Strategic planning — planning that balances the needs of humans and ecosystems — is key to preparing for change. However, if planners lack information to help them strategize for future land use, they are more likely to allow reactive development patterns which can cause more dramatic changes to the landscape.
This case study explains how scientists from the Changing Landscapes Initiative developed a land-use model for Northwestern Virginia to inform strategic planning with a 50-year outlook. The model is based on potential future scenarios for the region that were developed with community input.
To build a land-use change model, CLI scientists begin by comparing digital maps of land cover from different years. They record locations where one type of land use has changed to another. For example, they note where grassland turned to roads or buildings (development), forest turned to grassland, grassland to cropland, and so on. These are known as land-use transitions.
Next, they look at “drivers of change” — factors that influence changes in land use. Drivers of change can include:
- Topography: Steep slopes are not ideal for cities; river floodplains have rich soil for growing crops
- Socioeconomics: Population density (the number of people living in an area) and income may impact the amount and location of buildings, roads, power supplies and other infrastructure
- Planning decisions: Zoning and designated protected areas affect how land can be used
By comparing land-use transitions with drivers of change, CLI scientists can model patterns and estimate how likely each type of land-use transition is to occur at any given location.
Applying this Approach in Northwestern Virginia
For Northwestern Virginia, CLI scientists compared maps of land cover from 2001 and 2011. Their land-use model produced many insights about Northwestern Virginia. One example focused on the slope of the land and areas with existing development. The land-use model showed a higher probability of forests transitioning to development in areas where the land has a low slope or incline. This makes practical sense – people are more likely to build homes on flat land (low slope) than on the side of a mountain (high slope). They also found that most new development occurs near existing development.
Considered together, the most likely place for forest to turn into development in Northwestern Virginia is on flat ground near an existing city. The least likely place is on a steep slope far from an existing development. CLI’s model considered this information, along with the other land-use transitions and drivers of change, to create its final projections.