How is urban fabric related to population development in Europe?

The European roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe has set ‘no net land take in 2050’ as an operational target. Many member states have specific objectives with respect to sustainable urbanization and all deal with this matter somehow in their statutory planning systems. In addition, the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 11.3 is to ‘Enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries’. 

The ESPON SUPER project investigated the sustainability of land use and urbanisation. To this purpose, it performed an analysis of land-use change over the 2000-2018 period in ESPON countries based on the Corine Land Cover (CLC) data and compared this to population changes. Their result shows areas where the population increased more strongly than urban areas and vice versa. 

To what degree does urbanisation meet a measurable demand?  

The urban fabric is generally used for housing and therefore closely tied to population development. The map shows that regions growing faster in population or urban fabric with respect to the European average have a clear geographic pattern. Many regions show above-average urban fabric growth despite below-average population growth (often absolute decline). 

The relationship between change in urban fabric and population in the 2000-2018 period is displayed as four types. The shades of red show above-average increases in the urban fabric, whereas purple and blue show an above-average increase in population. Blue areas (e.g. the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, southern parts of Norway and Sweden) suggest densification relative to the European average, while light red areas (parts of Spain, Poland, Latvia, Greece and many Balkan countries) show the opposite: a relative decline in housing densities. 

The analysis shows that the relationship between supply and demand for urban land is complex. For example, above-average urbanization with respect to population development might be the result of socioeconomic trends (e.g. household development, second homes), but it could also point to supply-side factors such as widespread availability of land zoned for urban use or strong financial incentives to urbanize. This last point suggests that policies that adjust the payoffs of land development, either through regulation or taxation, could be effective in promoting sustainable urbanization. 

More information on sustainable urbanisation can be found at the SUPER webpage.