hard surfaces, hidden costs – searching for alternatives to land take

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  • Hard surfaces, hidden costs

    Searching for alternatives to land take and soil sealing


  • More information on the European Union is available on the Internet (http://europa.eu).

    Cataloguing data as well as an abstract can be found at the end of this publication.

    Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2013

    ISBN 978-92-79-30550-4doi:10.2779/16427

    European Union, 2013Reproduction of content other than photographs is authorised provided the source is acknowledged.

    Cover photo: Thinkstock Photos (on p. 4): Nicola DallOlio (director of the movie Il suolo minacciato Land under threat). Illustrations (on p. 8): Birgit Georgi; (on p. 19-23): European Commission Photos (on p. 11-12-18-19-20-25-26-29-30): ThinkstockFor any use or reproduction of photos which are not under European Union copyright, permission must be sought directly from the copyright holder(s).

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    Europe Direct is a service to help you find answers to your questions about the European Union

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    00 800 numbers or these calls may be billed Hard surfaces, hidden costs

    Searching for alternatives to land take and soil sealing

    Dont it always seem to go,That you dont know what youve got

    Till its goneThey paved paradisePut up a parking lot

    Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi, 1970

  • Hard SurfaceS, Hidden coStS Searching for alternativeS to land take and Soil Sealing 3

    table of contentsA problem beneath our feet 5

    A trend without end 6

    What is so important about soil? 6

    Soil is the missing link 7

    What drives land take and soil sealing? 9Growing cities 9

    Lifestyle changes 9

    Planning decisions 9

    The underestimated resource 10

    Policy challenge 10

    The impacts of land take and soil sealing 13Pressure on water resources 13

    Threat to biodiversity 14

    Threat to food security 14

    Threat to the global carbon cycle and climate 15

    Hotter cities, poorer air quality 17

    Impact on well-being 17

    Solutions 21Escaping the concrete jungle 21

    Best option: limit soil sealing 21

    Second best option: mitigate 23

    Third best option: compensate 26

    n Reuse of topsoil 26

    n Desealing (soil recovery) 26

    n Sealing fee 26

    n Eco-accounts and trading development certificates 27

    Raising awareness 27

    Europe working together 28

    Further reading on soil, sealing and land take issues 31

  • Hard SurfaceS, Hidden coStS Searching for alternativeS to land take and Soil Sealing 54



    There is a problem growing right under our feet. Most of us are barely aware of it, but it is a problem that is getting bigger year upon year.

    You may have noticed shiny office develop-ments going up on the edge of town, smart homes being built on fields where wheat grew only last year, or an attractive new out-of-town shopping centre with hundreds of parking spaces. Yet these outward signs of economic prosperity are part of the prob-lem. They have a hidden cost and a worrying legacy.

    The problem in question is the combination of two related trends: building on land that was formerly open soil, known as land take, and covering it with impermeable layers such as asphalt and concrete, known as soil sealing.

    Land take and soil sealing are accepted as necessary for human development, but have serious negative impacts, on food produc-tion, water resources, the climate and nature protection. These important environmental impacts bring with them long-term economic and social consequences, too. At the current rate of land take and soil sealing, we can no longer expect there to be enough land left to satisfy our needs in the future.

    Land take occurs particularly as a result of the expansion of cities and spread of urban areas (urban sprawl). Further land take is required to provide services for these new developments, in the shape of shops, schools, waste and waste-water treatment plants, and transport infrastructure.

    Soil sealing is the most intense form of land take and is essentially irreversible, since the formation of soil is so slow, taking gener-ations to accumulate just a few centimetres. J

    a problem beneath our feet

    Converting green spaces into built-up areas.

