Better targeted measures needed to tackle urban sprawl in Europe

News Published 08 Jun 2016 Last modified 23 Nov 2020
3 min read
Photo: © James Russel 2011
There is growing evidence that urban sprawl is having an increasingly negative effect on the environment and on the quality of life across Europe. Existing actions to prevent, contain or control such development have had limited results. Better targeted measures are necessary. That is the main conclusion of a joint European Environment Agency (EEA) and Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) report published today.

The report, Urban sprawl in Europe, reviews the low-density and scattered expansion of many cities that often comes as a result of uncontrolled growth, which has continued in Europe over recent decades. Urban sprawl involves the expansion of large urban areas into surrounding undeveloped areas including the countryside and agricultural land. According to the report, the level of sprawl increased in all European countries in the 2000s and it continues to grow. The report underlines the need for better policy measures and knowledge tools to address urban sprawl’s negative impacts. The report aims to support more sustainable political decision making and better urban planning across Europe.

Impacts of urban sprawl

While scattered housing and commercial developments have been associated with a number of positive economic and social effects, it also has negative ones, including ‘detrimental and long-lasting effects’ on the environment. The study says that urban sprawl contributes significantly to the loss of fertile farmland, soil sealing and the loss of essential ecological functions. The increase in built up areas has led to higher greenhouse gas emissions, higher infrastructure costs for transport, water and electricity, and the loss of open landscapes. It has also reduced the size of wildlife habitats as urban development and roads break up the landscape into ever-smaller pieces, with potentially devastating consequences for biodiversity and ecosystems.

Urban sprawl also has socio-economic impacts. It increases the demand for infrastructure such as roads, and it makes people more dependent on cars which poses a burden on household budgets. Urban sprawl also has a cascading effect on daily life in areas with low level of services and health in terms of air pollution, stress and accidents.       

The study stresses that there is a need to encourage positive development methods like improving the density of existing residential areas within cities to better contain or reduce sprawl, rather than encouraging dispersed urban development that promotes outlying building zones, which lead to new traffic and transport bottlenecks.

Dispersed urban development can lead to a negative circular pattern, where the constant expansion of road networks is used to offset the traffic urban sprawl can cause, and where new roads lead to more sprawl, creating a locked-in development loop.

Four essential measures should be reinforced to support policy interventions:

  1. Better monitoring of urban sprawl,
  2. Applying a ‘sprawl analysis’ as a tool in urban, regional and transport planning to assess consequences of projects and zoning,
  3. Setting up targets, limits and benchmarks to control sprawl,
  4. Strengthening regional planning to encourage sustainable land use.

Key findings

  • The two largest clusters of high urban sprawl in Europe are located in north-eastern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and part of western German and in the United Kingdom between London and the Midlands.
  • Urban sprawl is most pronounced in wide rings around city centres, along large transport corridors and along many coastlines, particularly in Mediterranean countries. Lowest levels of sprawl are mainly found in mountain ranges or remote areas.
  • Best practices to keep urban sprawl in check or compensate by re-use of already developed land can help reduce land uptake and prevent urban sprawl. Countryside can be preserved through functional zones and spatial plans that determine housing limits and offer for stakeholder consultation, as well as the creation of public green areas with building restrictions.
  • More in-depth research is needed on urban sprawl, notably on how it developed over time, the history and the political and economic conditions that led to its development, and a deeper statistical analysis of the drivers of urban sprawl.
  • A variety of factors such as a higher income, possession and use of cars, the preference for detached housing, and a change in lifestyle or demography, drives the proliferation of urban sprawl. Political drivers play a key role. Policies have the power to prevent or moderate urban sprawl.
  • The report analyses in detail a significant and illustrative period, 2006-2009, which saw urban sprawl increased by 5% in the three years or by 1.7% per year, according to a calculation using the weighted urban proliferation method.


The report investigated the degree of urban sprawl in 32 countries in Europe in 2006 and in 2009, and assessed the problem based on data taken at three levels: national, regional and at the 1-km2 cell level. The analysis used the so-called ‘weighted urban proliferation’ method which quantifies the degree of urban sprawl for any given landscape taking into account the size and dispersion of built-up areas, and the uptake of built-up area per inhabitant or job. By offering new analytical approaches, the report presents advanced contribution to the methods of land monitoring.

Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN)


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