Environment

New guidelines to reduce soil sealing

01/09/2012

Every year, an additional 1 000 km2 of soil – an area the size of Berlin – are claimed for human use in the EU. Around half of this land take is then covered with an impermeable material such as concrete, with damaging environmental consequences. New Commission guidelines highlight ways to limit, mitigate and compensate for this ‘soil sealing’.

Soil sealing is one of the main causes of soil degradation in Europe. When fertile land is put to other (mainly industrial or urban) use, it increases the risk of flooding, damages biodiversity and natural habitats, contributes to global warming and reduces the amount of land available for food production. If current trends continue, Europe will have covered over an additional area the size of Hungary within a century.

To raise awareness of the dangers involved and to demonstrate more sustainable alternatives, the new guidelines present a range of best practices from across the continent.

They emphasise the important role that regional and local authorities, with their many responsibilities for spatial planning and management, can play by implementing fully integrated policies from the design to construction phases. They advise development of specific regional approaches to limit urban sprawl. Austria, Germany and Luxembourg, for instance, set quantitative – though non-binding – limits for annual land take.

The guidelines recommend favouring the use of abandoned existing local resources, such as empty buildings and brownfield industrial sites over land already dedicated to agricultural or recreational use. Vienna’s Erdberger Mais development is an example where five inner urban brownfield areas now provide housing for 6 000 people and 20 000 work places.

Mitigating the effects of soil sealing can be achieved by using permeable materials that reduce water runoff and allow more rain water to infiltrate through the underlying soils. This helps lower water treatment costs and reduces the risk of flooding and water erosion.

Compensation measures can also be applied by using elsewhere, possibly for recreational purposes such as golf courses, the topsoil removed in preparation of the construction of a building or road, or by de-sealing soil that has been covered over.

Spreading the word

The guidelines were first aired publicly at a major conference in Brussels in May. They are being translated into all official EU languages and, with the help of institutions such as the Committee of the Regions, will be widely disseminated to Europe’s regional and municipal authorities.

They will support the Commission’s longer term goal, set out in last year’s Roadmap to a Resource-Efficient Europe, of achieving no net land take by 2050.

 

Land use and soil