Urban Sprawl in Europe

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

Europe is one of the most urbanised continents on earth, with approximately 75 % of its population living in urban areas. The urban future of Europe, however, is a matter of great concern. More than a quarter of the European Union's territory has now been directly affected by urban land use.

By 2020, approximately 80 % of Europeans will be living in urban areas. In seven countries the proportion will be 90 % or more. As a result, the demand for land in and around cities is becoming acute. On a daily basis, we all witness rapid, visible and conflicting changes in land use which are shaping landscapes and affecting the environment in and around cities as never before.

Cities are spreading, minimising the time and distances between them and in-and-out of them. This expansion is occurring in a scattered way across Europe, driven by changing lifestyles and consumption, and is commonly termed urban sprawl. Available evidence demonstrates conclusively that urban sprawl has accompanied the growth of cities across Europe over the past 50 years.

Urban sprawl occurs when the rate of land use conversion and consumption for urban uses exceeds the rate of population growth for a given area over a specified period. Urban sprawl should rightly be regarded as one of the major common challenges facing urban Europe today.

A recent pan-European study shows a continuing and rapid spatial expansion of cities: more than 5 % in a decade (Figure 1), equivalent to three times the area of Luxembourg. The areas with the most visible impacts of urban sprawl are in countries or regions with high population density and economic activity (Belgium, the Netherlands, southern and western Germany, northern Italy, the Paris region) and/or rapid economic growth (Ireland, Portugal, eastern Germany, the Madrid region). Sprawl is particularly evident where countries or regions have benefited from EU regional policies and funding. New development patterns can also be observed, around smaller towns or in the countryside, along transportation corridors, and along many parts of the coast usually connected to river valleys.

The growth of cities in Europe has historically been driven by increasing urban populations. However, today, even where there is little or no population pressure, a variety of factors are still driving sprawl. These are rooted in the desire to realise new lifestyles in suburban environments, outside the inner city.

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