This project has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement No 265104


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VOLANTE Vision “Best Land Use in Europe

The vision in short

In this vision, optimal use of land is crucial to ensuring maximum production of food and other natural products. This means matching land across the EU to the most appropriate use.

The concept

This vision is based on a fundamental premise: by 2040 there will be intense global competition for resources so we have to make land use more efficient to be able to meet society’s needs. Across the EU, land provides for multiple functions, making a well-planned, well-ordered and zoned use of our space imperative. Much of Europe’s land is suited to multiple uses: poorly drained fields, for example, can be used for woodland, grassland and nature reserves. On the other hand, some land is perfectly suited to just one function, such as the rich, fertile soils that are ideal for food production. Further specialisation is therefore required. The broader context is a globalised world with its intensified movement of products, money and people, resulting in an ever greater geographical mobility. Good accessibility is therefore crucial, linking distant large urban areas in such a way that local events are shaped by events many miles away, and vice versa. Equally crucial is political collaboration between and beyond the Member States.

 Best land

How to reach a vision Best Land in Europe?

Best Land in Europe targets towards procedures where land use types (farming, forestry, nature, etc.) are performed in the most appropriate locations for these functions. This implies a competition for land and best land use, efficient management and best use of resources in terms of well-ordered and zoned spaces.

How can such a vision be reached? The VOLANTE analysis found two pathways to this vision in a fragmented world with modest economic growth and strong policy interventions in general.

Figure 12 As best fitting, the results suggest that a policy with payments for carbon sequestration (Pathway B2 Storing more carbon) would create incentives to limit the conversion of grassland, to protect areas that are prone to carbon emissions due to their high soil organic carbon contents, and to stimulate carbon sequestration in forest biomass (Figure 12). While this pathway is related to restricting land conversion and land use intensification, it fits well to Best Land in Europe because it is a rather flexible approach that includes alternative marketing assets.

Figure 12 Permanent grassland that is prevented to be converted to cropland to save carbon, a crucial feature of the policy alternative ‘Storing more carbon’ (Montado landscape near Évora, PT)

Another pathway is the Greening Europe policy (also starting from Marker Scenario B2) with a strong focus on nature protection, expansion of protected zones beyond Natura2000, a robust ecological network and strengthened constraints on land cover conversions and restrictions on forest management. The main land use changes that render such a policy a pathway is the projected increase in the extent and connectivity of the natural area. This is because strong rules are implemented in this policy alternative to avoid conversion of nature to built-up land, thus conserving the nature areas around cities. There are also strong policies to protect natural areas in rural landscapes: more nature reserves and assignment of ecological corridors and strong disincentives towards fragmentation of natural areas. Together this leads to larger, unfragmented natural areas but at the same time some more intensified agricultural production in concentrated agricultural areas, thereby generating more homogeneous landscapes.

However, there are expected trade-offs: while carbon stock and biodiversity to a certain extent (e.g. deadwood in forests) are presumably increasing along both pathways, there will be productive forest and agricultural land taken out of conventional use. This leads to intensification of agriculture on the most suitable sites and on the other hand to abandonment of extensive land use forms such as permanent grazing in marginal areas; at least the first trend does not comply with carbon mitigation strategies, and both trends break with a balanced approach of intensification and extensification according to the best land use concept.

Policy implication of the vision Best Land in Europe

In general this vision seems most in line with historical trends, whereas the two other visions will need significant political intervention in order to be realised. The overall premise – that fertile land is increasingly used for agriculture, and abandonment occurs on less fertile land, associated with regional specialisation – is to some extent seen in the historical trends. And some trends of regional specialisations are also found. Such developments are – in principle – also in line with the EU Habitats Directive that favours nature in areas where nature is already of high quality, and thus implies leaving areas well suited for nature to stay as such. The analyses of past trends, however, point to some important barriers to reaching the vision.

In the past, urban or peri-urban expansion often occurred on fertile soils, since the original settlements were generally located on or close to fertile soils. In contrast to historic and current trends, however, the vision Best land in Europe asks for a high degree of confinement of urban growth. Only in some countries strict public regulation has implied clear borders between urban and non-urban areas, indicating that restricting land take is possible through regulation.

The vision statement of rewilding is not in line with current trends, as most land is in use and also support schemes related to the Common Agricultural Policy – including the Rural Development Programs – aim at keeping land under agricultural use. However, the abandonment of labour and capital intensive land uses in the Mediterranean countries (e.g. on terraces), or the trend towards increases in forest areas across Europe can be interpreted to be broadly in line with this vision. Rewilding could be a consequence of these major trajectories.

The overall premise of biophysical conditions defining the optimal land uses is in some situations overruled by other aspects, ranging from local level decision-making by land owners (P4a & P4b) to political and institutional regime shifts as in Central and Eastern Europe, which strongly affects land use pattern dynamics. Also the payments related to the Common Agricultural Policy level out some of the competitive advantages that fertile soils have in relation to intensification of agriculture. And a general trend of intensification of agricultural land intensification of agricultural land use has been seen throughout Europe. Over the last decade, however, land-use experienced a period of relative levelling off or stagnation, in terms of intensity (e.g., yields) as well as extents. Polarisation, i.e. intensification of fertile lands and concomitant abandonment of marginal lands, continues in Europe.

There are opportunities for this vision in adapting the existing Rural Development policy, Greening of the CAP and Climate mitigation & adaptation policies. The health effects of concentrated services and green corridors may be supporting this vision. Also agricultural technology is already moving towards larger, more efficient machinery suited to the intensively used regions, whereas forestry already shows trends towards more northerly production. Land abandonment is already happening in many parts of Europe, and rewilding has quite a momentum recently. Rewilding would meet many of the vision’s objectives and (contrary to pure non-intervention, no-access to public sites such ase.g. Lady Park Wood in UK and Białowieża in Poland/Belarus), could still haverecreational use in most places.

 Stakeholders’ views on Best Land in Europe

The stakeholders who created this vision called for strong spatial planning and governance as key issues. Good, efficient infrastructure should be enhanced as well as shared housing with a focus on self-sufficiency. Community gardens and private gardens will contribute to the green and recreational space. Urban areas should stay equal in size while reducing the peri-urban areas. People live on communal farms, where they create a new type of village life, providing space and opportunities for new farmers as well. Urban farming is suggested for the peri-urban areas of today.The main tenet is that land should be used for the most appropriate land use: e.g., better technological development should engender smarter agriculture on the most fertile soils.

Multifunctional water management is essential for this vision, as is living in a carbon-free Europe where resources are managed efficiently and there is less land use. This allows a closed loop of ecosystem services in Europe, maximising efficiency and reducing waste. Also more decentralisation is mentioned, while good governance should facilitate ecosystem services to be provided in an equitable, efficient way.


The strong pressure on urban sprawl will necessitate strict spatial planning, and polycentric development requires facilitation by a strong transport policy. Also, major policy change is needed in integrating and coordinating land use, where a tailored approach to environmental management is required so the best land areas can 'get on' with producing without worrying about conservation. Possibly, government intervention is needed to ensure that the best producers are using the best land, e.g. through incentives to improve productivity again (e.g., like post-war UK). A more coordinated European forestry policy may be needed to balance demand with shifting production, especially considering a regional focus for forestry. There are precedents for no-go nature reserves but creating these would not be popular with the public. Many of the most famous reserves in Europe are popular visitor centres too. However, rewilding large areas of abandoned agricultural land could increase habitat without restricting access.



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