In the 19th century, many Europeans would have experienced an urban environment rife with poor sanitation, high pollution, few green spaces and rampant disease. Victor Hugo, the renowned French writer and politician, wrote of Paris in 1862, “In that desolate corner of the land, the extremity of misery came to its climax. The very air which they breathed was fetid.” If only Hugo had been able to see the Paris of today; a city which now ranks in the top 20 most liveable cities in the world according to the Global Liveability Index.
In the mid-late 1800’s, around 15-25% of Europeans lived in cities. In the proceeding century and a half, that number has skyrocketed to about 75%. As more and more people moved from rural areas to urban ones, the demand for improved living conditions in cities rose in parallel. And indeed, it is not just Paris—many European cities top the global liveability rankings.
Life in a city comes with both opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, cities tend to be far more efficient than rural towns and villages when it comes to resource and energy use. Living close to hospitals, schools, business and cultural centres and transport hubs tend to improve quality of life. However, urban sprawl is detrimental to our natural habitats and ecosystems, and people living in cities still typically experience higher levels of pollution, stress, and more heatwaves than many of their rural counterparts. But even the most challenging problems can be addressed with careful urban planning. With sustainability in mind and data in hand, we can maximise the benefits of city-living while reducing the disadvantages.
A daytime view of Paris, France, circa 2022.
Modern urban planners rely more and more on Earth observation data every day. The Copernicus Land Monitoring Service (CLMS) uses both satellite and on-the-ground (in situ) data to provide a suite of high quality, up-to-date information products that allow users to visualise land cover and land use across the entire European continent. The CLMS Urban Atlas product is particularly useful for urban planners, as it offers users free and open access to detailed maps of 788 urban areas across Europe—all of it publicly available and free of charge. These maps not only include broad land cover and land use layers, but also additional detailed layers such as street tree maps, building block height measurements and even population estimates.
Nurturing well-being and biodiversity: monitoring the vital role of green spaces
Green spaces are among the most important features urban environments can have to make our cities more liveable. Access to green spaces enhances mental health in a number of ways. Simply being inside them reduces stress, anxiety and depression. They also reduce the intensity of the urban heat island effect and act as a natural barrier for noise, with vegetation absorbing or diffusing noise pollution, both of which further reduce stress. There is also evidence that green spaces promote physical health by encouraging activities such as walking, running, and cycling which leads to increased cardiovascular health and reduced rates obesity. The UN recognised the importance of green areas in its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. SDG 11.7 sets the target of universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible green and public spaces, particularly for women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities by the year 2030.
Of course, the advantages of green spaces extend beyond human well-being, as they also serve as oases for plant and animal species. With several notable exceptions, urban environments are quite hostile to many species, but parks, gardens and other vegetated areas can provide semi-natural habitats for a wide range of creatures that otherwise could not survive in the built-up landscape. For example, Berlin has made significant efforts to preserve and maintain natural areas like the Grunewald Forest, the Havel River and the Wannsee lakes in the western part of the city. As a result, beavers have returned to Berlin after centuries of overhunting and habitat loss. The ballooning population of this keystone species has attracted the attention of locals, wildlife enthusiasts, and researchers alike.
Urban Atlas 2018 map of Berlin, Germany. Green colours represent vegetated areas.
Improving access to urban green spaces
As important as green spaces are, their value can only be realised by people who actually have access to them. A number of assessments have attempted to quantify accessibility and presence of green spaces across Europe, using Urban Atlas data. The European Environment Agency’s (EEA) Urban Tree Cover dashboard offers an easy to use graphic interface that allows users to look at a variety of tree cover metrics for the cities in individual member states or Europe as a whole. Some of these include tree cover by city, tree cover by commuting zone and tree cover by Functional Urban Area (an area that consists of a city and its commuting zone). This dashboard is very useful for investigating large scale trends, but it is important to realise that just because a city has large amounts of tree cover and green spaces does not necessarily mean that all its inhabitants have equal access to them.
Recognising this, Hugo Poelman from Europe’s Centre for Economic Policy Research developed a method for assessing people’s access to green spaces in European cities using Urban Atlas data. With the United Nations’ SDG 11.7 in mind, Poelman set out to determine the proportion of citizens in a given urban area who live within walking distance (400m) of a green space. To do this, he needed information on the size and location of green spaces within European cities, the street network used to access them and the location of the residents—all of which can be determined with the Urban Atlas 2018 harmonised map. For the detailed methodology, please see this document.
Poelman found that on average, 64% of European city dwellers have access to at least some green areas within walking distance of their homes. However, this number varies considerably between urban centres, ranging from 20% on the low end to over 90% on the high end. While certain cities like Prague, Stockholm and Copenhagen seem poised to achieve the SDG 11.7 target of universal access to green spaces by 2030, it is unlikely that a significant portion of other urban areas will. For example, residents of cities like Bucharest, Sofia and Belgrade have less access to green spaces than the residents of wealthier cities like Prague, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. This correlation is evident at the local level as well, with low-income residents within individual cities having less access to high quality green space than high income ones.
Towards a more efficient commute
The European Commission’s Regional and Urban Policy department released a working paper in 2020 which attempted to answer the question of how many people in European cities have safe and reliable access to low-carbon forms of transportation. This is a key indicator for SDG 11.2, which aims for universal access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems by 2030. The analysis presents a comprehensive analysis of public transport accessibility across European cities, relying heavily on the Urban Atlas dataset to identify urban blocks and green spaces, and represents a crucial first step in the process of achieving SDG 11.2.
The analysis shows that access to a public transport stop within walking distance is usually not problematic for a vast majority of urban centre populations in European countries. In around half of the cities reviewed, upwards of 95% of the population has access to at least one nearby stop. In fact, only 22 of the 685 cities (~3%) provide access to less than 80% of their inhabitants.
Population with a public transport stop within 500 metres’ walking distance. Figure taken from European Commission Regional and Urban Policy working paper from 2020.
The authors also developed additional indicators to take into account the transport mode and frequency of the services available at each of the stops. In some cities like Vienna, Madrid, Warsaw, Copenhagen and Barcelona, half of the population has access to at least 50 departures an hour during weekday daytime hours.
However, the authors also underscored the fact that access to a public transport system with conveniently located stops and frequent departures does not necessarily show what can be reached by public transport. “Transport performance” is the ratio between the number of inhabitants accessible within the maximum travel time and the number of people living near to the place of departure. To obtain a transport performance score for each city, they measured the travel time between all origins and destinations inside the urban centre, finding that by using public transport, a given resident can reach 24% of the population living within 7.5 km within 30 minutes. Transport performance scores varied significantly between 12 on the low end (Greater Manchester) and 48 on the high end (Luxembourg).
The role of green spaces and access to reliable, clean transportation in promoting the liveability of European cities is clear—they provide numerous benefits for both human health and biodiversity. While progress has been made in increasing access to these factors, there is still much work to be done, particularly in addressing inequalities in access both between and within cities. By leveraging tools like the Copernicus Land Monitoring Service’s Urban Atlas, city leaders can make data-driven decisions to create more inclusive, equitable and sustainable urban environments that support the well-being of all residents and the wildlife that share these spaces. In doing so, we can ensure that cities continue to thrive and evolve, just as they have done since the days of Victor Hugo.
Copernicus is the Earth observation component of the European Union’s Space programme, looking at our planet and its environment to benefit all European citizens. It offers information services that draw from satellite Earth Observation and in-situ (non-space) data.