The difference between “land use” and “land cover”

The terms “land use” and “land cover” have specific meanings in how they describe the land and should not be used interchangeably.

Many of us regularly read and hear the words land use and land cover, but do we really understand what these words mean? These terms are often erroneously used interchangeably; however, each term has a very specific meaning.

Land use is commonly defined as a series of operations on land, carried out by humans, with the intention to obtain products and/or benefits through using land resources.

Land cover is commonly defined as the vegetation (natural or planted) or man-made constructions (buildings, etc.) which occur on the earth surface. Water, ice, bare rock, sand and similar surfaces also count as land cover.

Land use and land cover have some fundamental differences. Land use refers to the purpose the land serves, for example, recreation, wildlife habitat or agriculture; it does not describe the surface cover on the ground. For example, a recreational land use could occur in a forest, shrubland, grasslands or on manicured lawns.

Land cover refers to the surface cover on the ground, whether vegetation, urban infrastructure, water, bare soil or other; it does not describe the use of land, and the use of land may be different for lands with the same cover type. For instance, a land cover type of forest may be used for timber production, wildlife management or recreation; it might be private land, a protected watershed or a popular state park.

In short, land use indicates how people are using the land, whereas land cover indicates the physical land type. Both types of data are most often obtained from analysis of either satellite or aerial images.

Understanding both the land use and land cover of a track of land provides a comprehensive picture of a particular area. This data is a fundamental component of the planning and decision-making processes for many communities because it helps them to understand better where to plan for different types of growth and where to preserve; it also helps them to understand the connectivity or fragmentation of various features in their community.

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