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Multifunctional land use

What is multifunctional land use?

The UK has a finite amount of land, but multiple things it needs to use it for. These include producing food, providing a habitat for wildlife, sequestering carbon, reducing flood risk, providing space for recreation, or improving the quality of our air and water. Some of these things can be delivered by the same land use (for example, forests sequester carbon, act as flood defences or habitats for wildlife and can be used for recreation), but other types of land use (such as intensive farming) may only help to deliver one outcome.

The UK faces an important set of decisions in order to optimise its land use. These decisions may require a shift in mindset, from one where land is viewed as a fixed commodity delivering a narrow set of functions, to one where land is viewed as a dynamic and multifunctional resource.

The multifunctional land use strand of the Royal Society’s Living Landscapes programme will explore how these different functions and benefits are connected and what the implications are for land use policy in the UK's changing needs 

With a focus on multifunctional land use at different scales, we will aim to:

  • Present the science that underpins the role of land in delivering multiple benefits to society, highlighting the connections, synergies and trade-offs between these benefits.
  • Understand public values and priorities for land use and how these are informed by scientific evidence.
  • Suggest mechanisms that allow policymakers and land managers to make joined-up decisions about multifunctional land use at different spatial and temporal scales.
  • Enable people to perceive the multiple roles and dynamic nature of UK land use and make more informed decisions.

Why now?

This a significant moment for agriculture, environment and land use policy. We have a rare opportunity to re-imagine our landscape and what we want it to provide. The UK's departure from the EU means that our agricultural policy will be rewritten and a 25-year plan for nature recovery will be enshrined in law. Internationally, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity conference COP15 will agree on an ambitious new global biodiversity framework, while the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change conference COP26 will consider the inter-linkages between climate change, agriculture, land use and biodiversity. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic is causing societal and cultural change, with people engaging in new ways with green spaces and re-considering the resilience of the global food system.

Who decides how the UK uses its land?

For a country like the UK – where around 72% land is already used for agriculture – recent commitments such as net zero by 2050, a 25 year plan for nature recovery, and a major overhaul of the food system represent a range of competing and sometimes contradictory demands on agricultural land use. The Living Landscapes programme aims to increase our understanding of how land can be multifunctional, or how single use landscapes might be effectively balanced to deliver multiple benefits overall.

It may be that some of these benefits can be delivered at a local level through the decisions that farmers and land managers make on individual parcels of rural land. However, for many objectives, collaboration will be required at catchment  as well as national level. There is currently a big gap between national policy ambitions and local implementation, and mechanisms to allow a joined-up approach to land use change and management at all scales and across all sectors will be required.

Science may be able to tell us how to optimise land use to deliver valuable services such as food production, clean water, flood protection or carbon sequestration. However, even with this information, the way in which landscape decisions are taken in the UK is complex and different policies are often disconnected. We have commissioned a review which explores this in detail.

How might we transition to an equitable use of land?

Making changes to land use whilst ensuring a joined up and just transition will not be straightforward. Therefore, alongside presenting the science, the views of the general public, including land owners and managers, will be vital for ensuring an equitable and desirable land use future. A major aspect of our work will therefore be a public dialogue to better understand peoples' values and priorities for the future of UK landscapes.

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