Direct and indirect loss of natural area from urban expansion

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Global losses of natural area are primarily attributed to cropland expansion, whereas the role of urban expansion is considered minor. However, urban expansion can induce cropland displacement, potentially leading to a loss of forest elsewhere. The extent of this effect is unknown. This study shows that indirect forest losses, through cropland displacement, far exceed direct losses from urban expansion. On a global scale, urban land increased from 33.2 to 71.3 million hectares (Mha) between 1992 and 2015, leading to a direct loss of 3.3 Mha of forest and an indirect loss of 17.8 to 32.4 Mha. In addition, this urban expansion led to a direct loss of 4.6 Mha of shrubland and an indirect loss of 7.0 to 17.4 Mha. Guiding urban development towards more sustainable trajectories can thus help preserve forest and other natural area at a global scale.

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Fig. 1: Observed land cover changes between 1992 and 2015.
Fig. 2: Urban expansion and cropland expansion between 1992 and 2015.
Fig. 3: Global loss of forest and shrubland as a result of urban expansion between 1992 and 2015 under different assumptions for cropland displacement.

Data availability

Data that support the findings presented in this study are available from the author upon reasonable request.

Code availability

Scripts used for this analysis are available from the author upon reasonable request.


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J.v.V. thanks R. Prestele for his help with the spatial data analysis. This project was supported by NWO-WOTRO project no. W 07.303.108 on joint SDG research. This paper contributes to the Global Land Programme (

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J.v.V. designed the study, conducted the data analysis and wrote the paper.

Correspondence to Jasper van Vliet.

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Supplementary Fig. 1, Supplementary Tables 1–12, Supplementary References 1–5

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van Vliet, J. Direct and indirect loss of natural area from urban expansion. Nat Sustain 2, 755–763 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41893-019-0340-0

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