UK land becoming more urban

UK land becoming more urban University of Leicester
07 Jul
2015
A new map shows how UK land use is continuing the trend of converting forest and agricultural land to artificial surfaces

The latest in an ongoing EU-wide mapping project by the European Environment Agency (EEA) – officially titled the ‘CORINE (Coordination of Information on the Environment) Land Cover’ – to understand how land is both used and changing across the continent, shows how forest and agricultural land in the UK continued to be converted to artificial surfaces between 2006 and 2012.

‘CORINE is one of the longest – if not the longest – continuous monitoring schemes of land cover in the world,’ Professor Heiko Balzter, Director of the Centre for Landscape and Climate Research at the University of Leicester’s NERC National Centre for Earth Observation tells Geographical. ‘Environmental information from satellites is hugely important for keeping a check on the quality of life in the UK. The European land monitoring service turns satellite data into policy-relevant information. The CORINE map is the only consistent European information on land cover change that allows a comparison with our neighbours.’

The first such project to map land use across Europe took place in 1985, with subsequent versions (now using the CORINE mapping system) observing the years 1990, 2000 and 2006. The 2012 map used a standardised EEA classification system of 44 land cover and land use classes on plots of five hectares (hence, changes of less than five hectares – such as small-scale developments – might not show up).

The 2006 land cover map has also been updated ‘to make sure the change results more closely reflect reality’. The 2006 revision and 2006 to 2012 change maps were produced by visual interpretation of optical and near-infrared satellite images provided by the European Space Agency, with a spatial resolution of 20m supplemented with higher spatial resolution images with 5m pixels. The 2012 map was produced in a GIS operation adding both the revised database and the change database.

uk-land-use-mapThe CORINE land cover map 2012 for the UK. Reds indicate artificial surfaces, yellows are agricultural land, greens are forests, and blues are wetlands and water bodies (Image: University of Leicester)

An area totalling 225,200 hectares (over 2,250 km2) – equal to one per cent of the total area of the UK – is shown to have changed in land use in the six years prior to 2012. Most of the change was observed in Scotland and Wales, with the clearing of coniferous forest. Over 7,000 hectares was converted from forest to artificial surfaces – an indicator of urban expansion – while twice as much agricultural land experienced the same transformation during this time.

The total amount of land converted to artificial surfaces (classified as anything from buildings to roads, airports and even city parks) over the six years totalled 18,125 hectares, a change of 0.073 per cent of the UK’s total land surface. This rate of change broadly continues an urbanisation trend which dates back to the 1990 map.

‘These figures are interesting because the 18,000 hectares are about half the size of the county of Rutland,’ says Professor Balzter. ‘That means that roughly every decade an area the size of Rutland is taken out of agricultural and forestry land use – or converted from a wetland, although this is not one of the dominant changes in area – to artificial surfaces.’

uk-land-use-change-mapLand cover change map from 2006 to 2012 (Image: University of Leicester)

Agricultural land remained the UK’s most common type of land use in 2012, followed by forest and semi-natural vegetation. Artificial surfaces – the majority of which concerns towns, cities and other urban settlements – represented eight per cent of the country.

‘There appears to be a loss of semi-natural habitats and agricultural land,’ adds Balzter. ‘The apparent decline in wetlands is particularly concerning.’

Following on from the publication of this latest set of maps – freely available for any agency or business to use – he identifies the European Commission’s 2011 Road Map for Resource-Efficient Europe, part of the Europe 2020 Strategy, and highlights the pledge towards ‘no net land take by 2050’.

‘This means that all new urbanisation should occur on brown-field sites, and any new land taken out of agriculture or forestry needs to be compensated by reclamation of urban land,’ he explains. ‘Currently this is not happening in any of the European member states to my knowledge. To achieve this target, the UK needs to consider how it can meet housing demand without using up more and more agricultural and forest land. Land is a limited resource, but we do not really treat it that way.’

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