Urban sprawl in Europe - The ignored challenge

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

1.1 Introduction
Europe is a fascinating and diverse continent, one of the most urbanised on earth. Today, approximately 75 % of the European population live in urban areas, while still enjoying access to extensive natural or semi-natural landscapes. With its stunning urban landscapes, historical cities and cultural treasures, Europe remains one of the world's most desirable and healthy places to live. Moreover, it is the most frequently visited world‑travel destination.

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, while in seven countries the proportion will be 90 % or more. As a result, the various demands for land in and around cities are becoming increasingly acute. On a daily basis, we all witness rapid, visible and conflicting changes in land use which are shaping landscapes in cities and around them as never before.

Today, society's collective reliance on land and nature for food, raw materials and waste absorption results in a resource demand without precedent in history. In Europe, our consumption patterns are completely different from what they were twenty years ago. Transport, new types of housing, communication, tourism and leisure have emerged as major components of household consumption.

As most of the population live in urban areas, agricultural land uses and their functions in the countryside have consequently evolved. Today, they ensure both the feeding of the city populations and maintenance of a diminishing rural population. Coasts are being urbanised at an accelerating rate, and resident communities are being transformed in order to accommodate these new economies. As a result, our coasts are becoming increasingly intertwined with the hinterland and more dependent on tourism and secondary homes (EEA, 2006).

In this modified landscape, a powerful force is at work: cities are spreading, minimising the time and distances between and in-and-out of the cities. This expansion is occurring in a scattered way throughout Europe's countryside: its name is urban sprawl. Furthermore, it is now rightly regarded as one of the major common challenges facing urban Europe today.

1.2 Why sprawl matters?
Sprawl threatens the very culture of Europe, as it creates environmental, social and economic impacts for both the cities and countryside of Europe. Moreover, it seriously undermines efforts to meet the global challenge of climate change.

Urban sprawl is synonymous with unplanned incremental urban development, characterised by a low density mix of land uses on the urban fringe (Box 1). Classically, urban sprawl is a US phenomenon associated with the rapid low-density outward expansion of US cities, stemming back to the early part of the 20th century. It was fuelled by the rapid growth of private car ownership and the preference for detached houses with gardens.

In Europe, cities have traditionally been much more compact, developing a dense historical core shaped before the emergence of modern transport systems. Compared to most American cities, their European counterparts still remain in many cases compact. However, European cities were more compact and less sprawled in the mid 1950s than they are today, and urban sprawl is now a common phenomenon throughout Europe. Moreover, there is no apparent slowing in these trends. The urban areas particularly at risk are in the southern, eastern and central parts of Europe are particularly
at risk.

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