Land use and areas of natural land

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OpenStreetMap supports mapping land use (a use classification of different areas of land) by drawing in simple areas and using a tag from Key:landuse, or other land classifications such as Key:natural. Renderers tend to support many of these tags by showing areas in different colours as an underlay beneath highways and other features.


In OSM we have some nuances when tagging simple forest.

Land use

Short definition: what the area is used for by humans.

  • landuse=* - main tag to mark land use
  • some of leisure=* tags might be considered as land use.
  • some of man_made=* tags might be considered as land use (man_made=wastewater_plant). Please note than many tags were created without proposal and placed under man_made as a result of how OSM has evolved.
  • other tags may refer to human intervention (operator=*, managed=*, craft=*)


Land cover

Land cover is used to describe the physical material at the surface of the earth. Land cover includes grass, asphalt, trees, bare ground, water, etc.

Recommendations on how to approach land use mapping are still to be finalised. See #Open questions below.

Example: Newport has a lot of land use areas mapped out. Is Newport a "good" example? You decide:

In this image you can see land classified with tags such as:


Open questions

Here are some awkward questions to do with land use:

  • Are we aiming to classify every area of land with a land use? Could be good, but in practical terms, how do we deal with farm land (or in some countries desert/wasteland) which occupy the majority of the landmass outside of cities? While they are half-mapped the map looks weirdly incomplete, with big brown stains over patches where farms are drawn in. Why are the renderers set-up like that?
    • Because assuming that ALL land is farmland unless defined otherwise would also result in silly rendering that would be even worse. And yes, ideally all farmland would be mapped with landuse=farmland
  • How should we map very large land use areas? These forests in British Columbia for example have been added by splitting them up in rectangular chunks. This is a pragmatic solution to help renderers, but it results in rendering artefacts. Is that a bug to fix in the style config / software?
  • Should adjacent land use areas share nodes (overlapping way-segments)? Also should abutting highways along the edge of land use area share nodes? People have different approaches to this. Some people leave a small gap between land use areas and surrounding elements. Sharing nodes makes the data more awkward to work with (you have to use clever key-presses to separate the data out if you want to change it).
  • Similar question to the above. Should land use areas ever be "attached" (share a node) with intersecting highways? It is common to do this for highway=footway as they cross into leisure=park, but it means the land use data is less easily separated out into different layers.
  • What granularity do we go for when mapping farms? Is a landuse=farmland area drawn around an individual field, individual farm, or do we draw massive areas covering lots of farmland?
    • Ideally individual fields would be mapped, but mapping large areas is also entirely fine and reasonable approach.
  • What granularity do we go for when mapping in cities? And if we do very detailed land use areas, do we end up mapping a small landuse=retail area around every standalone corner shop? How does this sit with the use of building=*?

Tagging questions

In addition to these general questions about land use mapping, there are also a great deal of questions about tagging. Taking a step back and looking at the array of land use tags and natural tags we have defined, it can look like a hopeless mess, but remember that OpenStreetMap has never operated with a strict ontology. If you're using the data, it's easy enough to define mappings to fit with how you would like to rationalise classifications.

Persuading the mapping community to stick to more sensible tagging classifications, is a more difficult task. Many tags are used passionately by a small number of contributors in a specific area, but sit uncomfortably with other defined tags. It's not even worth attempting to solve the problems all at once. You are encouraged to cross-link between similar tags on the wiki tag pages, and use the wiki talk pages and other contact channels to point out inconsistencies and help nudge things in a more rational direction, but don't expect everyone to agree. Have patience.

GB discussion on the mapping of Land Use & Land Cover

In March 2021 the subject of how to map land cover & land use features, in relation to adjacent highways was discussed on talk-gb[1]. There was a wide ranging discussion, but no clear consensus about how the features should be mapped. Where those features border with a highway, the mapper should avoid using shared nodes if possible.

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