Land-use systems determine our well-being to a considerable extent, and large public budgets are spent on policies that regulate them. Yet, as land-use systems exhibit strong autonomous dynamics, effects of policies turn out to be difficult to anticipate. Sometimes a policy evokes hardly any effect; other times an unexpectedly strong response occurs, often with a cascade of undesired side-effects.
The ecological concept of regime shifts, to describe a sudden transition of an ecosystem, may elucidate the non-linear response of land-use systems to small or gradual changes in driving factors. After all, land-use systems are, like ecosystems, complex adaptive systems characterized by numerous feedbacks across scales. More specifically, they exhibit bistability, positive feedbacks, and hysteresis: three typical elements that create a disposition for regime shifts.Applying the concepts of regime shifts and tipping points to land-use systems is new, and may provide fundamentally different insights in their behaviour. Accepting that land-use change is not always a linear, gradual process but also shows sudden (unanticipated) shifts, helps to develop better knowledge about the driving factors of land-use change. This may help to develop better models and design principles for more sustainable policies regarding processes such as depopulation and abandonment, effects of bio-based economy on land use, and viability of multi-functional landscapes.
The research hypothesizes the applicability of the regime-shift concept to typical post-war European land-use system transitions. These are shifts from arable to livestock systems; widespread land abandonment and accelerated depopulation; and the transition of a production-based system to a tourism-based system. Ultimately, knowledge of regime shifts in land-use systems may alter the way we govern them, as policies can be designed to deliberately achieve a tipping point, or to avoid it.