Adaptation through integrated land-use planning

Climate impacts
Droughts, Extreme temperatures and heatwaves, Flooding, Heavy rains, Sea level rise, Storms, Water scarcity, Wildfire
IPCC category
Institutional: Government policies and programmes, Institutional: Law and regulations


Integrated land-use planning involves the allocation of land for different uses balancing economic, social and environmental values at national or sub-national levels. It is the process of supporting decision makers and land users in selecting the best combination of land uses to meet multiple needs of people, while safeguarding natural resources and ecosystem services.

Climate change poses challenges to land use that cumulate with other non-climate related challenges, such as population growth, increasing demand on limited resources by diverse actors, and land degradation. Moreover, improper land-use management and unsustainable urban development can intensify hazards including flooding and heat stress, hence intensifying the exposure of communities to such hazards.

Adaptation through integrated land-use planning aims at maintaining and enhancing ecosystem resilience, identifying what the most likely risks are, and where the community is most vulnerable, taking into account different land-use needs and demands. It requires a more strategic and long-term approach to traditional spatial planning, as recommended by the EU white paper on climate change adaptation to protect from extreme and adverse climate events that cause huge economic and social impacts.

Land-use planning can be used to protect communities from climate risks in several ways, including (i) limiting the urban, infrastructure and economic activities development in hazard-prone areas (i.e. establishment of “coastal setback” zones where construction is restricted) (ii) ensuring that the built environment can withstand climate extremes, (iii) strengthening the resilience of natural ecosystems that work as buffer areas against hazards, ensuring the protection of natural environments and planning for nature-based solutions. Tools for land-use planning and development control (spatial plans, sector plans, zoning activities, land-use regulations and permits) are historically used by local administrations to minimize risks to communities from natural hazards, including floods, wildfires, landslides and other risks. A new key challenge comes from climate change that can enhance these risks and that needs to be incorporated among other risks to achieve local development objectives. To make land-use planning ready to achieve adaptation and climate proof sustainable development goals, an overall innovation and integration of available tools and planning systems is needed.

Cities and local governments have significant authority over land-use policies and regulations so that platforms and networks connecting cities can give support in the implementation of sustainable and inclusive land-use policies. Initiatives such as the Covenant of Mayors for Energy and Climate (including many towns both in Croatia and in Italy) and C40 (including Venice for the Adriatic coast) connect cities and local authorities around the world to collaborate towards a sustainable action on climate change. C40’s Land Use Planning network provides for integrating climate change adaptation priorities into land plans and policies.

Several cities and towns, both in Italy (e.g. Padua, Bologna, Ancona) and Croatia (e.g. Poreč, Zadar) started preparing adaptation planning documents with a voluntary basis, especially through the participation in European funded projects (e.g. Blue Ap, EU Adapt, ACT, Life SEC Adapt, Grow Green), with local adaptation programmes set to make cities more resilient to climate change. In other cases, existing local strategic documents or sectoral development plans (e.g. transports plans, emergency plans, coastal and water management plans), though not always expressly mentioning adaptation among their goals, already include climate among key challenges. Indeed, the current challenge is to understand how climate change can be fully mainstreamed into spatial planning and incorporated in the mandatory urban plans. Adaptation through integrated land-use planning implicates cooperation across sectors (e.g. industry, transports, agriculture, forestry) and governance systems, involving the participation and coordination of many stakeholders to achieve agreed decisions. Educating stakeholders and decision makers about risks and opportunities of climate change, and fostering dialogue is a central task in the overall process.

Costs and benefits

Integrated land-use planning, by selecting proper and sustainable land uses, avoids mismanagement and misuses of resources enhancing resilience to climate change and preserving the environment from degradation. Land-use planning as preventive measure for climate change adaptation avoids other reactive planning measures that can have higher social and economic costs and can be less effective, such as retracting infrastructures at risks, negotiations of compensation or subsides for land-use change. A sound planning helps communities to anticipate and adaptively respond to extreme events and to reduce future risk. Land-use planning also provides benefits other than reduced climate impacts like, for instance, enhanced recreational opportunities or increased liveability, especially in urban systems.

In Croatia, an assessment was carried out of the effects of potential setback zones (i.e. zones where construction is restricted) on future coastal flood impacts at the national scale (Lincke et. al, 2020). The study concluded that construction restrictions and managed realignment can reduce the future costs of coastal flooding significantly, especially in combination with protection measures. If combined, protection measures and construction restrictions by setback zones can reduce the future costs of coastal flooding in 2100 up to 39%. Combining protection and managed realignment can reduce the future coast of coastal flooding by up to 87%. Without protection, construction restrictions can reduce predicted flood costs in 2100 up to 22% (all estimations are given for RCP 8.5).

Land-use planning can also provide benefits for climate change mitigation, since improper land uses can affect important terrestrial ecosystems working as carbon sinks. The role of land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) activities in mitigation has been largely recognised because they have a role in the removal of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the atmosphere and the accumulation of carbon stocks. Sustainable land-use management, planting and rehabilitation of forests and changes in land use (for example from built areas to forest areas) contribute to climate change mitigation.

Significantly higher costs than those associated with the planning process occur in relation to the actual measures required to restore the soil and its natural functionality (e.g. see Reduction of Land Consumption).

Costs are highly variable and pertain to various phases of the process, including the assessment of the current and future conditions, plan elaboration, stakeholder engagement and assessment of the plan implementation through monitoring. Land-use planning is often an interdisciplinary effort involving various experts such as: urban planners, architects, sociologists, environmental experts, hydrologists, biologists, etc.

Implementation time and lifetime

Adaptation through land-use planning requires a long-term vision to include long-term effects of climate change. Lifetime largely depends on the main thematic area of intervention, spanning from two or three decades (e.g. renovation or relocation of urban infrastructures) to more than 100 years (actions aimed at coastal protection or changes in land-use allocation).

Periodical revision of plans should be considered, following a flexible and adaptive approach to spatial planning, to allow incorporating knowledge progress and actions revision based on the monitoring of the measures progressively implemented.

Source for more detailed information

FAO, (2017). Land resource planning for sustainable land management

Zucaro, Z., Morosini, R (2018). Sustainable land use and climate adaptation: a review of European local plans

OECD (2916). Urban green growth, spatial planning and land use

Musco F., et al. (2016). Padova Resiliente. Linee guida per la costruzione del Piano di adattamento al cambiamento climatico