Urban sustainability: how can cities become sustainable?

Page Last modified 15 Mar 2023
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As many of us live in cities, ensuring a sustainable urban environment is vital. Cities are the engines of Europe’s economy and are increasingly recognised as key players in Europe’s transition towards a low-carbon economy.

Photo (c) Rahbek Media on Unsplash

Europe is a highly urbanised continent. Today, around 75 % of Europe’s population live in urban areas. Estimates predict that European urban population will rise to 80 % in 2050. The urban landscape of Europe is heterogenous and characterised by a diversity of mostly small and medium cities.

75 %

of European population live in urban areas, in 2021

80 %
of European population live in urban areas, in 2050

There are less than 30 cities in the EU with a population of more than one million. According to an assessment by UN-habitat in 2016, of these cities, only Paris and London can be considered megacities – high density metropolises of more than 10 million inhabitants.

The urbanization pattern of Europe


The EU has a key role in promoting sustainable urban development. But cities (local authorities in general) have their own governance setting and therefore, are best placed to take local action to tackle and resolve environmental challenges, whilst ensuring a good quality of life for their citizens. Traditionally, they are crucial in improving waste and water management, public transport and efficiently using land by implementing integrated urban planning. Today, they also take centre stage on climate change adaptation and ecosystems preservation and restoration.

How can cities transform to become more sustainable ?


Urban environmental sustainability encourages revitalisation and transition of urban areas and cities to improve liveability, promote innovation and reduce environmental impacts while maximising economic and social co-benefits.


Urban systems are inherently complex. With the ample support of urban stakeholders, the EEA developed a conceptual model and selected six observation and analysis lenses to assess the role of cities in urban transitions towards environmental sustainability, within the broad European Green Deal framework and the EU Urban Agenda. Based on the stakeholders-led assessment process several outputs have been co-created.

Conceptual framework for urban environmental sustainability 


EEA outputs on the relevance of cities’ environment transitions towards sustainability




Explore other EEA products supporting knowledge towards sustainability at the city and local level

The low carbon city


Background information: Cities’ influence in policy making

The influence of cities in EU policymaking has been increasingly recognised over the last few decades, including through the establishment of the Committee of the Regions in 1994 and the signing of the Leipzig Charter in 2006 (updated in 2020). The Pact of Amsterdam from 2016 culminated in the Urban Agenda for the EU, giving new impetus to and integrating the already many instruments dedicated to cities. Furthermore, city networks and associations are becoming increasingly important in shaping global climate and sustainability agreements.




Geographic coverage


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Filed under: urban environment
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