Planners and decision-makers entitled for rural land use planning seem to be challenged by the growing multidimensional nature of rural areas. The emergence of non-agricultural land uses in land allocated for agriculture is an important aspect of this multidimensional nature of rural areas. The overall goal of this study is to map and better understand unplanned land uses taking place within the agricultural territory allocated by spatial policy in Flanders (northern region of Belgium). We used a two-staged methodology. First, by a GIS analysis on official datasets, parcels allocated as farmland but without a registered agricultural use, were identified as being part of an information gap. The results indicate that 15% of the statutory agricultural area is not factually used for agriculture. Next, using orthophotographs and Google Streetview images, we identified for six representative municipalities the actual land uses taking place parcels with an inconsistently determined land use. The fraction of 15% was then further differentiated into apparent farmland (33%), domestic gardens (36.3%) and nonagricultural economic activities (5.5%). Based on the in-depth survey, it can be estimated that over 10% of the statutory farmland in Flanders is not farmland in reality. Based on these results, the paper introduces the concept ‘virtual farmland’ as statutory agricultural land with non-agricultural land uses.
This concept is applicable elsewhere and can be a powerful concept to theorize and make progress in monitoring the so far little known occupation of statutory agricultural land by unplanned nonagricultural land uses. Especially in regions with a strong competition for land, the quantification of virtual farmland provides a scientific basis to weigh and to integrate different spatial claims.