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Land use modelling can be used to assess a range of economic, environmental and social factors to help make decisions about the best use of land.

However, insights from the National Land Data Programme (NLDP) show that such modelling is not always readily used by decision makers due to barriers including a lack of understanding around what land use modelling is and how it can be used effectively.

Land Use Modelling Communities

What is land use modelling?

Land use models are simplified representations of reality (or potential future realities based on mathematical predictions of future scenarios). They are often developed as decision support tools to help answer specific policy or planning questions. There are many types of land use modelling, which progress in complexity, including:.
  • GIS layers and maps showing current land use and land use change.
  • Predictive models that incorporate complex algorithms and data science techniques to demonstrate how land could be used differently.
  • Ensemble models combining predictions from multiple models to overcome biases in individual models and help quantify uncertainty.
  • Model emulators or ‘surrogate’ models that mimic the output of more complex models. They allow models to be linked together more effectively and dramatically improve computational speed.
Models can be spatially explicit, using and manipulating georeferenced information. Outputs from these models vary across geographic areas and capture spatial relationships between parcels of land. This can be crucial to support decision making, for example, a land parcel may have suitable characteristics to host a wind farm, but if neighbouring land is residential this could prevent or delay planning permission. We have worked with the Open Innovation Team to engage with leading experts about land use modelling. We found that there are clusters of land use modelling activity across the UK and that different modelling approaches are used within and between these clusters reflecting the need for models to answer different questions and meet the priorities of end users from sectors including transport, infrastructure, housing and the environment. There is no single, unified land use modelling community and many people involved would not recognise themselves as land use modellers.
Land use modelling communities area graph

Figure 1: Visualisation of the main land use modelling communities in the UK – Open Innovation Team

Why should land use modelling be used?

Key ways modelling can support land use decision making include:

    • Understanding current land characteristics – models can bring together complex data on land characteristics which can help decision makers plan the most optimised and viable land use change, including where to locate new housing. For example, Ordnance Survey Northern Ireland (OSNI) are working with the Geospatial Commission to create a combined land cover and use map to help inform local decision making.
    • Understanding drivers of land use change – modelling can demonstrate the impact of external factors that influence land use change. For example, the University of Exeter’s ADVENT model takes into account market costs, land constraints and environmental and social factors to spatially assess the optimal locations for renewable energy infrastructure.
    • Understanding consequences of land use change – modelling can be used to assess the impacts of land use change or different policy decisions on land use. For example, the ERAMMP Integrated Modelling Platform (IMP) simulates the potential effects of government policies on agriculture and the environment in Wales, enabling policy ideas to be explored and stress-tested.

Figure 2: A high spatial resolution energy-environment model which can be used to identify where to locate new energy infrastructure to minimise both financial and external costs

How is the National Land Data Programme (NLDP) supporting wider usage of land use modelling?

NLDP will identify existing challenges around using land use modelling in decision making and the capability improvements required to better support this. Our work includes:

    • National Land Use Dialogues programme to understand specific land use challenges, including around energy security and housing, and how spatial modelling can help address these.
    • Working with the Food Farming Countryside Commission, British Geological Survey (in Devon) and Vizzuality (in Cambridgeshire) to develop prototype decision support tools to inform local land use strategies.
    • Working with the Alan Turing Institute in Newcastle to develop a prototype scenario modelling tool to support strategic land use planning.
    • Identifying key land use data improvements and bringing disparate data sets together, including in our OSNI pilot mentioned above.

We are interested in hearing from organisations that use spatial data to make land use decisions. For more information about our programme and to get in touch contact us at