Land Use Change Analysis and Modelling

The Environmental Geography department studies processes of land change at scales ranging from local to global and has a long track record in developing world-leading land change models.

The majority of the earth’s land surface has been altered by humans, predominantly to produce food, feed and to provide shelter. These alterations have caused many changes in land cover, including a decrease in forest cover and other natural areas, and an increase in cropland and built-up areas. However, land change does not necessarily lead to land cover change: intensification of agricultural land management and changes from subsistence to market oriented agriculture may have strong impacts on the functioning of the land system and its impacts on human well-being.

As different scales require different approaches, we employ a range of methods including case studies, meta-studies, land-change modelling, and spatial analysis to analyse land change. Insight in spatial distribution and the ability to project future changes is a tool to synthesize our understanding of the land system and initiate discussions about the spatial diversity and potential futures of land use.

Characteristic for our approach is: 

  • the notion of land systems as socio-ecological systems in which land use and land cover are the result of dynamic interactions of humans with their environment
  • the multi-scale approach in which local dynamics are influenced by global processes and where local responses feed back to the well-being of the global population
  • the use of quantitative, spatially explicit methods and models to inform, initiate and nuance discussions with stakeholders and policy makers, using historic and scenario analysis to inform a more sustained use of the land for the future 

Landscape values and perceptions

Understanding of landscape values is an essential means to support sustainable land use and spatial planning by citizen participation

Landscapes are manifestations of biophysical, cultural, and economic processes, facing constant change. These changes represent the many ways in which people interact with their environments. Landscapes have both material and immaterial dimensions: they provide us with a range of goods and services, but also form an important part of our identity, contributing to our natural and cultural heritage. Urban residents, tourists, rural country dwellers, farmers and fishermen all have different wants and needs from the landscape, leading to a diverse range of landscape values. This diversity of demands, perceptions, and uses of landscapes raise challenging questions about how to best design, plan, and manage resilient landscapes that are resistant to shocks and adaptive to changes in society and environment.

To cater for the diverse nature of people-environment interactions, we develop and employ new integrative methods to study landscape values, including in-depth case-study research, landscape modelling, participatory mapping, and meta-studies.

Our approach is characterized by being:

  • Dynamic: We treat landscapes as dynamic systems, studying how landscape values both affect and are affected by land use change.
  • Spatially explicit: We study values in a spatially explicit manner and at different scales, which advances our understanding of interactions between biophysical and social landscape attributes and helps to identify priority areas containing specific landscape characteristics and functions. 
  • Policy relevant: We develop instruments that helps landscape practitioners to take stock of the wide range of landscape values, which is essential to garner public support for planned changes in the landscape.

Land-climate interactions

Land use is not only a cause of climate change, but also holds major opportunities for mitigating and adapting to climate change. The Environmental Geography Department investigates the feedbacks between land use and the climate system.

Today society faces two inseparably linked global environmental challenges: climate change and land-cover/use change. One the one hand, land-cover/use change is the second largest contributor to atmospheric carbon dioxide after fossil fuel burning. Land-cover/use change alters biogeochemical processes and biophysical processes. On the other hand, climate change impacts the composition and properties of ecosystems, land management practices and affects our water and food supply, e.g. by droughts, storms or changing temperatures.

Our group aims to provide tools and data to better understand the impacts and feedbacks in the coupled human-land-climate system, especially focussing on the role of humans in this system. We study land – climate interactions at various spatial and temporal scales with a focus on improving the representation of land change processes in global scale environmental assessments and climate models. We achieve this by providing more detailed measures of land change dynamics and by implementing these into operational land use models. Our group is interested in land change history to better grasp current land-climate interactions and we model future land use scenarios to assess with interdisciplinary methods the impact of future land use decisions on the climate. Specific attention is given to the role of human decision making in land use and adaptation as a core component of the human-land-climate system.

Ecosystem Services and Trade-off Analysis

The environmental geography department studies the quantification of ecosystem services capacity and demand from local to global scales. Our research contributes to discussion between stakeholders and facilitates understanding of the trade-offs involved in land use management and policy.

Well functioning healthy ecosystems provide ecosystem services, such as nature recreation, pollination and flood control, which support our daily lives, societal wellbeing and the economy. Aligning demands for multiple ecosystem services requires management and research on the current quantification and sustainable use of ecosystems as well as exploring opportunities for the restoration of landscapes and the optimization of landscape structure. However, while multi-objective planning for ecosystem services offers opportunities to maintain and enhance multifunctional landscapes, it also inevitably involves trade-offs between individual services.

Understanding landscape change and the consequences these changes yield is crucial for effective policy design and land use planning. We assist in quantifying and mapping implications for land use, ecosystem services and biodiversity. We assess the effectiveness of existing policy targets as they interact with other land demands, for example trade-offs and off-site effects through tele coupling and displacement or leakage.

We use a variety of approaches for the assessment of ecosystem service capacity and demand from local to global scales with a strong focus on spatial mapping of ecosystem services under current and future conditions, choice experiments, identification of ecosystem service hotspots and future management trajectories.

Characteristic for our approach is: 

  • the use of quantitative, spatially explicit methods and models to quantify multiple ecosystem services; 
  • the assessment of both ecosystem service demand and ecosystem service supply ranging from the local to the global scale; 
  • a strong link to ecosystem services in cultural landscapes in Europe aimed at informing management alternatives for maintaining cultural landscapes in strong cooperation with local stakeholders and land owners.