Soil Sealing

SOIL SEALING is the loss of soil resources due to the covering of land for housing, roads or other construction work.


The covering of the soil surface with impervious materials as a result of urban development and infrastructure construction is known as soil sealing. The term is also used to describe a change in the nature of the soil leading to impermeability (e.g. compaction by agricultural machinery). Sealed areas are lost to uses such as agriculture or forestry while the ecological soil functions are severely impaired or even prevented (e.g. soil working as a buffer and filter system or as a carbon sink). In addition, surrounding soils may be influenced by change in water flow patterns or the fragmentation of habitats. Current studies suggest that soil sealing is nearly irreversible.

The greatest impacts of soil sealing are observable in urban and metropolitan areas. The Figures down illustrate the areas in Europe where the rates of soil sealing are high and where the greatest pressures are likely to occur. In already intensively urbanised countries like Holland or Germany the rate of soil loss due to surface sealing is high. There is little space for further urbanisation. Most of the growth will presumably take place within or on the edge of the suburban areas. In the Mediterranean region, soil sealing is a particular problem along the coasts where rapid urbanisation is associated with the expansion of tourism. Very high rates of sealing are now predicted for countries like Portugal, Finland or Ireland where urbanisation levels are generally low. 

In Central and Eastern Europe soil sealing has been comparatively modest in the past decades. An accelerated increase of built-up areas can be recorded as a consequence of the political and economic changes during the late 1980s. Rural populations migrated to the cities and new settlements were developed. Rising pressures on soil can be expected in the course of a strengthened economic growth in these countries. Generally the enlargement of the EU and the integration of new countries in the common market will lead to a heightened movement of people and transport of goods. More infrastructure will be built in order to ensure a good connection between peripheral regions and the centre.

The building of new roads, houses, shops offices work seals off soil (ED).

Probable problem areas of soil sealing in Europe (Source: European Environment Agency)

Built-up areas have been mainly enlarged at the expense of agricultural land. Progressive soil sealing will take place especially for Western Europe where the area of built-up land increases at a faster rate than the population. Besides the influence of tourism, the rising demand for land resources can be mainly caused by changes in population behaviour such as people’s preference for living outside the city centres, an increased demand for bigger houses or outof- town developments such as supermarkets, leisure centres and associated development of transport infrastructure. 

Spatial planning strategies determine to a great extent the progression of soil sealing. Unfortunately neither the economical nor the ecological or the social effects of irreplaceable soil losses have been considered adequately so far. In the meantime the necessity to include environmental concerns and objectives in spatial planning, in order to reduce the effects of uncontrolled urban expansion, is widely recognised in the EU. A rational land-use planning to enable the sustainable management of soil resources and the limiting of sealing of open space is demanded. Possible measures include the redevelopment of brown-fields and the rehabilitation of old buildings.

Click on the following links in order to get the Map (Probable problem areas of soil sealing in Europe) in various formats: BMPJPGPDF


European Environment Agency (EEA) has developed the European soil sealing dataset at 100x100m pixel in European projection (LAEA5210). The data are available in the EEA Site
Data relevant to land take and food security have been published and are also available.

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Title: Soil Sealing & food security (Loss of Potential Agricultural Production Capability)
Resource Type: Datasets, Soil Threats Data
Year: 2014