Colsaet, A. et al. (2018). What drives land take and urban land expansion? A systematic review. Land Use Policy, Volume 79, December 2018, Pages 339-349.




  • We review 193 articles exploring determinants of land take or urban sprawl.
  • We summarize causal relationships between land take and explanatory factors.
  • Well-known drivers are the increase of population, GDP and transport facilities.
  • Policy factors matter, e.g. political fragmentation, planning, or subsidies.
  • The effect of many factors (including common policy instruments) remains unclear.


Land take is the transformation of agricultural, natural and semi-natural spaces into urban and other artificial uses. It is closely linked to urban sprawl (low-density or dispersed urban development). Land take is a major environmental challenge, especially for biodiversity conservation, as it destroys and fragments natural habitats.

In order to assess how the scientific literature dedicated to this topic adresses the determinants of land take, we analyzed 193 scientific articles retrieved through a systematic methodology.

We summarized the causal relationships identified between land take and different explanatory factors. Among them, population and income growth, as well as the development of transport infrastructure and automobile use, are widely studied drivers that are most often found to increase land take. Political and institutional factors are extensively mentionned in the literature, suggesting that urban sprawl is not a mere result of “market forces” but is also shaped though public policies. Weak or unadequate planning, subsidies for land consumption and automobile transportation are said to increase urban sprawl, while infrastructure pricing and subsidies for urban renewal would have the opposite effect. The institutional setting, especially administrative fragmentation, reliance on local taxes, and competition between local jurisdictions, is suspected to be a major determinant of land take. The effect of many factors however remains relatively undocumented or controversial in the reviewed literature, including widely used policy instruments.

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