Alteration in land use is likely to be a major driver of changes in the distribution of ecosystem services before 2050. In Europe, urbanization will probably be the main cause of land-use change. This increase in urbanization will result in spatial shifts in both supplies of ecosystem services and the beneficiaries of those services; the net outcome of such shifts remains to be determined.

The authors model changes in urban land cover in Britain based on large (16%) projected increases in the human population by 2031, and the consequences for flood mitigation, agricultural production and carbon storage. They show that under a scenario of densification of urban areas, the combined effect of increasing population and loss of permeable surfaces is likely to result in 1.7 million people living within 1 km of rivers with at least 10 per cent increases in projected peak flows, but that increasing suburban ‘sprawl’ will have little effect on flood mitigation services.

Conversely, losses of stored carbon and agricultural production are over three times as high under the sprawl as under the ‘densification’ urban growth scenarios. These results illustrate the challenges of meeting, but also of predicting, future demands and patterns of ecosystem services in the face of increasing urbanization.

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