New dimensions in Swedish planning - an investigation of subsurface planning and geosystem services
Rapport, 2020

The subsurface is a precious, multifunctional and finite resource that should be managed in accordance with its full potential and its value to society. It can be used for a wide variety of purposes, which are not always compatible, and short-term use can conflict with long-term use and future possibilities. In Sweden, as well as in many countries worldwide, the “first-come-first-served” principle applies to getting access to the resources in the subsurface, compromising fair inter- and intragenerational distributions of these resources, and sustainable development.

This report summarises the outcomes of the research project Sustainable use of underground space (SUB), financed by the Swedish research Council Formas and BeFo Rock Engineering Research Foundation. The aim of the project has been to investigate how subsurface dimensions can be integrated in urban planning processes and legislation, as well as proposing a framework for sustainable planning and use of the subsurface.

The report contains a list of words and terminology used in relation to subsurface planning. The term subsurface planning is here defined as both a) consideration of subsurface conditions in surface planning, as well as b) making strategic considerations regarding the use of the subsurface in terms of use for construction purposes, or other types of subsurface resources.

Chapter 1 introduces the background to the project and describes the methods used in the studies within the project. The methods used are a systematic literature review; a document and interview study of Swedish practice on inclusion of subsurface aspects in planning of a number of underground projects; a review of legislation and policy relevant to subsurface planning; and a pilot study for method development and for an inventory of resources in the subsurface.

Chapter 2 summarises the role of geoscience in society, and specifically in spatial planning. This includes uncertainties in the parameters that are used to describe geological, thermal, hydrogeological, mechanical, chemical and biological properties of soil and rock, as well as exemplifying databases and base line studies that can be used in comprehensive planning.

Chapter 3 places the subsurface as a multifunctional resource in an international context. A literature review reveals a need to bridge communication and knowledge gaps by appropriate subsurface information, easily conveyable in the appropriate format and at the right time, in a balanced quantity and quality. Information on regulations and policies for subsurface use is limited and fragmented in literature, although the interest in, and use of, the subsurface, have significantly increased in the last two decades.

Chapter 4 gives an overview of Swedish subsurface planning from the 1970s to 2020. As early as 1975, at the inaugural annual meeting of the International Tunneling Association (ITA), the term subsurface planning was introduced. A pioneering Swedish study that was already ongoing at that point, aimed at providing the basis for legal regulations on responsibility for planning of subsurface use in spatial planning processes. In the past 40 years, a number of studies have been carried out in Sweden to support the development of a strategic subsurface planning. The chapter also provides a short description of two contemporary national projects “HUMP” and “Eko-Geokalkyl” which have contributed to a better integration of subsurface aspects in planning processes.

Chapter 5 provides an overview of the development of the planning legislation in Sweden and explains contemporary Swedish planning legislation and policy that have implications on the subsurface. The overview includes planning and other related laws from 1600s to 2000s. The chapter provides a detailed description of the role of the Planning and Building Act (2010:305), the Environmental Code (1998:808), the Road Act (1971:948), the Construction of Railways Act (1995:1649), the Expropriation Act (1972:719), the Historic Environment Act (1988:950), the Protection of Essential Facilities Act (2010:305), as well as environmental policies in planning processes.

Chapter 6 discusses subsurface usage in Sweden, and how the legislation is applied in spatial planning. Focus is on the Planning and Building Act, and the interaction between planning levels for which the local councils are responsible. A description of national projects that aim for digitalisation of the planning process is included. Also, other legislation that impacts the subsurface is discussed, related to e.g. construction of roads and railways, cultural heritage, energy, water and sewage systems, waste management, subsurface structures that are classified.

Chapter 7 presents a pilot study, Flatås, which is an area located in Gothenburg, South-West Sweden. The pilot study aimed at mapping subsurface resources, investigating potential opportunities and conflicts between uses of these resources, and developing a proposal for how the collected data can be used in a detailed comprehensive planning of the area. Various subsurface qualities, divided into provisioning, regulating, supporting and cultural qualities, were used for a systematic inventory and mapping of subsurface resources. The inventory and mapping results were summarised thematically (Water, Energy, Waste, Transport and communication, Constructions, Green infrastructure, Cultural heritage, and Contamination) for better communication of findings to planners. The concept of geosystem services is introduced to form a solid basis for communication of subsurface values and qualities.

