You Say “To-may-to”, I Say “To-mah-to”

What is the difference between land cover and land use?

The two terms are often used interchangeably, but strictly speaking land cover captures the physical state of land resources, while land use denotes how the land is being used, or planned for use.  Parcels of similar land cover may be managed or used very differently.  A large expanse of buildings, parking lots, and roads may be considered residential, commercial, or industrial, depending on its use, but in terms of land cover, it may be classified based solely on the amount of impervious surface.

Image of a loblolly pine clear cut area Image illustrating the difference between land cover and use.
In land cover terms, this recent loblolly pine clear cut area would be classified as a mixture of grass and barren land.  For land use though, the area may still be classed as forest, or could be considered recreational, commercial, or cultivated, depending on what type of forest is planned for this land (national park, paper company land, or Christmas tree farm). Another example to highlight the difference between land cover and use would be this golf course.  A land cover map may classify this area as open space developed, or grassland.  Potential land use categories may be recreational, developed, or even as specific as golf course depending on the maps purpose.

 Why is it important?

Maps can be used for various purposes including simple inventories and habitat assessments to more complex uses such as urban planning or assisting in measuring water quality or risk assessments.  Depending on the use of the map, the user should recognize whether the map is a land use or land cover map.

Water Quality example:

If a user was interested in performing a water quality assessment, the amount and type of surface runoff are important factors to consider.  Let’s use the golf course image above to highlight the differences possible between land cover and land use.  As stated before, the land cover for this area may be grassland, while the land use may be recreational or more specifically, golf course.  The amount and type of surface runoff associated with grassland versus a golf course will be very different.  A “grassland” will typically be assumed to be a more natural feature with less runoff, and fewer potential pollutants, while a “golf course” will be assumed to have more runoff (associated with irrigation) plus more potential pollutants (due to fertilization).  The resulting water quality would be better based on the land cover map compared to the land use map, even though the golf course is same.

What to use?

Unfortunately there is no easy way to answer this question.  The only answer I can think of that will hold true would be “it depends”.  It depends on what question you are trying to answer.  It depends on what information is needed.  It depends on what types of maps are available.  Once you answer these questions, the type of map needed may become more clear.  If not, please feel free to contact us!

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