Hot Spots of Land Use Change

Hotspots of Land Use Change, 1990-2006

Policy context

Centuries of human activity has shaped current European landscapes. Not only by the geographical context and availability of resources, but also demographic evolution, economic development, urbanisation and infrastructure roll-out have played an important role in driving land use changes and shaping Europe’s current landscapes.

In addition, the variation in European landscapes is also influenced by the differences in land use decision processes due to different patterns of legal, constitutional and administrative frameworks.

Although the European Union does not have any competence to regulate land use and land planning, there are several policies that have a strong impact on the territory and how the land is used (e.g. Habitats Directive or CAP).

The intensity to which a specific area of land is used is related to the magnitude of human activities taking place on that area of land. In general, high population density is a clear indication of high land use intensity.

The concept of intensity has been applied in the EU-LUPA project as a basis for analysing the connection between land use, land use changes and socio-economic development. Socio-economic development is today largely related to urban areas and less attributed to land-based production and therefore more difficult to link directly to changes in land use. However, socio-economic development is an ever increasing driver of land use changes and the concept of intensity of land use helps to understand how. Seen from this perspective, it is not only important to know how much land is changing in terms of km2. It is also important to know if changes in land use reflect minor or major shifts in land cover. Minor changes are usually linked to on-going socio-economic processes whereas major changes are normally linked to structural socio-economic changes or environmental impacts.

This Map of the Month presents areas where considerable land use changes have taken place in the period 1990–2006. These changes are related to substantial changes in the amount of area being used differently and/or to substantial changes in the intensity of how land is being used.

Note that not all countries and regions are represented in the map throughout the 16-year time span from 1990 to 2006. Therefore interpretations regarding changing patterns for the two underlying time series (first period: 1990-2000 and second period: 2000-2006) are limited.


The regions that are coloured very light or even white can be characterised as being relatively stable regarding their use of land; only relatively small changes in land use have occurred during the 16 years period from 1990 to 2006.

Regions with darker shades of green or blue are the regions that have been identified as “hotspots” of land use change. The land use in these regions has undergone relatively substantial changes regarding the amount of area that has been changed, for example by more intensive forms of agricultural productions which normally relates to larger areas, or regarding the type of changes, for example by increased coastal tourism which is a more extreme type of change on relative smaller areas.

The blue regions have experienced an intensification of land use. An example of intensification is when natural grassland is turned into an airport or, less extreme, agricultural withdrawal led to more natural land.

In the green regions, the intensity of land use has decreased leading to an extensification of land use. Extensification takes place when, for example, crop area is turned into land for pasture or when pastures are turned into natural grassland.

It is notable that within the entire 16-year time period very significant levels of land use change have taken place in Europe. In some regions almost 30% of the total area has changed its use of land. Vast changes are especially evident in large areas in Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Croatia and Ireland (dark blue) and in Czech Republic and Hungary but also some regions in Eastern part of Germany (dark green).

Intensification of land use

Countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Ireland and Norway have regions with high volumes of land use intensification (blue). Reasons for more intensive use of land are growth of urban areas, economic sites and transport infrastructures (e.g. urban sprawl), but also the issue of ownership reforms are a driver of intensification, especially in Portugal, Spain and other Mediterranean areas. Ownership reforms induced changes in the agricultural structure leading to more intensive forms of production.

The overall changes in European cities indicate an increase in the land that has undergone some urban development. The areas under redevelopment have significantly increased in both the core city and large urban zone during the period 2000-2006. It turns out that the development of new residential areas has been reduced, while industrial and commercial areas are still increasing and becoming the main source of urban expansion. This is a general trend observed in the last 20 years where urban sprawl is less and less associated to increase of residential areas and more to other economic developments.

However, there are some exceptions on this general trend. For example, in the Mediterranean coast, and specifically in Spain, second homes and speculation have been driving factors for urban sprawl still in the period 2000-2006. In addition, in many cities in the Eastern part of Europe the development of new residential areas is dominant over new industrial and commercial ones.

