Land is a limited resource

Nearly 80 per cent of the population lives in urban settlements where population density is over 1000 times the national average. The productive agricultural and forest areas surrounding densely built-up areas are therefore under considerable pressure. But land use is changing in many sparsely settled areas too, as a result of road construction, the building of vacation homes, the construction of power lines, and so on.

Land is a limited resource, and the way land is used is important in terms of economic and environmental effects. It also affects people’s lives. Changes in land use result in changes in the cultural landscape and the local environment. This may impact on human health and the quality of life, as well as the productivity and ecological qualities of the natural environment. Changes in land-use is the single greatest threat to biological diversity.

Threats to biodiversity

1655 hectares lost to land take every year

Urban areas

Urban settlements make up about 1 per cent of the area of Norway, but are home to four fifths of the population. In 2008, the number of people living in urban settlements rose by 57300 or about 1.5 per cent from the year before. From 1990 to 2009, the population in urban settlements increased by more than 800 000. In the same period, the population in sparsely populated areas decreased by 126 000.

The total land area of the urban settlements now amounts to 2 340 square kilometres: an increase of 6 square kilometres or 0.3 per cent from 2008 to 2009. Infrastructure, buildings and roads make up about 30 per cent of the total area of urban settlements.

In 2000 urban land totalled 262900 hectares. The mean urban land take that year, as percentage of urban land in 2000 was 0.63 per cent. Urban land take between 2000 and 2006 totalled 9925 hectares, or 1654 hectares per year.

Type of land lost to land take

Figure based on Corine land cover Changes 2006 compiled by the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute. Data are indicative but inaccurate. Data are therefore not authoritative, but should be used and interpreted as approximations that are to some extent comparable to related approximations collected using similar methods in other European countries.


About three per cent of mainland Norway is cultivated as compared with 11 per cent for the world as a whole.  Some of the land resources available for agriculture are not in use, either temporarily or on a permanent basis. Agricultural areas that are permanently abandoned generally become overgrown with forest. The last national statistics based on the detailed land resource survey of agricultural areas was completed in 2006, when the total agricultural area was 10903 km2 and the undeveloped reserve was 12342 km2.  The last agricultural survey – completed in 1989 – also showed that 7.4 per cent of the land developed for agriculture was currently not in use.


37 to 39 per cent of Norway’s area is forested. Of this, almost half is productive forest (forest with an annual productive capacity of at least 1 m3/ha). This equals about 23 per cent of the total land area of Norway. Conifers and birch dominate. Almost half of this forested area is managed in combination with pastures. The annual felling volume has been relatively stable for the last 80 years, while the growing stock of forest and the annual increase of new forest have doubled during this period. In the last 20 years, the annual planted area and the area of seeding forest have more than halved, and the building of woodland roads has been reduced to a tenth.

Forest conservation conflicts have been discussed repeatedly by the Norwegian Parliament.  A scheme involving voluntary conservation
was launched in 2000 and has enjoyed wide political support, also from forest owners. Since 2003 nearly all new processes to conserve forest on private land have been in form of voluntary conservation. Under the voluntary conservation scheme an area of something in excess of 500 km2 has been conserved

Forest cover in Norway

The shore zone

The building activity within 100 metres of the coastline and inland water courses is decreasing, but there are considerable variations between counties and municipalities.

Despite a  reduction in construction activities, the accessible areas within the coastal zone are still shrinking. During the last 10 years, the accessible areas for outdoor recreation in the coastal zone have gone down by 2.1 per cent on a national scale. In the south of Norway this figure is 3.7 per cent in the same period. However, during the last two years the yearly decrease of accessible areas has declined.

In July 2009, a new Planning and Building Act entered into force. The new law includes a paragraph on prohibition against construction activities in the coastal zone and along water courses. This differs from the old law, where water courses were not included.

Inaccesible coastal areas due to influence from construction 

Access to green areas

Most people have satisfactory access to open areas in Norway. For the country as a whole, 80 per cent of the population has safe access to playgrounds and recreation areas. In towns and urban settlements with a population of 20 000 or more, 73 per cent of the population has access to such areas. However, access to open areas tends to be less good in larger settlements.

Wilderness-like areas

A rough indicator of wilderness areas shows that the indicator area  was reduced with 4.12 per cent during the period 1988 to 2003 and with another 0.53 per cent during the period 2003 to 2008 (all percentages based on the 1988 area). The average yearly decrease was 0.27 per cent during the first period but is now reduced to 0.11 per cent.    

Population growth, urbanisation, consumption, trade important drivers

Population growth, increased urbanisation, rising consumption, and expanding trade all put pressure on the environment. There has been a population growth of three per cent per annum in the last ten years.

Average population change per year

Agriculture and forestry, tourism and road construction cause the greatest physical changes. The building of vacation homes, for instance, has seen a considerable increase since the 1980s. In 2001 there were 377 000 vacation homes in Norway. In 2009 that figure was 423 000, an increase of around 12 per cent in only eight years. Vacation homes threaten particularly vulnerable areas along the coast and in the mountains, because those are the most attractive areas for these type of developments.

Urban land take

The above graph shows data collected for Corine Land Cover changes 2006 by the Forest and Landscape Institute. It is likely that the graph underestimates land take from transport networks and infrastructures. Agricultural areas are particularly vulnerable to land take from new transport networks, as well as the industrial and commercial sites that are created alongside these.


Major structural changes have taken place in agriculture over the last few decades, leading to changes in land use. Three distinct trends can be seen:

  • The agricultural area is divided into fewer and larger holdings
  • Each holding produces fewer products
  • There is increasing specialization between regions

These trends have changed the agricultural system and the way farming shapes the cultural landscape. Specialized buildings on the farms, which are an important part of Norway’s cultural heritage, are loosing their original function and therefore gradually disappear. An increase in the size of fields reduces the length of ecotones and results in less variation in the landscape within certain areas. This reduces biological diversity and gives the agricultural landscape a more monotonous appearance.

In 2009 the government brought 20 designated cultural landscapes under special protection and management.  The system of agricultural subsidies now also includes funding for environmental and landscape management. The guiding rules for these funds have been regionalized in order to allow the use of the funds to adapt to different challenges in different parts of the country.

Erosion control in vulnerable areas is stimulated through subsidising management improvement. Along the coast, plans for developing wind farms will have effects on the landscape. Landscape analyses are therefore required in the impact analysis preceding decisions on wind farm projects.

Protection of agricultural land and effects of livestock on ecosystems main challenges in future

The main land use challenges in Norway towards 2020 are the protection of the agricultural land and the effects of oversized herds of domesticated reindeer on mountain ecosystems.  Other land use related challenges are securing coastal and mountain areas against development, securing greenery in urban areas and containing scrub encroachment of the outfields caused by abandonment of past agricultural practices.

The population is expected to increase to somewhere between 5 and 5.5 million in 2020. The trend towards urbanization is likely to continue. This increases the pressure on land, especially around larger settlements, where we also find the most productive agricultural areas. The government therefore considers implementing stronger legislation for protection of agricultural land. Such legislation may, on the other hand, increase pressure on green areas inside the settlements.

Oversized herds of domesticated reindeer are a challenge in vulnerable mountain ecosystems (LMD 2007). The problem is known and well documented, but still difficult to solve because it is closely linked to indigenous peoples' rights. Global warming will reduce the area of alpine and arctic ecosystems as the tree line will reach higher altitudes. 

A growing population, more leisure time, urban living and better household economy also increases the demand for holiday facilities in rural areas. This may lead to more development of cabins and summer houses as second homes. The demand for electricity and all-year vehicle access to such facilities can lead to additional development and changes in coastal and mountain areas.  

The growing stock in Norwegian forests has increased substantially due to replanting and low cutting rates. The government is now stimulating the use of wood products in order to stabilize the stock and increase the function of the forest as a carbon storage pool. Substantial scrub encroachment and even natural reforestation is taking place in mountains and coastal heath previously kept open by grazing animals, causing changes to landscape and biodiversity.

Protected areas important

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) encourages all countries to set aside at least 15 per cent of all types of habitats as protected areas. If Norway’s current conservation plans are implemented by 2010, more than 15 per cent of mainland Norway will be protected under the Nature Conservation Act. These are the current protection plans:

When the nationwide national park plan is fully implemented, the 15 per cent protection level will be achieved for mountain habitats, and a more representative selection of fjord and coastal areas will be protected.

In 2003, the Norwegian parliament gave its support to expand protection of forested areas. A long-term programme to encourage landowners to protect areas of forest on a voluntary basis is in progress. The first part of a protection plan for forests belonging to the state-owned enterprise Statskog was adopted in 2005. As a result, about 1.7 per cent of Norway’s area of productive forest is now protected.

Implementation of the county protection plans for mires, wetlands, deciduous broad-leaved forests, rich deciduous forests and important coastal sites for seabirds will result in the protection of more coastal and lowland areas. The implementation of the county protection plans were to be completed in 2007 and the national park plan by 2010.

Elsewhere, the most important tool for managing land use is the Planning and Building Act. It provides a framework for safeguarding the natural environment, landscapes and opportunities for outdoor recreation.