Urban systems

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 23 Nov 2020
10 min read
Photo: © Mariano Mantel

75% of Europeans — and more in the future — live in or around cities. The quality of life therein depends much on the environmental conditions. Insufficiently managed urbanisation leads to an increase in 'land take', soil sealing, fragmentation of habitats and health-related issues. European cities are dense but are becoming less so, urban sprawl thus continues.

The role of cities is critical in achieving Europe's objectives for a low carbon, resource-efficient and ecosystems resilient society.


Today, 72% of the total population of the European Union (EU) live in cities, towns and suburbs.[1] The environmental dimension of urban living is crucial for the health and well-being of their residents as well as the quality of the surrounding territories.[2] The 'Urban Audit'[3] data base and the 'Urban Atlas'[4] provide detailed information on major urban areas.

Figure 1: The urban system

urban system

Various concepts have been coined to describe how complex interactions can impact on urban living (Figure 1).

  • The 'urban metabolism' refers to the flows necessary to satisfy the needs of those living in cities.
  • 'Grey infrastructure', such as roads, metros, railways, buildings and utilities, determines a city's layout. Yet without integrated urban planning, this urban 'engineering' generates soil sealing, fragments natural systems, increases mobility and associated pollution, energy and material consumption.[5][6]
  • 'Green infrastructure' is a way to work with nature to provide social, ecological and economic benefits to the urban population such as air filtration, temperature regulation, noise reduction, flood protection and recreational areas.[7][8][9][10]

The high concentration of people and economic activities in cities cause environmental pressures. Yet cities can be planned, designed, managed and governed in an increasingly efficient way.

The EU has had a substantial impact on the development of cities over recent decades through its cohesion policy and sectoral policies (e.g. water, waste, noise, air). The Thematic Strategy on the Urban Environment[11] and the recent 7th Environment Action Programme (7th EAP)[12] promote integrated urban policy.

This could also apply for the principles of urban development in the EU as expressed in its 'Territorial Agenda of the European Union 2020'.[13] An intergovernmental process, coupled with the practical experiences gained through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), has led to clear principles of urban development. This is known as the acquis urbain.[14]

Key trends

Figure 2: Urban sprawl by country and within countries (2009)[15]

Cities depend on their neighbouring areas for supply and disposal services. The densification of urban areas is viewed as a way to reduce their spatial growth and the associated environmental impacts.

Urban sprawl versus urban density: Between 2000 and 2006 about 1 000 km2 of land[16] was covered every year by artificial surfaces.[17] Re-using land (e.g. rehabilitating industrial sites or contaminated land), which had previously been developed but is currently not in active use, is a way to further reduce land take. Around 2.5% of the increase in artificial surfaces[18] created between 1990 and 2000 came about through the recycling of already developed land.[19] 

Typically, European cities are dense but they are becoming less dense at their boundaries. Emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) are higher in commuter towns not only because of car dependency but also due to the characteristics of the buildings. This is because high energy housing, such as detached and semi-detached dwellings, is dominant.[20] Nevertheless some European urban areas continue to expand. There are large differences in the level of sprawl both between and within European countries (Figure 2).[21The more areas are built up and the lower their intensity of use, the higher the degree of urban sprawl.

The challenges of health and well-being: Up to one third of Europeans living in cities are exposed to levels of air pollutants[22] exceeding EU air quality standards, in particular for particulate matter (PM) and ozone (O3),[23][24] road transport being a significant source. Half of the EU's urban population is exposed to traffic noise levels above 55dB.[25In the dense urban environment green spaces, correctly planned and managed, can contribute to improve the air quality and to reduce excessive heat.[7][10][26]

Resource-efficient cities: Total municipal solid waste has decreased by 2% between 2004 and 2012. Significant progress has been made in recycling glass, paper, cardboard, metals and plastic.[27] Thanks to better municipal waste management, life-cycle GHG emissions from municipal waste were cut by 57 million tonnes CO2-equivalent during the period 1990-2012.

