Conflicting interests between local governments and the European target of No Net Land Take



urban development, Land-use change, Urban growth boundary, Strategic planning, institutional drivers, Romania




Urban expansion is taking place at a high rate in Europe, with conversion of agricultural land, forest and other land use into built-up areas (Van Vliet, 2019). To halt this process, the European Union set a “No Net Land Take by 2050” target in 2011 (NNLT). Despite this policy, land take continues to occur in Europe, with studies suggesting that local decision-making is playing a major role in land-use conversions (Götze and Hartmann, 2021). In this study, we investigate how local decision-making influences land take, specifically by analysing the use of urban growth boundaries (UGBs) by Romanian local governments. UGBs delineate areas within designated boundaries which can be used for urban development, while areas outside these boundaries are left for agriculture or preserved in their natural state. Existing studies show that changes of UGBs allows further expansion of built spaces, or at least remove the restrictions to do so. However, it remains unclear what drives local governments (which are ultimately responsible for their implementation) to change them.  

A mixed-method approach was adopted, combining analysis of UGB changes over the past decade in all Romanian cities (N = 319) with a survey among representatives of local governments involved in land-use decision-making (N = 91 cities). Using statistical analysis we also tested six hypotheses regarding factors potentially influencing UGB dynamics, pertaining to dynamics of built-up areas, demographics, nature protection city size and financial independence of municipalities.

Results showed that many cities have expanded their UGBs, even in municipalities with population loss and sufficient undeveloped land within their UGBs. This oversupply of undeveloped land, describing the situation when there are many unused plots of building land but rezoning new building land in land-use plans continues, is similar to the ones observed in Austria (Humer 2018) and Belgium (Shahab et al., 2021). This indicates that Romanian local governments` decisions conflict with the NNLT target set at the European level.

Hypothesis testing showed that population dynamics and the extent of nature conservation areas contribute to UGB changes, though these explain just a small fraction of all UGB changes. The survey indicated a wide range of motivations among decision-makers regarding changing UGBs, including cities’ competitiveness and decisions about the long-term vision for development. Findings also indicate that the use of UGBs in Romania follows what Viallon et al. (2019) calls “diversion in implementation of land-use policy instruments”, i.e., a situation where a policy instrument is enforced but fails to achieve the intended policy objectives.

Our study contributes to discussions of diverging perspectives of local and central governments regarding land take and built-up containment; and brings important nuances to the embedded premise that financial incentives are the main factor behind the growth-oriented attitude of urban municipalities. The findings have implications for discussion of how land take, soil sealing and urban sprawl can be avoided, reduced and compensated for in Europe.


Götze, V. and Hartmann, T. (2021) Why municipalities grow: The influence of fiscal incentives on municipal land policies in Germany and the Netherlands. Land Use Policy 109: 105681.

Humer, A. (2018). An Austrian perspective on negotiated land use plans: A means for municipalities to mobilise building land. In Instruments of land policy (pp. 114-117). Routledge.

Shahab, S., Hartmann, T., & Jonkman, A. (2021). Strategies of municipal land policies: Housing development in Germany, Belgium, and Netherlands. European Planning Studies, 29(6), 1132-1150.

van Vliet, J. (2019). Direct and indirect loss of natural area from urban expansion. Nature Sustainability, 2(8), 755-763.

Viallon, F. X., Schweizer, R., & Varone, F. (2019). When the regime goes local: Local regulatory arrangements and land use sustainability. Environmental Science & Policy, 96, 77-84.