This thing called Land Use: Reflecting on a life in land use research

27 June 2019
Keith Matthews

The sign on the open plan door that I walk through on my way to my office says Land Use.  It has said Land Use since 1992 when I moved into our new building, opened to house the then five-year-old Macaulay Land Use Research Institute.  The sign has never changed, despite reorganisations, rebranding, reviews and mergers.  While there are no longer thematic departmental structures in the now James Hutton Institute, the sign still defines in two words an idea that profoundly shapes the professional and personal lives of a significant majority of the people who pass the sign each day.  It represents a community of practice with deep roots, but one which is, perhaps only now 27 year later, able to fully articulate the ambitions of the people who put the sign on the door.

To elaborate a little what this thing called land use research is I searched my book shelves for a vaguely remembered report I had been passed by a senior colleague from the Land Use Division on his retirement.  It has sat there largely undisturbed, surviving decluttering, as a piece of institutional history.  The report is a Review of Land Use Research in the UK (Birnie et al., 1995) and the contents are a fascinating time capsule which highlight what the original vision for land use research was and which allows readers today to reflect on how far their own state-of-the-art has advanced and how many of the problems faced in 1994 are still ahead of us now.

  • There is an increasing need to develop more coordinated research programmes in the future focused on major issues like sustainability. The wider rural socio-economy is generally a poorly researched topic …
  • The vision of agriculture as “the backbone of the rural economy “ is still prevalent […] this Review suggests that the rural economy a much more complex policy objective than is, for example, the wellbeing of agriculture.It raises issues […]that have seldom been considered together before.
  • Few scientific groups […] are capable of delivering across the range of disciplines involved. […] need to find ways of creating and nurturing such interdisciplinary groups if a coherent body of relevant knowledge, theory and expertise is to be developed.
  • […] for research to be classified as “land use science” […] it must seek explanation through an integrative, multi-disciplinary approach and preferably be focused on whole land systems[…] above the individual […] above the field”.
  • Little evidence of underpinning theoretical or methodological research that seeks either to develop a framework for integrated research of this type or develop a fundamental understanding of process.
  • There is the need to involve the user community in the research process where the output is specifically designed to support the policy process. […] little evidence of this […] little understanding of how this might be done […] far from clear how research findings are communicated […] to what extent research actually informs policy.

For the Hutton researchers in the MAGIC team our view would be that all the challenges identified above remain “live” issues but that projects like MAGIC are demonstrating progress and signposting ways forward.  The societal metabolism analyses pioneered by Mario Giampietro and others at UAB bring a theoretical coherence and analytical precision to the analysis of land use and provide a tractable way to make sense to the potentially overwhelming complexity.  Land Use research brings to societal metabolism analysis the insights of spatial analysis.  Yet even their combined scientific rigour still needs to be translated into outcomes and impacts.  Here the deliberative inclusive processes, crossing the science-policy interface using Quantitative Story Telling (QST) are key.  QST recognises that transdisciplinary research should strive to shape policy (colloquially speaking truth to power) but also that is must engage with and be shaped by stakeholders (post normal science).

The study of land use has never been more relevant with the recognition that the challenges faced by humanity are increasingly clearly not just socio-economic but also biophysical.  How populations cope with resource limits are old challenges, thought to have been consigned long ago to the text books of economic and social history (my first undergraduate lecture in 1985).  Yet whether Malthus proves to be wrong or not, may just depend on the temporal scale over which one considers the topic of land use.


Birnie, R.V., Morgan, R.J., Bateman, D., Potter, C., Shucksmith, M., Thompson, T.R.E., Webster, J.P.G., 1995. Review of land use research in the UK.  Part A: Executive Report. Report prepared on behalf of SOAFD under contract MLU/408/94., p. 26.