  • Hard SurfaceS, Hidden coStS Searching for alternativeS to land take and Soil Sealing 76

    a trend without end

    Data collected in recent years have shown that land take and soil sealing are growing problems for the whole of Europe. Accord-ing to land cover surveys in 1990-2006, land take has exceeded 1000 km2 per year, an area larger than Berlin. Over the same 16-year period, urban areas increased by 9 %. Land take was particularly intense in some countries compared to others. In Ire-land and Cyprus, it increased by 14 % and in Spain by 15 %, although not all this area was sealed (as a general rule, half of land take results in soil sealing).

    It is thought that even these already high fig-ures seriously underestimate the full dimen-sions of the land consumption phenomenon What is sure is that precious and limited soil resources continue to be lost to urban sprawl and transport infrastructure, with no reversal or end in sight.

    Besides, it is not only the absolute land take figure that matters. The spatial distribution and the value and availability of the land taken are all-important. For example, settle-ment areas cover 5 % of Austrias territory,

    but this figure soars to around 14 % when Alpine areas unsuited to urban or infra-structure development are excluded.

    Translated into productivity, land take in the EU from 1990 to 2006 alone resulted in a loss of food-production capability equiva-lent to more than 6 million tonnes of wheat.

    Among EU Member States with the highest sealed area, amounting to more than 5 % of the national territory, are the Nether-lands, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. In total, the sealed surface area in 2006 was estimated to be around 100 000 km, or 2.3 % of EU territory, with an average of 200 m2 per citizen.

    What is so important about soil?

    Soils fulfil a range of vital functions, from providing the basis for farmland and forests, and our food, textile and timber production, to filtering water, reducing the frequency and risk of flooding and drought, supporting biodiversity, and helping to regulate the local and global climate.

    The trend for urbanisation and the con-version of land for development has been identified as a major threat in Europe, one of the most urbanised continents in the world. If we do not face the problem now, future generations could be dealing with a leg-acy of destroyed and seriously degraded soil, and a shortage of open land for agri-cultural, forestry and leisure resources.

    Soil is the missing link

    Unlike air and water, there is no EU legisla-tion designed to protect soil. Some EU poli-cies deal indirectly with soil, such as those on water, waste, chemicals, industrial pol-lution, nature protection, pesticides and agriculture. However, as the focus of these policies is not soil protection, there is nothing to ensure that all soil in Europe is adequately protected.

    An integrated and binding approach to tackling the related problems of land take and soil sealing would guide the EU and Member States towards more sustainable soil management. In 2006, the European Commission proposed soil legislation for the EU. The proposal has proved controversial and has not yet been adopted.

    Good practice example

    Austria, Belgium (Flanders), Germany and Luxem-bourg have each defined annual targets for land take. While not binding, these targets have had some impact in increasing awareness and limiting urban sprawl.

    citizenS tip

    Support politicians, mayors and other decision-makers determined to tackle land take and sealing problems.

  • Hard SurfaceS, Hidden coStS Searching for alternativeS to land take and Soil Sealing 98

    Growing cities

    Today, some 75 % of the European popu-lation live in urban areas, and by 2020 it is estimated that this figure will increase to 80 %. In seven Member States, the pro-portion could be over 90 %.

    There are many reasons driving the ever-apparent need to establish new housing, industry, business locations and trans-port infrastructure, particularly in and around towns. Cities are not just growing in response to a growing population.

    Since the mid-1950s, the surface area of cities in the EU has increased by 78 %, even though the population has grown by only 33 %. This is called the paradox of decoupled land take.

    Perhaps of more concern, built-up areas around the edges of cities, known as peri-urban areas, have the same amount of built-up land as urban areas, but are only half as densely populated.

    lifestyle changes

    The demand for better living standards, including larger houses and more sports and social facilities, combined with a lack of attractive and affordable living op-tions in urban areas, drives the pattern of outward expansion towards low-density settlements on the outskirts of cities. The use of private cars and insufficient attractive public transport options fuels this trend.

    Similarly, high land prices in cities have encouraged developers to build on cheaper surrounding land. This generates new demands for transport infrastruc-ture, eating further into the surrounding natural landscape.


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