R-spatial evolution: retirement of rgdal, rgeos and maptools

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Summary: Packages rgdal, rgeos and maptools will retire by the end of 2023 . We describe where their functionality will go, what package maintainers can or should do, and which steps we will take to minimize the impact on dependent packages and on reproducibility in general.

Why this blog?

The R Consortium ISC granted a proposal by the authors of this blog, called “Preparing CRAN for the retirement of rgdal, rgeos and maptools”. In this blog we will point out what this project will do.

Why rgeos and rgdal will retire

When loading package rgeos recently you may have noticed the startup message:

Please note that rgeos will be retired by the end of 2023,
plan transition to sf functions using GEOS at your earliest convenience.

and similar with rgdal:

Please note that rgdal will be retired by the end of 2023,
plan transition to sf/stars/terra functions using GDAL and PROJ
at your earliest convenience.

The reason that these package will retire are primary that their maintainer, Roger Bivand, has retired. In principle someone could take over maintenance, but that would be a large effort better spent differently. Maintenance of these two packages is hard because

  1. they link R code to external libraries, in particular GEOS, GDAL and PROJ, which needs regular adaption when these libraries change
  2. building binary package versions for Windows and Mac-OS requires frequent communication with the CRAN team members
  3. both packages are nearly 20 years old, contain a lot of code that is conditional to older versions of the external libraries and use the .Call() interface which makes code harde to read.

More modern packages like sf (since 2016), stars (2018) and terra (2020) also link to GDAL, GEOS and PROJ and should be able to take over the role that rgdal and rgeos now have in the future. In this blog we describe how we envision this to happen.

Packages depending on rgeos and rgdal

There are several ways in which R packages can depend on others, which we summarize with strong (one of: “Depends”, “Imports”, “LinkingTo”) or most (one of: “Depends”, “Imports”, “LinkingTo”, “Suggests”). The following table lists how many packages currently depend on rgdal and/or rgeos and/or maptools:

rgdal rgeos maptools
Direct strong 213 140 93
Recursive strong 265 190 641
Direct most 358 225 180

where “recursive strong” also counts packages that depend strongly on another package that strongly depends on rgdal or rgeos. Strong dependency means that a package will not run without rgdal or rgeos.

The Plan

The plan is to

  1. Move, where possible, functionality from CRAN packages “rgeos”, “rgdal” and “maptools” to modern packages that have an active maintainer
  2. Contact maintainers of CRAN packages depending on “rgdal”, “rgeos” and “maptools” and provide guidance how they can migrate to modern alternatives
  3. Modify package “sp” such that it no longer depends on “rgdal” or “rgeos”
  4. Assist in modifying package “raster” such that it no longer needs “rgdal” or “rgeos”
  5. Develop proxy packages for “rgdal” and “rgeos” that do not link to system requirements GDAL, PROJ and GEOS but that – where possible – call into maintained R packages (while warning that deprecated functions are being called), and otherwise raise errors with pointers to how they can be resolved.

Steps that will need to be carried out include:

  • For each of “rgdal”, “rgeos” and “maptools”, we will create a list of functions that reverse CRAN dependencies call, along with the arguments that are being set in these calls
  • Given this list, we will decide which functions will/can be replaced by functions that call into sf/stars/raster/terra, taking vector representations first and raster representations second
  • A reference group will be established (a “project steering committee”) consisting of the most affected package maintainers and institutional R Spatial users, and those with knowledge of legacy sp/raster workflows to explore changes that would work for them
  • Functions/methods that can be moved directly to sp will be identified (e.g. sp-spatstat coercion, sp-maps coercion etc.)
  • Other functions will be rewritten into a new set of “proxy” packages for rgdal, rgeos and maptools that pass on to sf/stars/raster/terra (first vector representations, once vector established to be extended to raster representations)
  • With these “proxy” packages, reverse dependency checks will be carried out (first vector representations, once vector established extend to raster representations)
  • Reverse dependency package maintainers affected will be informed that this will happen, and will be pointed to reports/contingency measures permitting the elimination of proxy packages other than sp
  • All affected reverse dependency package maintainers will be informed about functions that will be abandoned and not replaced
  • Proxy packages will be submitted to CRAN if necessary – target to support workflows and notebooks (reproducible research) rather than dependent packages – sp to continue as a container for a very few proxified functions such as sp::spTransform().
  • Old-style function calls will be finally deprecated (e.g. readOGR), with pointers to replacement function calls.

Packages depending on sp and raster

Package raster has rgdal in Suggests:, but uses it intensively to read and write common raster formats. A lot of functions in rgdal were added there specifically with usage by raster in mind. The risk that raster will stop working when rgdal retires is however limited, because (i) package terra is being developed and is meant to entirely replace raster, (ii) raster currently imports terra, and (iii) as terra directly links to GDAL, GEOS and PROJ, functions currently in rgdal but needed (only) by raster could relatively easily be moved to terra.

Package sp currently suggests both rgeos and rgdal. It uses rgdal for the validation of CRS objects (proj4string or WKT descriptions of coordinate reference systems), and it uses rgeos to sort out which rings are holes when a SpatialPolygons object does not have a flag indicating this. This only happens for saved objects that are at least 10 years old. Both functionalities (CRS validation, hole detection) can however easily be substituted by functions in package sf.

We already carried out step 3 of the above list of steps. Branch evolution of Roger Bivand’s fork of sp, which can be installed with

devtools::install_github("rsbivand/[email protected]")

contains conditional code that prevents sp to call code in rgdal or rgeos. This can be enabled by setting


after that, e.g. a call to CRS("+proj=longlat") calls sf::st_crs() to validate the coordinate reference system and retrieve the WKT representation. All code of the ASDAR has been verified to run under these conditions. Maintainers of packages depending on sp can do this too when checking their packages.

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