Agricultural is an economic activity that can be found practiced all around the world. German geographer Johann Heinrich von Thünen created one of the first geographical models related to agricultural land use.
The von Thünen model of agricultural land use was created in 1826, which was initially developed prior to major industrialization found in Europe and elsewhere.
Johann Heinrich Von Thünen (24 June 1783 – 22 September 1850) was a farmer, landowner, and economic who created perhaps the first known spatial economic model on land rent using observations he had experienced. It was in the first book of his treatise The Isolated State (1826), that Von Thünen established the first major discussion of spatial economics and economic geography, linking it to the rent theory.
The von Thünen agricultural model was an attempt to answer the problem of balancing the cost of land rents with the most effective crops to grow.
Von Thünen’s Model and Assumptions
Created before industrialization, Von Thünen’s key assumptions in the classical model are:
- 1) a city is centrally located in an “isolated state,”
- 2) one of the surrounding areas around a town is wilderness,
- 3) land is generally flat,
- 4) soil quality and climate are consistent,
- 5) farmers transport goods to a market using mainly carts, and
- 6) farmers behave rationally in choosing where to conduct their activities.
There are generally four main circles around the city that consist, from nearest to a town and moving outwards, of: 1) intense farming, 2) forest lands, 3) extensive farming, and 4) grazing. Rent prices for land are high near a city. The model generally explains variation of land rent and market activity of a region around towns.
While in many respects the model seems out of date, and not to mention focused heavily on a limited type of town or city with a surrounding landscape more reminiscent of central Europe, there are key concepts relevant for modern spatial economics.
For one, distance to market for given goods does have a relationship with profitability, which von Thünen’s model demonstrates clearly. This makes the model broadly applicable for products created near a market, showing that products made near a town have a potential to be more profitable, although even here a modern globalized world means for given products distant labor could lower prices.
In addition to grain agriculture, the theory does have applicability to modern grazing land use practices. For instance in Brazil, it was found that land use near marketplaces that prioritized meat production led to more intense land use and higher demand for forested land, leading to greater deforestation near cities in particular.
Similarly, land use intensification does appear to have a relationship in countries where agriculture and grazing play a prominent role in the economy. Other forestry models have also found applicability of von Thünen’s ideas in balancing land management and determining economic benefit from forestry, where rental income can be combined with ecosystem service models to create more sustainable forestry production models.
While the applicability of the classic von Thünen model appears, at times, relevant for different contexts, in general, and particularly for highly industrial economies, modifications of the classical model have become the norm. This includes the use of multivariate and multi-scale approaches that also incorporate varied topography rather than pure flat regions. Such approaches account for varied economic use as well as connectivity of towns with the wider regional and global economy. Heterogeneous agents affecting land use practices and events, while hierarchical formation and development of urban systems, have become key focus areas today for spatial economists in helping to explain urban and landscape dynamics.
Interestingly, von Thünen’s classical land use model has applicability to different contexts found today. While that is the case, there are also multiple limitations to von Thünen’s ideas that modern land use economic models attempt to address. The longevity of the model, and the fact it is often still used as a basis of analysis, does make it not only the first true spatial economic model but it continues to inspire researchers to develop methods that address its limitations.
 For more on a recent use of von Thünen concepts on land use practices in modern grazing in Brazil, see: Fontes, F., Palmer, C., 2018. “Land Sparing” in a von Thünen Framework: Theory and Evidence from Brazil. Land Economics 94, 556–576. https://doi.org/10.3368/le.94.4.556.
 For more on land use effects using von Thünen concepts in Mozambique , see: Smith, H.E., Ryan, C.M., Vollmer, F., Woollen, E., Keane, A., Fisher, J.A., Baumert, S., Grundy, I.M., Carvalho, M., Lisboa, S.N., Luz, A.C., Zorrilla-Miras, P., Patenaude, G., Ribeiro, N., Artur, L., Mahamane, M., 2019. Impacts of land use intensification on human wellbeing: Evidence from rural Mozambique. Global Environmental Change 59, 101976. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2019.101976.
 For more on the use of von Thünen in forestry, see: Roos, A., Eggers, J., Mark-Herbert, C., Lindhagen, A., 2018. Using von Thünen rings and service-dominant logic in balancing forest ecosystem services. Land Use Policy 79, 622–632. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2018.08.046.
 For more on multi-scale and multi-variet models for land use, see: Salvati, L., 2014. Agro-forest landscape and the ‘fringe’ city: A multivariate assessment of land-use changes in a sprawling region and implications for planning. Science of The Total Environment 490, 715–723. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.05.080.
 For more on recent economic models on land use and urban contexts, see: Gaspar, J.M., 2020. New Economic Geography: Economic Integration and Spatial Imbalances, in: Colombo, S. (Ed.), Spatial Economics Volume I. Springer International Publishing, Cham, pp. 79–110. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-40098-9_4