Urban environment — SOER 2010 thematic assessment


Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

Urban areas and quality of life

For the three-quarters of Europe’s population that lives in cities and towns, a good urban environment is a precondition for a good quality of life. It seems, in part, that over the last decade, attitudes to living in cities have been changing. People are no longer moving away from cities (or have returned to them), residential sprawl has slowed and, in a third of cities, the population is concentrating in city centres.

As the major function of cities is to provide places for people to trade, produce, communicate and live, the urban environment needs to be assessed from a very specific human perspective:  to provide an agreeable place to live while minimising or balancing negative side effects.

Quality of life in cities relies on a range of components such as social equity, income and welfare, housing, a healthy environment, social relations and education. The environmental elements of good quality of life include good air quality, low noise levels, clean and sufficient water, good urban design with sufficient and high-quality public and green spaces, an agreeable local climate or opportunities to adapt, and social equity. However, urban-specific data are patchy in Europe and, due to different timescales and reporting methods, are seldom directly comparable.

Urban challenges

Many of our cities struggle to cope with social, economic and environmental problems resulting from pressures such as overcrowding or decline, social inequity, pollution and traffic. The environmental impacts of cities also spread well beyond their physical limits as they rely heavily on outside regions to meet demand for energy and resources and to accommodate waste. A study of Greater London estimates that London has a footprint 300 times its geographical area — corresponding to nearly twice the size of the entire UK.

Climate change

Climate change has the potential to influence almost all components of the urban environment and to raise new, complex challenges for the quality of urban life, health and urban biodiversity. Some cities will experience droughts and higher temperatures. Others will experience floods. Climate change will affect many aspects of urban living from air quality to consumption patterns (e.g. energy for air conditioning).

Poor urban design can aggravate the impacts of climate change. Soil sealing, for example, can increase the ‘urban heat island effect’. It may also increase water run-off and lack of drainage during heavy rains leading to floods. However, urban design aimed at tackling climate change could have numerous co-benefits from improved air quality, supporting biodiversity and quality of life.

Urban opportunities

The proximity of people, businesses and services associated with the very word ‘city’ means there are also huge opportunities and benefits associated with urban living especially in terms of sustainability and resource use. Already, population density in cities means shorter journeys to work and services, greater use of walking, cycling or public transport, and living in apartments of multi-family houses or blocks requiring less heating and less ground space per person. As a result, urban dwellers on average consume less energy and land for living per capita than rural residents.

Designing the future

Cities are ecosystems: they are open and dynamic systems which consume, transform and release materials and energy; they develop and adapt; and they interact with humans and with other ecosystems. They must therefore be managed and protected like any other type of ecosystem.

Through rethinking urban design, architecture transport and planning, we can turn our cities and urban landscapes into ‘urban ecosystems’ at the forefront of climate change mitigation (e.g. sustainable transport, clean energy and low consumption) and adaptation (e.g. floating houses, vertical gardens). Furthermore, better urban planning will improve quality of life across the board by designing quiet, safe, clean and green urban space. It create also new employment opportunities by enhancing the market for new technologies and green architecture.

Cities, due to their concentration of people and activities, matter for Europe. Also, the problems of cities cannot be solved at the local level alone. Better policy integration and new governance, involving closer partnership and co-ordination at local, national and European level, are required.

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