Beyond the urban-rural dichotomy: Towards a more nuanced analysis of changes in built-up land

J. van Vliet, P.H. Verburg, Simona Grădinaru, Anna M. Hersperger

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Urban land and rural land are typically represented as homogenous and mutually exclusive classes in land change analyses. As a result, differences in urban land use intensity, as well as mosaic landscapes combining urban and rural land uses are not represented. In this study we explore the distribution of urban land and urban land use intensity in Europe and the changes therein. Specifically, we analyze the distribution of built-up land within pixels of 1 km2. At that resolution we find that most built-up land is distributed over predominantly non-built-up pixels. Consistently, we find that most urban land use changes between 2000 and 2014 come in small incremental changes, rather than sudden large-scale conversions from rural to urban land. Using urban population densities, we find that urban land use intensity varies strongly across 1 km2 pixels in Europe, as illustrated by a coefficient of variation of 85%. We found a similarly high variation between urban population densities for most individual countries and within areas with the same share of built-up land. Population changes have led to different combinations of urban land expansion and urban intensity changes in different study periods (1975–1990, 1990–2000, and 2000–2015) and countries. These findings suggest that land use change models could be improved by more nuanced representations of urban land, including mosaic classes and different urban land use intensities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)41-49
Number of pages9
JournalComputers, Environment and Urban Systems
Early online date8 Dec 2018
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2019


FundersFunder number
European Research Council157789, 311819
Schweizerischer Nationalfonds zur Förderung der Wissenschaftlichen ForschungZKOZ2-175534


    • Land use change
    • Land use modelling
    • Spatial planning
    • Urban intensity
    • Urbanization


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