Human habitat modelling using remote sensing data

Researchers from the Institute for Environmental Solutions (IES) use Earth observation and remote sensing data as well as survey to find the most suitable residential areas in rural regions. As a result, IES will develop an innovative spatial planning tool for rural development that will allow to identify the areas of the highest value by assessing environmental, natural, infrastructure, socio-economic and other factors.

Habitat modelling for protected wildlife species is a common research method. By acquiring knowledge on suitable living conditions for birds and animals, unused or degraded areas can be adapted to their needs. Such a research approach prompted IES’s scientists to raise the question – how can we define the human habitat, what kind of conditions serves human wellbeing?

IES’s remote sensing expert Dr Dainis Jakovels explains: “The year of the global pandemic has shown that the demand for safe and clean living environment within rural areas is increasing. At the same time, people reconsider important factors for them, such as, access to the public services or suitable infrastructure. By identifying the factors and conditions that are necessary for people wellbeing and safe living environment, we can help local municipalities, planning regions and other organisations to make smart and research-based decisions for regional and rural development.”

To identify residential areas which people valuated the highest, at the beginning of 2021 IES’s researchers conducted an online survey. The survey participants assessed the main factors and preconditions they take in account when choosing a place to live. The target audience of the survey was people who have recently moved or would like to move to rural household in the upcoming 5-10 years. Overall, 633 respondents participated the survey. The questions of the survey were divided into 2 main sections – factors within a property and surrounding area factors.


Factors within a property

The respondents evaluated desired criteria within a property of their existing or potential residence. The criteria included factors such as land and buildings, different infrastructure elements, nature and environment resources and their quality. The results are highlighted in Figure 2.

Regarding the criteria of land and buildings, the respondents primarily want to own or rent a property with at least 1 ha land area and a building that can be improved. The infrastructure of the property is obviously very important for the respondents – electricity connection, internet connection, good drinking water quality, good mobile network coverage is among the most important factors. Within the nature and environment sub-section, the most important factors for the respondents are trees on the property and that there are no invasive species. Followed by grassland, forest and water body presence within the property. Among the factors that the respondents do not want to see within their properties are high voltage lines, shared road and protected nature areas or reserves. 


Surrounding area factors

To find out the most important surrounding area factors, the respondents had to assess the importance of proximity to populated areas, transport and mobility, public services, education and job opportunities, socialization and leisure opportunities, as well as the nature an environment accessibility, quality and security. The results are showcased in Figure 3.

The most important quality and security factors for the respondents are relatively low number of crimes in the area as well as low noise, light and traffic pollution. Survey highlights that good air quality, proximity to forest and water bodies are also very important criteria for surrounding area. Quality of the road to the property, low traffic intensity, proximity to gas station, access to footpaths and cycling paths are considered as the most important transport and mobility factors. The crucial criteria of the public services, education and job opportunities sub-section are proximity to medical institutions and pharmacies, as well as proximity of shops. Considering the answers, respondents do not want military sites, industrial areas and livestock enterprises in the surrounding area of their properties.


The information from the survey allows to identify the factors that respondents value the most choosing residential areas within rural areas. By combining the results of the survey with latest Earth observation satellite, airborne and other remote sensing data IES’s researchers will be able to develop an innovative spatial planning service for rural and regional development. IES foresee that the service will help to make smart decisions to boost demographic and economic growth in rural areas.

Dr Dainis Jakovels explains: “The survey has showed us the most important of our target audience while choosing the residential areas. By combining these data with remote sensing approaches, we are able to model and map human habitat. For the pilot territory of this research, we have chosen the new Cēsis county in Latvia. We have developed first examples of human habitat models for this region. The data and developed algorithms can be used as a tool for spatial planning of the territory. Thus, allowing to make smart and research-based decisions for future investments and grow attractiveness of the abandoned areas.”


Institute for Environmental Solutions is the Latvia’s leading Earth observation and remote sensing expert as well as European Space Agency service provider. Questionnaire is conducted and remote sensing based spatial planning tool is developed as a part of the European Space Agency “Plan for European Cooperating States” (PECS) programme’s supported project “Innovative Spatial Planning Service for Rural Development” (Human Habitat).

More about the project here.