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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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    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.

    planning decisions

    Excessive land consumption and soil seal-ing are the result of poor or uncoordinated land planning decisions, including a lack of incentives to reuse and redevelop existing developed land. J

    What drives land take and soil sealing?

    citizenS tip

    Try to agree on day-night parking regimes with car-park owners to maximise the use of parking spaces.

  • Hard SurfaceS, Hidden coStS Searching for alternativeS to land take and Soil Sealing 1110

    This reflects a long-established tendency to opt for further land take and soil seal-ing without always considering the long-term direct and indirect impacts, such as the cost of maintaining infrastructure.

    It is not unusual to see warehouses and business units strung out along motor-ways, with new premises being built not far from where old ones stand aban-doned. More farmland is being built on, yet there is no attempt to return the land to nature where old premises lie derelict. Similarly, office workers relocate to new units in the suburbs or on the edge of towns, while city-centre blocks are left empty and unlet. In many cases, new development is led more by speculative processes than the needs of a growing population or thriving industry.

    It is in our common interest to protect soil the sooner we make this a priority in land-use planning the better the leg-acy we will leave for future generations.

    the underestimated resource

    One of the main reasons for poor plan-ning decisions has been a lack of appre-ciation of the value of soil (and land-scape) as a limited resource and of the many essential services it provides. This is exacerbated by the dependency of local authorities on income generated by urbanisation fees and levies, e.g. through the designation of new industrial areas often in competition with neighbouring authorities.

    Such blindness over land take can have unintended and costly consequences: sparse new housing zones and over-sized commercial areas come with main-tenance and repair costs that municipal-ities can often ill afford to pay, and will become an increasing burden on over-stretched municipal budgets.

    policy challenge

    Decisions on land use are long-term commitments, which are difficult or cost-ly to reverse. These decisions are often taken without proper prior analysis of the broad and long-term impacts, for exam-ple through a strategic environmental assessment.

    citizenS tip

    Where possible, participate in your communitys planning activities. Stand up for your right to infor-mation and involvement. Express your opinion and needs to local decision-makers.

    citizenS tip

    Fancy a new home? Choose an existing, perhaps renovated, building in-stead of new housing built on agricultural land. This protects valuable farmland at the edge of cities and, even if it is initially more expensive, it is likely to pay off over time. If you are considering a plot of land or new home in a rural area, think about access to local amenities and your future needs as you grow older. A city-based location is likely to be much better connected.

    It is clear that European policies such as Cohesion Policy, the common agricultural policy, or transport, industry and energy policies have a role to play. However, it is through regional and local spatial planning in the Member States that the principles of sustainable land use can be implemented on the ground.

    Good practice example

    France runs a network of more than 20 public land-development agencies which, among other activities, redevelop brownfield land for social housing.

  • Hard SurfaceS, Hidden coStS Searching for alternativeS to land take and Soil Sealing 1312

    Although sealing is often a prerequisite for infrastructural development, the extent of its negative environmental impacts should be of great concern. Covering an area of land with impermeable artificial material severs the soil from the atmos-phere, reducing its supply of services so severely that it amounts to the effective consumption of soil.

    pressure on water resources

    Water in soil nourishes plants, saves on irri-gation and reduces the incidence of drought. The more water that is stored in soil, the long-er it takes for rain to reach rivers, reducing peak flow and thus the risk of flooding. A well-structured soil of sufficient depth can hold a lot of water: up to 300 litres or even more in one cubic metre of a porous soil, equivalent to 300 mm of precipitation. This helps avoid or reduce the need to build artificial storage facilities, where water retention is an issue.

    Covering land with impermeable layers like asphalt and concrete reduces the amount of rain that can be absorbed by the soil.

    Instead of filtering through the soil to re-plenish groundwater, aquifers and subter-ranean watercourses, heavy rain has to find somewhere else to go. In cities with a high proportion of sealed surfaces, it can quickly overwhelm drains, causing sewage systems to overflow.

    In places where the demand for water ex-ceeds the quantity available, water has to be brought in from surrounding regions. Increasing the local extraction rate may cause problems for aquifers, such as per-manent subsidence, or salt-water intrusion in coastal zones.

    Soil sealing on flood plains is a further problem, reducing the plains storage cap-acity and increasing the risk of flooding. The Rhine, one of Europes largest rivers, has lost four-fifths of its natural flood plain. Sealing also affects the capacity of soil to cleanse polluted water, leading to c...


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