A recent publication, co-authored by Dawn Parker of the Environment’s School of Planning and Waterloo’s Institute for Complexity and Innovation, reveals 10 facts that help explain the fundamental challenges of achieving sustainability in land use, and point toward solutions.

Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the article applied the expertise of 50 leading land use scientists from 20 countries and highlights key questions whose answers are essential to understand and address land systems pressures.

“With growing human populations and demands on natural resources, land scarcity is increasing,” said Parker. “It is widely acknowledged that land systems are classic examples of complex coupled human-natural systems, and this report distills their complexity into key facts relevant for global environmental management.”

According to the report, numerous factors challenge the sustainability of land systems. One is diverse, conflicting, and contested beliefs and values.  The second is the complex nature of land systems, characterized by irreversibility and path dependence. Other facts the report identified are large impacts of land use with small footprints, distant spillovers of local land systems, prevalent trade-offs on lived areas, overlapping and contested claims, unequally distributed benefits, and actors’ mobilization of multiple conflicting visions of justice.

These “10 facts” constitute a set of core principles that can guide scientists, policy makers, and practitioners toward sustainable governance of land use. The researchers also provide six Implications for Land System Governance for Sustainability:

  • Just solutions to land challenges acknowledge multiple perceptions, beliefs, and values, the multiple visions of justice, and power differentials.
  • Solutions are more successful when they are contextual and adaptive, avoiding silver bullets or “one-size-fits-all” panaceas.
  • Governance of land systems is more effective when considering spillovers across spatial and temporal scales.
  • Policies and management that prevent undesired, irreversible impacts bring more overall benefits than trying to restore land afterward.
  • Land-use decisions that foster synergies are important but need to be combined with mitigating unavoidable trade-offs and managing demand.
  • To avoid reinforcing inequalities, governance interventions need to explicitly address inequalities and acknowledge unclear land tenure.

The report advises, "avoiding irreversible negative impacts is always preferable, but beyond this, progressing toward sustainability through land use is often about negotiating fair and acceptable trade-offs and compensations, rather than about achieving optimal outcomes, or stable peace among actors.”

The 10 facts synthesized from land system science (LSS) constitute hard truths that help to define our key challenges, but also provides major opportunities for governing land systems for sustainability.

“These facts do not provide simple answers to current land-related debates on how to manage trade-offs and synergies, how to organize the multifunctionality of land systems across places and scales, and how to set up fair procedures and distribution of land benefits,” said the researchers. “However, they do point to how answers could be developed and provide common ground for science and policy, as well as a research agenda. We hope that acknowledging these facts and their implications can help to build more solid foundations for much-needed conversations on land use and sustainability.”

The report, Ten facts about land systems for sustainability is a Global Land Programme (GLP) research project of Future Earth, an interdisciplinary community of science and practice fostering the study of land systems and the co-design of solutions for global sustainability.