Urbanisation leads to an increase in land take and soil sealing. This permanent covering by impermeable artificial material, such as asphalt and concrete, affects, inter alia, food production, water absorption and filtration.[5]

Cities need adequate amounts of water. They compete with agriculture, industry and tourism and this situation will be exacerbated with climate change. The largest cities are already transporting water over distances ranging from 100-200 km.

Cities emit 69% of Europe's CO2.[28] It is critical for cities to reduce GHG emissions and to enhance resilience to potential impacts from climate change.

Box 1: A city with no clear limit

Cities are characterised by the concentration of people, buildings and activities. However, at the outskirts of cities built-up areas become diluted and mixed in with rural areas. This area can be referred to as transitional. Cities become less dense (i.e. fewer people, buildings and infrastructure) the further away one is from the city centre.  

An EEA analysis of this dilution involving taking individual bands of 1 km width measured from the city centre to its edge. Some interesting results: in London 75% of the 1 km band 15 km from the city centre is built-up. For Paris this was 65% and Brussels 35%. The mean for the EU is 12%. 

The transitional area, neither city nor countryside, is home to a range of functions including agricultural, residential, recreational, and energy production (e.g. windmills). The governance of these less dense areas is complicated by the fact that a number of administrative areas are involved in the decision-making process.

With the development of mobility, the urban structure has increased in complexity. Increasingly development is happening at the outskirts of cities. These areas are becoming minor urban hubs in their own right. Therefore, most of the biggest cities are embedded into a larger interconnected metropolitan area.


The role of cities is critical in a transition towards a low carbon, resource-efficient and ecosystem-resilient society.[29] The cities of tomorrow have the potential to be healthier, denser, greener and smarter through better urban planning and governance.

Adapt to climate change now and at lower cost: Climate change will expose cities to more frequent and prolonged heatwaves, flooding, water scarcity and forest fires.[26] Cities need to build climate change resilience through strong local and regional planning and investments to maintain the functioning of urban infrastructure and services (such as buildings, roads, railways, energy grids and sewage systems) and develop green infrastructure. The European Climate Adaptation Platform, Climate ADAPT[32], launched by the European Commission's Directorate General for Climate Action (DG CLIMA), aims to support countries in adapting to climate change.

Modernising 'grey' infrastructure: Without renovation and restructuring, infrastructure that sustains everyday life — related to energy and water supply, waste management, housing and transport systems — can lead to overuse of resources and energy.[33]

Smart urban design influences transport demand. Local authorities can encourage the use of sustainable forms of transport by providing efficient, reliable and affordable collective transport and convenient walking and cycling infrastructure.[34]

Developing multifunctional green infrastructure: Cities are dependent on ecosystems inside as well as outside the city's limits. In built-up cities green spaces, from trees to large parks, improve the health and well-being of residents. Green infrastructure is seen as a cost-effective and efficient tool to combat the impacts of the climate change, to build disaster resilience and to deliver health-related benefits.[8][9][10]

Smarter cities: Smart technologies and services, that often rely on information and communication technology, offer huge opportunities to make urban environments cleaner and healthier to live in. Eco-innovations[35] can be used in many domains such as recycling, monitoring, renewable energy, transport, etc.[36][37]

Engaging society: The transition to urban sustainability requires behavioural changes that need to be accepted by society. Municipalities can raise citizens' awareness, generate fruitful participation and support citizen initiatives such as car-sharing, urban gardening and collaborative consumption initiatives. It is now possible to empower citizens and generate communities through ICT-enabled solutions. 

References and footnotes

[1] EC (2014), Conferences CiTIEs – Cities of Tomorrow: Investing in Europe, in: Background annex, Brussels, 17 and 18 February 2014, accessed 24 June 2014.

[2] EEA (2009), Ensuring quality of life in Europe's cities and towns, EEA Report No 05/2009, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[3] Urban audit is run by Eurostat.

[4] Urban atlas is run by the Copernicus monitoring service.

[5] EC (2012), Guidelines on best practice to limit, mitigate or compensate soil sealing (SWD(2012) 101 final/2 of 12 April 2012).

[6] OECD (2012), Compact city policies, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris.