Chapter 8 outlines and describes the identified barriers for achieving a holistic subsurface planning in Sweden. The subsurface is rarely addressed in Swedish legislation or policy documents. Existing data and knowledge about the subsurface conditions is not thoroughly used in the early planning processes. Instead, data collection and sometimes additional investigations are usually performed late in the planning process, when many decisions are already made, causing plans to be overly costly or cause unintended restrictions on developments. In addition, many different competences are involved in the planning process, but there is no common understanding or terminology to bridge the communication gap between different professions, which may impede a holistic approach. In contrast to the planning of built environments above ground, there is a lack of comprehensive subsurface planning, and instead issues related to the subsurface are handled in different sectors. There is a lack of knowledge on the subsurface compared to the vast base line studies that often exists for built environments above ground and as a result, the first-come-first-served principles applies. In addition, there is no archival institution responsible for collection of geoscientific data, and some information may be confidential.

Chapter 9 presents the developed SUB-matrix (matrix for supporting Sustainable Use of the suBsurface), which aims to support a systematic inventory of geosystem services in the municipal planning processes. The SUB-matrix is developed specifically for the Swedish planning system taking different panning levels into consideration: national, regional, transport and municipal planning. In turn, the municipal level consists of comprehensive, detailed comprehensive and detailed development planning sub-levels as well as the permission process sub-level. The SUB-matrix is a comprehensive checklist of geosystem services with identification of the relevant planning level for their inventory and a summary of the relevant information sources to support the inventory process. The tool highlights potential conflicts between geosystem services. For most use of the SUB-matrix, the information inside the matrix should be adapted to each specific municipality. The matrix is available via a web link (

Chapter 10 presents a proposal of five principles that supports sustainable planning, both above and below ground, and can be applied on different scales, from areas to specific projects. These principles are: 1) Fitness-for-use - use the surface and subsurface resources for the function they are most fit for, 2) Alternative uses – consider if existing underground constructions and structures can be transformed to meet new needs and demands, 3) Think in 3D – investigate whether the desired development can be placed above or below ground, 4) Optimise - investigate if new functions can be added to existing and planned structures, and 5) Flexibility - design new underground structures for a flexible use to meet new demands and future needs. Application of the principles is exemplified using examples retrieved from the literature review, the study of planning praxis and the pilot study carried out in the project.

Chapter 11 suggests a number of solutions and ways forward that can support the achievement of a sustainable subsurface planning in Sweden. The geosystem services concept should be clarified and introduced, as a complement to the ecosystem services concept, to support subsurface use in accordance with its full potential and its value to society. The planning processes must be strengthened, and a ‘comprehensive subsurface plan’ – that corresponds with local councils’ comprehensive plans regulated by the Planning and Building Act – should be introduced as a tool for sustainable use of subsurface resources. Principles for how to balance different uses of the subsurface is suggested to be developed in comprehensive plans. A national database, where relevant geoscientific data is collected, should be created making this information accessible for the public. Legislation and policy documents should be developed in order to more clearly address subsurface planning.

Chapter 12 summarises the main conclusions of this project and suggestions for future research. In the Swedish planning legislation and policy, the subsurface is invisible. The geosystem services concept proved to be helpful for an inventory of multiple subsurface resources and their inclusion in planning. The main recommendation is to strategically evaluate the subsurface in the comprehensive planning process and create a detailed comprehensive plan of the subsurface. The SUB-matrix is developed to serve as a communication tool for municipality to support integrating subsurface aspects in the planning processes. The suggested five principles of subsurface planning aim to support a sustainable subsurface and surface planning. It is also recommended to perform an inventory of digital resources for subsurface planning using the geosystem services concept as a starting point. Finally, the chapter recommends future works to further support the realisation of a sustainable subsurface planning.

policy development




geosystem services

urban planning


ecosystem services

underground planning

subsurface planning

underground space


Jenny Norrman

Chalmers, Arkitektur och samhällsbyggnadsteknik, Geologi och geoteknik

Lars O Ericsson

Chalmers, Arkitektur och samhällsbyggnadsteknik, Geologi och geoteknik

Anders Markstedt

Chalmers, Arkitektur och samhällsbyggnadsteknik, Geologi och geoteknik

Yevheniya Volchko

Chalmers, Arkitektur och samhällsbyggnadsteknik, Geologi och geoteknik

Kristina L. Nilsson

Luleå tekniska universitet

Jennie Sjöholm

Luleå tekniska universitet

SUB Hållbar resursanvändning av undermarksrymden

Formas (942-2016-50), 2016-07-01 -- 2021-06-30.

BeFo - stiftelsen bergteknisk forskning, 2016-07-01 -- 2021-08-31.




Annan samhällsbyggnadsteknik

Multidisciplinär geovetenskap


Hållbar utveckling


Building Futures (2010-2018)


BeFo - stiftelsen bergteknisk forskning

Relaterade dataset

SUB matrisen [dataset]


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