Threat of sprawling cities

In Europe during the 1960s, people working in commercial centers and capital cities were keen to find a home on the outskirts of the city, where living conditions were more humane. Sociologists identified this outward-moving trend as suburbanization. Today, Europe is faced by another phenomenon called urban sprawl. This has resulted in cities extending further and eventually erasing all boundaries with the once peaceful and family oriented suburbs. In a drive to study these changes in the European urban landscape, the European Environment Agency (EEA) launched a report this year titled «Towards an Urban Atlas – assessment of spatial data on 25 European cities and urban areas.» «The city’s health and well-being is a major concern for the local population and local authorities, and a new effort is envisaged toward a more sustainable urban-planning and management system,» the authors of the report underline. The phenomenon of urban sprawl seems to be even more dramatic when studied closely, as in many cases it leads to the consumption of natural and agricultural areas, while adversely affecting the importance of biodiversity, hydrological and microclimatic regulation, as well as recreational areas and aesthetic sensitivities. According to the report, Iraklion on Crete and Nicosia on Cyprus are two cities that have seen a great loss of natural and agricultural land due to urban sprawl. Both historic cities, which attract thousands of tourists each year, have seen their landscapes changing over the years, becoming less friendly and hospitable to their permanent residents as well as to their visitors. In the case of Iraklion, a port city covering an area of almost 30 square kilometers, the total urbanized area in the 1950s was 9.0 square km while in the 1990s this figure rose to 21.7 square km. At the same time, the total urban green area has remained constant, at only 0.1 square km – the least among all 25 cities in Europe presented in the report. Moreover, according to the findings, during the last 40-50 years that were studied, the city saw a 140-percent increase in artificial area due to urban sprawl, while during the same period it experienced a 25.6-percent loss of total natural and agricultural land. The city of Iraklion, home to some 601,000 people according to the 2001 census, was founded in the ninth century by the Saracens on what historians think is the site of ancient Heraklion, the seaport of ancient Knossos. Today the city has only a few historical sites to remind of its glorious past as older classical buildings have given way to concrete multistory buildings, commercial centers and hotels. In the case of Nicosia, the divided capital city since the 1974 Turkish invasion on the island, the picture is somewhat less grim. The city, covering an area of some 76 square km, had an urbanized area of 24.8 square km in the 1950s, while in the 1990s this area expanded to 52 square km. Unlike the case of Iraklion – but still far less than in other European cities in the report – the city of Nicosia saw its total green urban area rise from 0.7 square km in the 1950s to 1.2 square km in the 1990s. But even this positive trend was not enough to compensate for the 110-percent increase in artificial area over the last 40-50 years caused by urban sprawl, or for the 36-percent loss of total natural and agricultural land. The city of Nicosia today has a population of some 200,000 people, according to the preliminary results of the Census of Population 2001 in the sector controlled by the government of the Republic of Cyprus. The 1974 Turkish invasion and occupation of 37 percent of the island’s territory literally cut the capital in half. The city dates back to the Bronze Age, when it was known as Ledra – the name of the most popular commercial street. The name of Nicosia (Lefkosia in Greek), according to one version, probably comes from Lefkos, son of Ptolemy, who rebuilt the city in the third century BC. Today, the 1,000-year-old capital strives to preserve its rich history as modern urban sprawl threatens to disturb the balance that the city managed to maintain over the years between its past and its modern era. Sustainable development According to the report by the European Environment Agency, urban areas are nowadays experiencing serious growth. In Europe, this growth is mostly felt in the areas of space, infrastructure, energy and natural resources; population increase is relatively small. This leads to unsuitable land use, traffic congestion, pollution, depletion of natural resources and other environmental problems. «Assessing and monitoring urban growth is thus an essential and strategic aim,» the report notes. «This requires the construction and validation of spatially based indicators. The Murbandy/Moland project (Monitoring Urban Dynamics/ Monitoring Land Use Change) is an attempt to fulfill this objective, through the methodology developed and tested in around 40 distinct urban areas in Europe. This report presents the results of the preliminary set of 25 urban areas.» The report aims to disseminate the first results of this research project dedicated to measuring and assessing urban dynamics through the creation of land-use databases for various cities and urban areas within Europe. These databases combine environmental, economic and social data in order to better understand the characteristics and dynamics of urban growth and related land-use changes, such as transport and energy infrastructures and changes in agricultural and natural areas. Domingo Jimenez-Beltran, executive director of the European Environment Agency, though, is quick to note in the report that «a new urban atlas at European scale is still in its embryonic phase, but this is an attempt to work on it.» Data for this project were derived from satellite imagery and aerial photography, using remote-sensing and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technologies. The databases have been produced for four dates over the past 50 years, thereby enabling time series analysis and a multi-temporal dimension. The methodology is implemented in three phases: a) Change, in which changes in the spatial extent to urban areas have been measured, over a period of approximately 50 years; b) Understand, in which a number of indicators to measure the evolution of urban and semi-urban areas have been identified and tested; and c) Forecast, to develop urban growth scenarios for some cities, using state-of-the-art urban dynamics models. «It is my belief that if cities use indicators and progressively introduce targets to improve land-use planning and management, related urban life quality will improve and will encompass more sustainable development,» notes Domingo Jimenez-Beltran.

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