55 hectares per day: We take too much
The declared goal in Germany is to limit new land take for settlement and transport purposes to less than 30 hectares per day by 2030; at 20 hectares, the Integrated Environmental Programme 2030 has an even more ambitious target. Moreover, the German federal government aims for "net zero" impervious sealing by 2050 in its National Sustainability Strategy. These are targets that seem almost unachievable. Every day in Germany, an average of 55 hectares or 78 football pitches disappear under settlements and transport infrastructure. While land consumption has been declining, the reduction is insufficient to meet the targets. Overall, areas under settlements and transport infrastructure have doubled over the past six decades, currently accounting for 14.5 percent of the country’s total area. New land consumption is particularly high in rural regions, where land prices are significantly lower than in growth centres or conurbations. This is often fuelled by tax incentives such as the commuter allowance. Moreover, there is often a lack of awareness of the problem.
We need land not only for settlements and transport, but also for farming and forestry, for nature conservation, for renewable energy facilities or peatland rewetting and thus for climate change mitigation. Climate adaptation also requires land, for example in floodplains in order to buffer against increasing heavy rainfall events and for water reservoirs in periods of drought. Valuable habitats for fauna and flora are being lost outright or put at risk by landscape fragmentation. Soil sealing destroys soil functions, making it impervious to water and air. This also impairs soil fertility, as the soil fauna cannot survive. Furthermore, due to urban sprawl infrastructure tends to be underutilised, resulting in higher supply costs for individual citizens. In view of the limited amount of agricultural land available worldwide and the food crisis, the ongoing high level of land consumption has been unjustifiable for quite some time.
Moreover, land take has a direct impact on greenhouse gas emissions, as it destroys natural carbon sinks and goes hand in hand with resource consumption. Carbon emissions are particularly high when forests are cleared for settlements or transport infrastructure or when peatlands are converted into settlement areas.
Land conservation and brownfield redevelopment have not yet played a sufficient role in urban and municipal planning processes, even though they can help to protect the environment, climate and resources. Awareness and expertise as to the impact of land consumption and the associated greenhouse gas effects are also still underdeveloped. In addition, planners in towns and municipalities lack the necessary tools to quantify these impacts.
At the same time, the Federal Nature Conservation Act and the impact mitigation provision it contains do not sufficiently mitigate the problem. The impact mitigation provision stipulates that where there is an unavoidable intervention in nature, this must be mitigated or offset by means of substitution or financial compensation. However, this does not mean that other areas are completely unsealed or restored to compensate for the intervention. Restoration does not match the high ecological value of untouched areas.
Greater protection for the land base – possible solutions
There is an urgent need to strengthen the inner urban development of existing towns and settlements in order to spare lands. This involves, for example, activating brownfield sites, adding storeys to existing buildings or rebuilding with more net floor area after demolition. Available instruments to this end must be better utilised and further improved, and obstacles to brownfield redevelopment need to be removed. At the same time, land take outside of the cities must be reduced, for example by abolishing the commuter allowance. The construction of new transport infrastructure should also be significantly reduced. Planners and decision-makers need to consider land as a key resource in their decisions. This calls for inter-agency organisational structures and effective land management. Soil protection strategies, which are already in place in some twenty towns in Germany, further help to reduce land take.
You can also find the individual chapters here in the blog:
Further information on land availability and competition for land
- eco@work magazine, September 2023 edition: Holding our ground − Better protections for soils and lands.
- Thematic web page on the German Environment Agency (UBA) website: Flächensparen – Böden und Landschaften erhalten (Saving land – preserving soils and landscapes; German only)
- Thematic web page on the German Environment Agency (UBA) website: Brownfield redevelopment and inner urban development
- Municipal land base calculator on the website of the German Environment Agency (UBA) (German only)
- Article on the Oeko-Institut's blog: Fläche vermittelt kein schützenswertes Bild (The term land area does not evoke notions of conservation concern; German only)