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Report on the Environment

Land Use

What are the trends in land use and their effects on human health and the environment?

Definition of Land Use

“Land use” is the term used to describe the human use of land. It represents the economic and cultural activities (e.g., agricultural, residential, industrial, mining, and recreational uses) that are practiced at a given place. Public and private lands frequently represent very different uses. For example, urban development seldom occurs on publicly owned lands (e.g., parks, wilderness areas), while privately owned lands are infrequently protected for wilderness uses.

Land use differs from land cover in that some uses are not always physically obvious (e.g., land used for producing timber but not harvested for many years and forested land designated as wilderness will both appear as forest-covered, but they have different uses).

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Effects of Land Use Changes

Land use changes occur constantly and at many scales, and can have specific and cumulative effects on air and water quality, watershed function, generation of waste, extent and quality of wildlife habitat, climate, and human health.

EPA is concerned about different land use activities because of their potential effects on the environment and human health. Land development and agricultural uses are two primary areas of concern, with a wide variety of potential effects.

Land Development

  • Land development creates impervious surfaces through construction of roads, parking lots, and other structures. Impervious surfaces:
    • Contribute to nonpoint source water pollution by limiting the capacity of soils to filter runoff.
    • Affect peak flow and water volume, which heighten erosion potential and affect habitat and water quality.
    • Increase storm water runoff, which can deliver more pollutants to water bodies that residents may rely on for drinking and recreation.1 Storm runoff from urban and suburban areas contains dirt, oils from road surfaces, nutrients from fertilizers, and various toxic compounds.
    • Affect ground water aquifer recharge.
  • Point source discharges from industrial and municipal wastewater treatment facilities can contribute toxic compounds and heated water.
  • Some land development patterns, in particular dispersed growth such as “suburbanization,” can contribute to a variety of environmental concerns. For example:
    • Increased air pollution due to vehicle use results in higher concentrations of certain air pollutants in developed areas that may exacerbate human health problems such as asthma.2
    • Land development can lead to the formation of “heat islands,” domes of warmer air over urban and suburban areas that are caused by the loss of trees and shrubs and the absorption of more heat by pavement, buildings, and other sources. Heat islands can affect local, regional, and global climate, as well as air quality.3

Agricultural Uses

  • Agricultural land uses can affect the quality of water and watersheds, including:
    • The types of crops planted, tillage practices, and various irrigation practices can limit the amount of water available for other uses.
    • Livestock grazing in riparian zones can change landscape conditions by reducing stream bank vegetation and increasing water temperatures, sedimentation, and nutrient levels.
    • Runoff from pesticides, fertilizers, and nutrients from animal manure can also degrade water quality.
  • Agricultural land use may also result in loss of native habitats or increased wind erosion and dust, exposing humans to particulate matter and various chemicals.4
  • Some land uses can accelerate or exacerbate the spread of invasive species. For example:
    • Certain agricultural land use practices, such as overgrazing, land conversion, fertilization, and the use of agricultural chemicals, can enhance the growth of invasive plants.5 These plants can alter fish and wildlife habitat, contribute to decreases in biodiversity, and create health risks to livestock and humans.
    • Introduction of invasive species on agricultural lands can reduce water quality and water availability for native fish and wildlife species.

Research is beginning to elucidate the connections between land use changes and infectious disease. For example, some studies indicate that spread of vector-borne disease may be influenced by land use and/or other environmental change.6

Other studies indicate that fragmentation of forest habitat into smaller patches separated by agricultural activities or developed land increases the “edge effect” and promotes the interaction among pathogens, vectors, and hosts.7

In some cases, changes in land use may have positive effects, such as increasing habitat (as a result of deliberate habitat restoration measures) and reclamation of previously contaminated lands for urban/suburban development.

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ROE Indicators

The ROE presents two indicators providing information about land use trends: Land Use and Urbanization and Population Change. Available indicators in this area are limited because numerous circumstances (including lack of data; varying approaches to data classification and management, and difficulty in delineating land use) create significant challenges and limitations in tracking trends in and effects of land use.

  • Lack of data:
    • There is a general lack of comprehensive data on the types and rates of land use and land cover change, and even less systematic evidence on the causes and consequences of these changes. On a global scale, the National Research Council identified land use dynamics as one of the grand challenges for environmental research.8
    • No indicators are available to assess the effects that trends in land use have on human health, as effects have not been shown or quantified on a national basis. Researchers have conducted site-specific studies on individual land uses, but little is known about overall national trends in land use and potential impacts on human health.
    • An additional challenge is that a variety of state and local laws, regulations, and practices govern the use of land. There are few state-level efforts to organize land use data; most activities occur over specific local, usually urbanizing, geographic areas.

      This means that land use records are not maintained statewide or nationally, as they are in other nations. This contributes to challenges in tracking and monitoring land use changes. It also means that efforts to coordinate land use across jurisdictions are difficult to develop.
  • Varying approaches to data classification and measurement: Estimates of the extent of various land uses differ across data sources, and each source uses different classifications, measurement approaches, methodologies for analysis and interpretation, and sampling time frames. The data are collected by many different agencies that manage land for many different purposes.

    Some data collection efforts arise out of specific interests, such as tracking changes in the extent of agricultural land or farmland, or understanding how much land is used for timber production. These data collection efforts tend to develop their own classifications and categorization, making it difficult to integrate the data over time, across inventories, or as a national picture.
  • Difficulty in delineating land use: Finally, the difficulty of actually delineating land use presents a challenge in developing data to determine trends. Land use is generally a function of laws, policies, or management decisions that may not always be possible to infer by examining the ground via surveys. Analysis of zoning maps or property records at the local level may be necessary to understand land use.

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[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2005. Estimating and projecting impervious cover in the southeastern United States (PDF). EPA/600/R-05/061. Athens, GA. (133 pp, 3.2 MB).

[2] Schwartz J. 2004. Air pollution and children's health. Pediatrics 113:1037-1043.

[3] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2008. Reducing urban heat islands: Compendium of strategies. Washington, DC.

[4] Schenker, M. 2000. Exposures and health effects from inorganic agricultural dusts (PDF). Environ. Health Persp. 108(Suppl 4):661-664. (4 pp, 1.3 MB).

[5] Westbrooks, R.G. 1998. Invasive plants: Changing the landscape of America: Fact book. Washington, DC: Federal Interagency Committee for the Management of Noxious and Exotic Weeds.

[6] Sutherst, R. W. 2004. Global change and human vulnerability to vector-borne diseases (PDF). Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 17(1): 136-173. (38 pp, 442 K).

[7] Patz, J.A., P. Daszak, G.M. Tabor, A.A. Aguirre, M. Pearl, J. Epstein, N.D. Wolfe, A.M. Kilpatrick, J. Foufopoulos, D. Molyneux, D.J. Bradley, and Members of the Working Group on Land Use Change and Disease Emergence. 2004. Unhealthy landscapes: Policy recommendations on land use change and infectious disease emergence. Environ. Health Persp. 112(10):1092-1098.

[8] National Research Council, Committee on Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences. 2001. Grand challenges in environmental sciences. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

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