All in all, the dominant trend shows an intensified use of land due to densification in existing urban areas through redevelopment and infilling of urban areas.

Extensification of land use

The map shows a clear East-West dimension. Large volumes of land use extensification (green) are almost exclusively found in Eastern European member states, particularly in Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary. This pattern appears to be very dominant until 2000 but continues as well from 2000 to 2006.

In the Czech Republic the more rural areas show high degree of extensification (green). This is being countered by intensification in the capital region of Prague. The extensification in the Czech Republic can be explained by the conversion of different crop areas into land for pasture, a process which has been driven by national policy that uses subsidies to encourage the grassing of arable and extensive grassland management. This process seems to have slowed down in the second period.

Points for Policy consideration

Economic growth matters

The behaviour of macro-economic sectors such as tourism, industrial development, agriculture, energy (production, supply, distribution and consumption) and transport is an important cause of land use changes in EU. An example for this is the development in Norway on intensive mining, hydrocarbon extraction and other heavy industrial activities in rural and remote locations causing significant intensification of land use. But also European tourism is an activity requiring still larger areas. The development of the Spanish coastline illustrates that it is not only a question of short term changes, but seems to have been a consistent development process throughout the whole period from 1990 to 2006.

Land ownership and land tenure matter

The question of land ownership and land tenure has been extremely important in relation to the registered changes in Southern Europe, and especially on the Iberian Peninsula. Both Spain and especially Portugal land ownership was until the late 1970s and 1980s characterized by Latifundias, i.e. extremely large private estates with the owner usually living in the larger cities. This type of land use has mostly been characterized by very low land use intensity but agrarian reforms enabled new ownerships to move towards more intense production structures. This explains that all regions in Portugal are identified as hotspots in all of the time series; mainly due to the fact that all regions show very high levels of overall change where the intensity is more stable.

Land use and socio-economic growth are related

European economies depend on natural resources, including raw materials and space. Land is a limited resource; different sector interests are often competing for the same territorial resource. Europe’s Resource Efficient Strategy sets the goal of no additional land consumption after 2020. However, prospective new members of EU appear ready to make use of land change as a vehicle for economic progress. This means that measures of compensating any limitations in land consumption would need to be considered, at least for a number of European regions.


The map on land use change hotspots identifies places in Europe where extreme land use changes have been taken place during a period of 16 years. The main variable used in trying to find out how these changes are distributed throughout Europe is the Corine Land Cover (CLC) for the years 1990, 2000 and 2006.

The map showing the “Hotspots of Land Use Change” have been determined by carrying out the following steps on the CLC classes:

(1) Amount of land that changed its use

The CLC has been used to determine the amount of land (in hectare) that changed its use in each region as a percentage of the total area of the region.

(2) Land use intensity

All classes of the CLC are also ranked according to their intensity of land use ranging from 1 (most intensive) to 7 (least intensive). For example, continuous urban fabric has an intensity score of 1, airports have a score of 2 and natural grassland a score of 7.

(3) Change in land use intensity

The intensity scores are used to determine, for each region, if the land is being used more or less intensive over a certain period and how much. For example, an intensification of size 5 takes place when natural grassland (intensity score 7) is turned into an airport (intensity score 2) is. Extensification of size 1 takes place when crop areas (intensity score 4) are converted into land for pasture (intensity score 5). The average score for all changes in a region provides the regionalized land use change intensity for that region.

(4) Hotspots of Land Use Change

Both the change in land use intensity and the amount of land that change its use have been classified in five groups to build a 5x5 matrix. Regions that have relatively stable land use characteristics (small changes) are coloured white or very light. Regions that identify “hotspots” of change are coloured in increasingly darker shades of green or blue. The regions with darker shades of blue have high levels of overall land change coupled with high intensifications. Regions with darker shades of green also have high levels of overall land change but coupled with high extensifications.

More information


Map of the Month "Hot Spots of Land Use Change"

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Map "Hot Spots of Land Use Change"

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