as long as smart spatial planning policies and recommendations are considered at different territorial scales, and more efficient land use and investment in green infrastructure is encouraged'.[28]

Moreover, in some cases, the many functions embedded in the land resource can be delivered simultaneously and lead to synergies. For example, extensively-managed permanent grassland not only supports nutrient cycling but can also reinforce existing connectivity between areas with biodiversity value. In other cases, alternative uses for the same piece of land have to be considered, leading to trade-offs. The competition for land between food and bio-fuel production has become a well-known example.

Land resource efficiency seeks an optimum level of land use and management in establishing appropriate shares between the different services provided by land. Policies and related targets would be helpful in making decisions to reach land resource efficiency, so as to strike a balance between the demand for — and supply of — the finite land resource. Accordingly, indicators underpinned by robust data collection are required to measure progress in resource efficiency.[29]

The estimates presented in this fiche are based on voluntary monitoring of pan-European data.[30] They therefore only give an aggregated representation of land issues and challenges in national or sub-national contexts on the one hand, and responses to these challenges and dysfunctions on the other hand. It is important to develop a consistent approach to monitoring the different dimensions of land in a timely manner. The resulting data sets should meet the requirements of both European and national levels (developing land strategies), and of local governments (implementing planning policies). The impact of European land use and management (whether driven by EU policies or not) on land take and degradation in third countries should also be considered.

References and footnotes

[1] Foresight Land Use Futures Project (2010), Executive Summary, The Government Office for Science, London.

[2] 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' (OJ L 354/171, 28.12.2013).

[3] UNGA (2012), United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/Res/66/288 of 27 July 2012 on the outcome of the Rio + 20 Conference, entitled 'The Future We Want', accessed 26 June 2014.

[4] A place-based approach takes into consideration local specificities and assets while designing and implementing policies to pursue development at different geographical scales.[5] This is opposite to a sectorial approach which makes policy integration across different geo-spatial and governance levels cumbersome. Through offering important synergies and coordination mechanisms as well as enhancing endogenous developmental forces  including territorial cohesion  a place-based approach is conducive to improving policy performance.

[5] Zaucha, J. and Świątek, D. (2013), Place Based Territorially Sensitive and Integrated Approach, accessed 26 June 2014.

[6] EU (2007), Territorial Agenda of the EU – Towards a more competitive and sustainable Europe of diverse regions of 25 May 2007, accessed 8 September 2014.

[7] Bringezu, S., Schütz, H., Pengue, W., O ́Brien, M., Garcia, F., Sims, R., Howarth, R., Kauppi, L., Swilling, M. and Herrick, J. (2014), Assessing Global Land Use: Balancing Consumption with Sustainable Supply, A Report of the Working Group on Land and Soils of the International Resource Panel, United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi, accessed 26 June 2014.

[8] In this context, 'artificial' means land use for urban fabric, including green urban areas and sport and leisure facilities; industrial, commercial and infrastructure surfaces; as well as mines, dumping and construction sites. Agricultural and forested land, although managed land, is not considered artificial in this definition.

[9] EEA (2010), The European environment — state and outlook 2010: Land use, accessed 26 June 2014.

[10] EEA (2013), Analysis of changes in European land cover from 2000 to 2006, accessed 26 June 2014.

[11] VOLANTE (2013), VOLANTE — Visions of land use transitions in Europe, Policy brief —Question: 'Land use changes over the past 20 years and if increasing forest land would be seen as getting in competition with food production in future.', European Commission, Brussels.

[12] For example, growing concerns about food, water and energy security have fuelled transnational land acquisitions  also referred to as 'land grabbing'  in the last five to ten years, primarily in developing countries. Between 2005 and 2009 alone, global foreign land acquisitions totalled some 470 000 km2.[13]

[13] Rulli, M. C., Saviori, A. and D'Odorico, P. (2013), 'Global land and water grabbing', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (110) 892–897.

[14] Land take: a measure of how much land covered by agriculture, forests and semi-natural land, wetlands and water is converted to land cover for urban (including the creation of green urban areas over previously undeveloped land), commercial, industrial, infrastructure, mining or construction purposes; following the EEA Land take (CSI 014/LSI 001) indicator specification.

[15] EEA (2011), Landscape fragmentation in Europe, Joint EEA-FOEN report, EEA Report No 2/2011, European Environment Agency, accessed 26 June 2014.

[16] Estimate based on the Corine Land Cover map.

[17] Estimate based on the Copernicus high-resolution imperviousness data set.

[18] Source: GMES/Copernicus precursor activities.

[19] Source: FP7 Geoland2.

[20] However, the land take and imperviousness data are not directly comparable since they are derived from data sets with different approaches to mapping and a different spatial resolution, and refer to different time periods.

[21] EEA (2013), Balancing the future of Europe's coasts — knowledge base for integrated management, EEA report No 12/2013, European Environment Agency, accessed 4 September 2014.

[22] Trends based on the 2012 update of the CORINE land cover data base including 20 countries (BE, BG, CZ, DK, EE, FI, HR, HU, CH, IE, LT, LU, LV, MT, NL, NO, PL, RO, SI, SK). They represent 34.1 % of the total EEA-39 area and conclusion on the basis of these countries cannot be extended to the whole of Europe, where the average 2006–2012 growth rate of artificial surfaces is likely to be higher.

[23] Ludlow, D., Falconi, M., Carmichael, L., Croft, N., Di Leginio M., Fumanti, F., Sheppard, A. and Smith, N. (2013), Land Planning and Soil Evaluation Instruments in EEA Member and Cooperating Countries, European Topic Centre for Spatial information and Analysis, accessed 26 September 2014.

[24] EC (2012), Commission Staff Working Document 'Guidelines on best practice to limit, mitigate or compensate soil sealing' (SWD(2012) 101 final/2 of 15 May 2012).

[25] EEA (2006), Land accounts for Europe 1990–2000 — Towards integrated land and ecosystem accounting, EEA Report No 11/2006, European Environment Agency, accessed 26 June 2014.

[26] Green infrastructure: a way to work with nature to provide social, ecological and economic benefits (such as air quality, temperature regulation, noise reduction, flood protection and recreational areas) to the (urban) population.[27]

[27] EC (2013), Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions 'Green Infrastructure (GI) — Enhancing Europe's Natural Capital' (COM(2013) 249 final of 6 May 2013).

[28] Batista e Silva, F., Lavalle, C., Jacobs-Crisioni, C., Barranco, R., Zulian, G., Maes, J., Baranzelli, C., Perpiña, C., Vandecasteele, I., Ustaoglu, E., Barbosa, A. and Mubareka, S. (2013), Direct and Indirect Land Use Impacts of the EU Cohesion Policy — Assessment with the Land Use Modelling Platform, European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Luxembourg.

[29] 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) 571 final of 20 September 2011).

[30] Corine Land Cover (on which many indicators and modelling products are based) is a prime example of harmonised country efforts to map land cover in Europe. The Copernicus Land Monitoring Services ( are expanding on this range of land-related data. They will among others provide spatially explicit, high-resolution data sets on imperviousness, water, wetlands, grassland and forest for future monitoring and trend analysis (baseline year 2012, except for imperviousness with precursor activities since 2006).


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage