Curbing overdevelopment

Average per capita land use in Germany for residential purposes alone amounted to 47 square meters in 2011 – a figure that is likely to rise. At the same time, new construction on greenfield land is on the rise, while increasing numbers of apartment buildings, other structures, and lots stand empty. In our view, this overdevelopment should be curbed, and land should be used sparingly.

Table of Contents


Land use in Germany

Over the past six decades the amount of open space that has been paved over for road and residential use has more than doubled in Germany, for the following purposes:

  • Buildings and building related open space for various uses such as housing, work, education, and administration.
  • Recreational areas, i.e. athletics facilities, campgrounds, parks and green areas.
  • Land used for storage, mine waste, utilities, and waste disposal.
  • Cemeteries
  • Land used for traffic infrastructure elements, i.e. roads, paths, plazas, and railroad tracks.

In 2011, 74 hectares of land were paved over daily for road and residential use, a 43 per cent decline relative to 2000. The most striking feature of this trend was the 47 per cent reduction in residential land use, from 106 to 57 hectares per day.

Updated information in this regard is available from the Federal Statistical Office (Statistisches Bundesamt). Detailed information and long time series concerning land use are available free of charge from the Genesis online database.

The graph shows the amount of land used for human settlements and the transport infrastructure from 2006 to 2012.
Use of land and space
Source: Roy / König UBA: Daten aufbereitet nach: Statistisches Bundesamt 2014

Current trends

Residential land use growth

The restrained growth in residential land use in 2011 was mainly driven by demographics. The increase in the number of households slowed due to a reduced influx of immigrants to Germany over the past decade. This also occasioned a population decline in Germany since 2003. Moreover, falling birth rates in recent decades have resulted in a decrease in the numbers of young people and thus young families in Germany who are seeking family-friendly housing. And because fewer new housing units are needed, new housing construction has greatly declined, and with it land use for this purpose. Many German regions have experienced declines in both population and the numbers of households, resulting in higher vacancy rates and fewer housing starts.

Since 2011, the euro crisis combined with the free movement of workers has resulted in increased immigration to Germany. This has in turn triggered a population increase, albeit solely in regions with strong economic growth. New housing construction has also picked up somewhat, having bottomed out in 2009.

Commercial land use growth

The slowdown in land use growth is also attributable to economic factors. The slowdown in economic growth in many regions has translated into a slowdown in commercial land use growth. And in regions whose economies are still growing but where land prices tend to be high, there is a certain incentive to use land sparingly and to repurpose previously developed land.

However, no such incentive exists in economically weak regions where land prices are low. In fact the relatively few companies that are interested in opening a branch in such areas that will create new jobs are even in a position to require that new commercial property be developed for them at the target site. And this notwithstanding the fact that ample commercial property is available in both old and new industrial zones.

Land use for traffic infrastructures

The rate of growth for traffic infrastructure elements has declined since 2000 by only 25 per cent, from 23 to 17 hectares per day.

This decline is solely attributable to a slowdown in the rate of new trunk road construction, from 10 to four hectares daily between 2000 and 2011, for the simple reason that less residential and commercial land use translates into a lesser need for new road construction.

All other types of traffic infrastructure land use, including other types of roads as well as railroad tracks, ports, airports, forestry roads and farming roads has continued unabated at a rate of 13 hectares daily.

Of this amount, seven hectares per day at a minimum were accounted for by expansion of the farming and forestry road network, which is for the most part financed by various farm subsidy or rural development programs.

Road construction for Germany’s national road network accounts for a maximum of 3.5 hectares daily, three hectares of which are used for highways, and 0.5 hectares of which are used for train tracks.

The remaining growth in traffic infrastructure land use is attributable to the construction of other main roads, as well as airports and ports.


Environmental impact

Some 46 per cent of Germany’s road and residential land is paved over, i.e. either there are buildings on it or it is paved over or otherwise covered for use as roads, parking lots and sidewalks. These activities rob the soil of their water percolation and storage capacity, which in turn increases the risk of flooding. These areas also lose their micro-climate functions and thus lose the capacity to keep urban areas cool during the summer. What’s more, soil sealing destroys natural soil fertility, whose restoration is an extremely lengthy process.

Overdevelopment also has the following direct or indirect environmental effects:

  • It engenders a vicious circle: more traffic promotes gas consumption and increases noise and exhaust emissions, which result in more traffic congestion and the need to build even more roads; and this in turn facilitates residential property development.
  • It promotes increased energy consumption for heating, air conditioning, and lighting in additional buildings, resulting in additional greenhouse gas emissions.
  • It promotes greater use of materials for the upkeep of ever growing numbers of buildings and infrastructure elements, and the consequent increase in environmental pollution.
  • It promotes the trend toward ever more material and energy intensive economic behaviour and lifestyles.
  • It results in farmland loss, which is of course a crucial resource for the food supply, forage, energy crops and renewable resources.

Economic, social and urban development effects

The steady march of overdevelopment is also bad for the German economy; for with a stagnating or even a declining population the per capita costs for upkeep of the buildings and infrastructures spawned by this overdevelopment is bound to rise.

It would make much better economic sense to do everything possible to conserve, upgrade and care for existing structures, instead of incessantly building new ones. Already today, our nation is faced with an immense upkeep and repair backlog for public buildings, roads, bridges, and railroad tracks, as well as for mass transit vehicles and signalling systems; these tasks urgently await our attention. And as for housing, it is essential for the economic well being of our nation that the energy systems of Germany’s housing stock be upgraded to render them more efficient.

In regions where populations are declining for demographic reasons, it is also crucial that, through urban redevelopment programs, buildings that are no longer needed be taken off the market so as to keep rents at a reasonable level and support real estate prices. If this is not done and rents and real estate prices continue to plunge, homeowner pensions will be jeopardized, as will the creditworthiness of housing corporations and business owners – thus making it even more difficult for them to make urgently needed capital investments. Thus new housing and commercial construction is counterproductive under these market conditions.

Overdevelopment also places strains on our nation’s social fabric. Newly built residential areas mainly attract individuals who can afford high rental or home purchase prices, while less affluent members of our society (who are also often relatively uneducated) remain stuck in older and lower price areas. Moreover, the kind of large scale new housing construction that was undertaken in the 1990s and resulted in socioeconomic disintegration creates bad neighbourhoods whose daily conditions weigh the heaviest on the educational opportunities of the young.

From an urban development standpoint, not only most of Germany’s city centres but also many rural communities are increasingly seeing a tremendous loss in urban vitality, while new housing tracts on the outskirts of town thrive. And municipal budgets also suffer in cases where roads and other city centre infrastructure elements with abandoned buildings and no tax base need upkeep. In order to stop this erosion of urban life, revitalize our city centres, and restore property values there, we first need to put a stop to further overdevelopment. In light of the competition between municipalities to establish and maintain a tax base, land use and regional planning authorities should help municipalities to implement conservative land use practices by imposing limits on human settlement and by funding both intra- and inter-municipal development and cooperation.

The potential explosiveness of this evolution is bound to be exacerbated by demographic change in many regions.


What’s to be done?

Stopping urban sprawl is a complex issue that affects many different actors, sectors and social groups, namely the following:

  • Planning authorities at all administrative levels
  • Business and farm subsidies
  • The real estate, finance and construction sectors
  • Businesses, farms and agricultural policy; environmental protection and nature conservation •    Every German citizen, particularly renters and property purchasers

Spatial planning aims to curb the number of projects related to human settlement and urban development so as to make way for intra-municipal development, brownfield and greyfield land recycling, urban redevelopment and rural development – the aim being to increase the quality of life in existing inhabited areas so that people want to live there. Such efforts can be strengthened through economic development programs.

The construction and real estate industries should also focus on conserving and upgrading existing properties, and the financial industry should support such efforts. And last but not least, each renter and home purchaser should ask themselves how much space they really need, and where and how they wish to avail themselves of such space.

Environmental groups, nature conservation groups, growers and representatives of rural associations should join forces in the effort to conserve open space and farmland and protect both against overdevelopment. In a joint position paper titled Entsiegelung bei Neuversiegelung – Eingriffsregelung optimiert anwenden, a consensus was reached among environmental organizations, nature conservation organizations, agricultural associations, the UBA and the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) concerning ways to curb overdevelopment and protect farmland.


Strategies, measures and research

UBA strategies, measures and research

The UBA conducts research on ways to reduce land use by curbing overdevelopment, and makes recommendations concerning (a) strategies, measures and instruments in these domains; and (b) the promotion of land recycling and inner urban development. In the context of a pilot project, the UBA also does research on tradable zoning rights.

Other public sector strategies and research programs

Policies aimed at curbing land use have given rise to strategies as well as research and action programs at both the federal and regional-state levels. A noteworthy initiative in this regard is the Federal Ministry of Education and Research’s nationwide sustainability research initiative known as Forschung für die Nachhaltigkeit (fona), one of whose programs funds the development and piloting of innovative concepts aimed at curbing land use. This program, known as REFINA – Forschung für die Reduzierung der Flächeninanspruchnahme und ein nachhaltiges Flächenmanagement, has come to an end, and its findings have been compiled in a practitioners manual.

A joint federal and regional state soil conservation board known as the LABO drew up a list of measures for a panel known as the Umweltministerkonferenz (UMK; environmental ministers conference) that the UMK recommends that other ministerial conferences as well as the federal government implement.

In the interest of raising awareness, among the relevant stakeholders, of the need to curb overdevelopment, providing these stakeholders with information concerning examples of sound practice, and enabling the key stakeholders to network more efficiently with each other, a federal government website containing information on curbing overdevelopment and land use will be established. The idea for this website originated with the Fachministerkonferenzen der Länder (regional-state ministerial conferences) and the federal environmental protection and agriculture ministries. The UBA has commissioned a provider for this website, with the aim of having it up and running within the next two years.