While there are plenty of benefits to compacting urban populations, such as economy of scale and ease of transport and communication, there are concerns that opportunities to experience nature are declining. Access to green space within cities has been found to benefit many aspects of health and wellbeing, enabling local residents to cope better with the stresses of living in large urban areas. To predict the consequences of rapid urbanisation for human wellbeing requires information on how green space provision will change as cities grow. One way to help achieve this is to study green space provision across a range of present-day cities.
The researchers characterised urban land cover across 31 European countries, using data from the European Environment Agency1. This included land areas greater than 25 hectares with more than 100 000 inhabitants. Overall, 386 cities in Europe were identified for the study. 170.6 million people, or 34 percent of Europe's population, lived in these cities in 2001. The percentage of green space varies, from 1.9 percent in Reggio di Calabria, Italy, to 46 per cent in Ferrol, Spain, though the study's authors emphasize that green space coverage can be calculated in a variety of ways. Cities in northern Europe tend to have greater proportions of green space compared with cities in the south. However, around 45 million people living in Europe still have limited access to green areas in cities with between just 2 and 13 per cent green space.
Generally, the proportion of green space per person diminishes as population density increases. The study suggests this is because more residents have been crowded into cities, and not necessarily because buildings have been constructed on green spaces.
The amount of green space per person, (the 'per capita green space provision'), varies significantly. The lowest provision is in southern and eastern Europe and the highest in the north and northwest of the continent. For example, Cádiz, Fuenlabrada and Almería in Spain and Reggio di Calabria in Italy have 3 to 4 square metres of green space per person, compared with more than 300 square metres per person in Liège in Belgium, Oulu in Finland and Valenciennes in France.
Of the 67 densely populated UK cities included in the study, a population increase was not matched by an equivalent increase in green space: green space only grew at the same rate as the growth of the city area. This is in contrast with the trend in European cities as a whole.
The study suggests that residents will have less access to green space as cities grow, unless measures are taken to maintain access in future urban development. In addition to formal green spaces, it is likely that trees planted in streets, home gardens and allotments will be important green places for city dwellers.
The authors recommend using systematic conservation planning to best arrange urban green space and urban development in the future. They also call for tools that can balance benefits to biodiversity value, human wellbeing and economic output, and urge their development and use in future city planning. The study produced a map which indicates the typical level of access to green space across Europe. It is available to view here: http://science.orf.at/science/news/154703.