Trends in urban land expansion, density, and land transitions from 1970 to 2010: A global synthesis

Burak Güneralp, Meredith Reba, Billy U. Hales, Elizabeth A. Wentz, Karen C. Seto

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

178 Scopus citations


The physical expansion of urban areas lead to lasting impacts on landscapes and livelihoods. Here, we conduct a global synthesis of trends in urban land expansion, in urban population densities, and lands converted into urban from 1970 to 2010. We find that small-medium urban areas lead their larger counterparts in both rates of urban land expansion and decreases in urban population densities. Urban population densities have consistently declined only in India, China, North America, and Europe with significant exceptions across city sizes. Over 60% of the reported urban expansion was formerly agricultural land with China, Southeast Asia, and Europe in the lead. Counterfactual analysis suggests that, due to the decrease in urban population densities, an estimated 125 000 km2 land was converted to urban land uses that could have otherwise remained in cultivation or as natural vegetation. In particular, in India and Nigeria, with much of their populations dependent on agriculture, 85% and 30% more land, respectively, was converted to urban land due to decreasing urban population densities. With increasing urbanization, proactive management of urban land expansion, especially in small and medium cities, will be critical for saving agricultural lands in peri-urban regions while creating equitable and affordable urban landscapes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number044015
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2020


  • Global environmental change
  • Land change science
  • Land use
  • Land use efficiency
  • Urban planning
  • Urban sustainability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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