[7] EEA (2011), Green infrastructure and territorial cohesion, Technical report No 18/2011, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[8] EC (2013), Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions Green Infrastructure (GI) — Enhancing Europe's Natural Capital (COM(2013) 249 final of 6 May 2013).

[9] EC (2013), Building a green infrastructure for Europe, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.

[10] EEA (2014), Spatial analysis of green infrastructure in Europe, EEA Technical report No 02/2014, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[11] EC (2006), Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions,Thematic Strategy on the Urban Environment (COM(2005) 718 final of 11 January 2006).

[12] EU (2013), Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 'Living well, within the limits of our planet' (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, pp. 171–200)

[13] EU (2011), Territorial Agenda of the European Union 2020 — Towards an Inclusive, Smart and Sustainable Europe of Diverse Regions, Informal Ministerial Meeting of Ministers responsible for Spatial Planning and Territorial Development, Gödöllő, Hungary.

[14] The 'Acquis URBAN’ Using Cities' Best Practises for European Cohesion Policy - Common Declaration of URBAN cities and players at the European Conference “URBAN Future” on June 8th and 9th, 2005 in Saarbrücken (Germany).

[15] Schwick, C., Jarger, J. A. G., Bertiller, R. and Kiensat, F. (2012), L’étalement urbain en Suisse – Impossible à freiner ? Analyse quantitative de 1935 à 2002 et  conséquences pour l’aménagement du territoire. Urban sprawl in Switzerland – Unstoppable ? Quantitative analysis 1935 to 2002 and implications for Regional Planning, Bristol-Stifung, Zurich; Haupt, Berne, Stuttgart, Vienna

[16] EEA-36.

[17] EEA (2010), The European environment — state and outlook 2010: Land use, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[18] Based on data for 24 countries.

[19] EEA (2006), Land accounts for Europe 1990-2000. Towards integrated land and ecosystem accounting, EEA Report No 11/2006, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[20] Duffy, A. (2009), Land use planning in Ireland—a life cycle energy analysis of recent residential development in the Greater Dublin Area, The international Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 14(3) 268–277.

[21] Jaeger, J. A. G. and Schwick, C. (2014), Improving the measurement of urban sprawl: Weighted Urban Proliferation (WUP) and its application to Switzerland, Ecological Indicators, (38) 294–308.

[22] EEA-33, 2012, excluding Liechtenstein.

[23] Between 2009 and 2011, up to 96% of city dwellers were exposed to fine PM2.5 concentrations above World Health Organization guidelines and up to 98% for O3.

[24] EEA (2013), Air quality in Europe — 2013, EEA Report No 09/2013, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[25] EEA (2013), A closer look at urban transport TERM 2013: transport indicators tracking progress towards environmental targets in Europe, EEA Report No 11/2013, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[26] EEA (2012), Urban adaptation to climate change in Europe, EEA Report No 02/2012, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[27] EEA (2013), Managing municipal solid waste - a review of achievements in 32 European countries, EEA Report No 2/2013, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[28] IEA (2008), World Energy Outlook 2008, Geneva, International Energy Agency.

[29] EC, DG Environment, European Green Capital.

[30] Zaucha, J. and Świątek, D. (2013), Place Based Territorially Sensitive and Integrated Approach, accessed 12 March 2014.

[31] EC/EEA, European Climate Adaptation Platform.

[32] The European Climate Adaptation Platform Climate ADAPT is hosted by the European Environment Agency.

[33] Holmberg, J., Larsson, J., Nässén, J., Svenberg, S. and Andersson, D. (2012), Low-carbon transitions and the good life, accessed 12 March 2014.

[34] EEA (2013), Achieving energy efficiency through behaviour change: what does it take?, Technical report No 05/2013, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[35] EC, DG Environment, Eco-Innovation.

[36] European Commission — Directorate-General for Regional Policy (2011), Cities of tomorrow: challenges, visions, ways forward, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.

[37] European Parliament (2014), Mapping Smart Cities in the EU, Study, European Parliament, Brussels, accessed 23 June 2014.


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage