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Research themes

The department of Environmental Geography

The research approach is structured along two main principles: (1) the achievement of excellent science that is informed by interactions with stakeholders and used for sustainability solutions in policy and practice, and (2) the use of an approach in which both global dynamics and local realities are accounted for. This multi-scale approach is essential to ensure that the regional and global context is accounted for in local research. At the same time, global scale models and data should account for the local realities where sustainability solutions need to be implemented. The different scales are not only addressed in different research projects; we also stimulate PhD candidates to work across the different scale on which the phenomena operate.

The research in the department is broadly organised according to four themes.

Below an overview

Research themes

  • Socio-ecological system mapping and modelling

    The Environmental Geography Group aims to provide tools and data to better understand the impacts and feedbacks in the coupled human-land-climate system, especially focusing on the role of humans in this system. of the main focus is on the understanding of land systems as socio-ecological systems in which land use and land cover are the result of dynamic interactions of humans with their environment.

    As different scales require different approaches, we employ a range of methods including case studies, meta-studies, participatory mapping and quantitative models. Specific attention is given to the role of human decision making in land use and adaptation as a core component of socio-ecological systems. We strive towards providing more detailed measures of land change and ecosystem dynamics and implementing these into operational land use models. Additionally, we aim to understand landscape values as an essential means to support sustainable land use and spatial planning by citizen participation.

  • Trade-offs between climate, biodiversity and ecosystem services

    Land use is not only a cause of climate change, but also holds major opportunities for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Our group investigates the tradeoffs between demands for climate change mitigation, biodiversity protection and ecosystem services.

    One the one hand, land-cover/use change is the second largest contributor to atmospheric carbon dioxide after fossil fuel burning. Land-cover/use change alters biogeochemical processes and biophysical processes. On the other hand, climate change impacts the composition and properties of ecosystems, land management practices and affects our water and food supply, e.g. by droughts, storms or changing temperatures.

    Aligning demands for climate change mitigation, biodiversity protection and multiple ecosystem services requires planning and management current account for trade-offs and synergies amongst different functions of the land. We aim to contribute by quantification and mapping of these interactions between targets and by exploring opportunities for the restoration of landscapes and the optimization of landscape structure. While multi-objective planning offers opportunities to maintain and enhance multifunctional land use, it also inevitably involves trade-offs between different societal actors and normative dimensions in target setting and prioritization. The EG group aims to investigate these dimensions and add transparency to decision-making.

  • Land system change and sustainability transformations

    The majority of the earth’s land surface has been altered by humans, predominantly to produce food, feed and to provide shelter. These alterations have caused many changes in land cover, including a decrease in forest cover and other natural areas, and an increase in cropland and built-up areas. However, land change does not necessarily lead to land cover change: intensification of agricultural land management and changes from subsistence to market oriented agriculture may have strong impacts on the functioning of the land system and its impacts on human well-being.

    The Environmental Geography department studies processes of land change at scales ranging from local to global and has a long track record in developing world-leading land change models and advanced spatial analysis. Insight in spatial distribution and the ability to project future changes is a tool to synthesize our understanding of the land system and initiate discussions about the spatial diversity and potential futures of land use. Given the importance of food systems we investigate the structure of food systems, its actors and potential interventions. Focus areas are the land use impacts of sustainable diets and the spatial variation in access to and quality of food.

  • Sustainable land management and cities

    Landscapes are manifestations of biophysical, cultural, and economic processes, facing constant change. These changes represent the many ways in which people interact with their environments. Landscapes have both material and immaterial dimensions: they provide us with a range of goods and services, but also form an important part of our identity, contributing to our natural and cultural heritage. Urban residents, tourists, rural country dwellers, farmers and fishermen all have different wants and needs from the landscape, leading to diverse landscapes and cities. This diversity of demands, perceptions, and uses of landscapes and cities raise challenging questions about how to best design, plan, and manage resilient landscapes and cities that are resistant to shocks and adaptive to changes in society and environment.

    To cater for the diverse nature of people-environment interactions, we develop and employ new integrative methods to develop sustainable land management and cities, including in-depth case-study research, landscape and urban modelling, remote sensing and distribution modelling. We conduct research towards the characterization of land management and urban structures. Accounting for diversity in structure and function of land and urban systems helps to target possible interventions at the right place and identify leverage points for systemic change.