Saltmarsh development was studied in a spatial context, in order to understand the mechanisms involved in saltmarsh cycles. A 30-y time-series of very high resolution false colour aerial photographs was studied for eight saltmarsh sites in the Westerschelde estuary (southwest Netherlands). Detailed maps of vegetation cover were produced for each year, based on a supervised classification, and changes in vegetation cover were analysed in a geographical information system. The results of the vegetation change maps and complementary series of topographic surveys have shown evidence of saltmarsh cycles, but without spatial synchrony in these cycles for the Westerschelde. For each saltmarsh, a different status of net erosion or accretion was found. Within each saltmarsh, there were both areas with vegetation loss and with vegetation expansion in each period. Most saltmarshes showed a simultaneous expansion of Spartina anglica by tussock growth, and a lateral retreat The study demonstrates the significance of intrinsic processes in saltmarsh development, and the necessity to consider the local feedback mechanisms between plant growth, morphology and hydrodynamics of both the saltmarsh and the mudflat, when assessing the status of saltmarshes. It also shows the importance of assessing the changes in saltmarsh area in a spatial context, rather than looking at changes in total area of saltmarsh vegetation.