Promoting smart, sustainable and inclusive cities

European research into urbanisation is at the forefront of efforts to promote sustainable urban development: sustainable in social, economic and environmental terms. A new report, 'World and European Sustainable Cities: Insights from EU Research', published by the European Commission draws together the findings of research on urban issues, such as meeting the needs and service demands of urban populations, migration and settlement patterns, and new forms of poverty and exclusion that European policy makers will need to address if we are to shift toward a more sustainable culture by 2020.

A key challenge facing Europe and the world is to promote sustainable growth of urban populations. The problems are brought into sharp focus by demographers who predict that by 2030 5 billion of the world’s 8 billion people will live in urban areas. While many of these urban dwellers will live in sprawling slums in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, Europe will also continue to experience increased urbanisation; by 2050, around 83% of the European population (nearly 557 million) are expected to live in cities.

Urbanisation needs and service demands

Unsustainable urban growth brings with it a host of challenges for city authorities: how to provide sufficient water, energy, transport and waste service for urban populations and how to ensure the infrastructure needed to support urban populations is managed sustainably.

The Pathways for Carbon Transitions project (PACT project)1 has identified four urban forms and the impacts these have on transport needs:

  • Urban sprawl: in this form a central city core is surrounded by suburban sprawl. In European cities, places for work and consumption tend to be concentrated in the central area which is surrounded by rings of decreasing density. Typically, this form of city generates high volumes of car dependent traffic, and ‘rush hours’ arise as traffic flows in and out as people travel into the city to work.
  • City network: employment, consumption and living spaces are provided in each urban core. Opportunities for high quality, rapid transport are provided between urban centres allowing for easy day trips or commuting. While city networks tend to suffer less congestion than more traditional urban sprawl models, restricting car use in urban centres can further reduce congestion problems.
  • Small compact city: cities or towns that provide a full range of consumption and production opportunities for a population which lives mainly within the city boundaries. Small and densely populated, these urban areas may be some distance from other cities and are not served by frequent rapid transport. If workplaces and housing are located nearby, inhabitants can walk, cycle or use light transport (e.g. buses).
  • Rural/tourist area: without a dominant urban centre, workplaces, consumption opportunities and houses tend to be scattered across a large area which may lead to significant personal car use, though this can be mitigated to some extent by high speed (broadband) internet services. Low population density means there is little incentive to provide public transport or high speed road networks.

Migration and settlement trends

European cities also face challenges from immigration, as many new immigrants settle in cities. Already, by 2000, immigrants represented 7.7 per cent of the population in Europe and increasing migration, together with declining birth rates, means that the diversity of the European population is likely to continue to increase. But research, reported in 'World and European Sustainable Cities: Insights from EU Research' and coming from the IMISCOE Network of Excellence2 shows that recent migration is more fluid. Improved transport and communication networks result in transnationalism, whereby immigrants adopt new patterns of residence, integration and community formations. This suggests that greater flexibility is needed on the development and implementation of integration policies. National and EU level frameworks and guidelines are required, but city authorities need to be given the flexibility to adapt integration policies to meet local needs. Long-term, consistent integration policies are required that meet local needs to ensure cities remain vibrant, viable communities providing a high quality living environment.


Although urban poverty declined during the 20th Century, it remains a serious problem; according to Eurostat (2010)3, 17 European families out of 100 were considered at risk of poverty in 2007. Modern definitions of poverty focus on relative deprivation and social exclusion. While the causes of poverty often arise from national policies, urban centres must play a key role in alleviating deprivation and social exclusion.

The recent economic downturn has put a squeeze on public spending, and while high profile cases, such as Greece, show the vulnerability of some European economies, welfare provision is under pressure in all EU countries. The EU supported project, Social Polis4 suggests two approaches that could help meet the demand for welfare provision: the development of local service provision, through community initiatives and setting up socio-economic citizenship that grants access rights to welfare services for those who are currently denied access.

  • Local service provision: in its most creative form, local services can be provided by drawing on a range of participants such as local business, academia and public authorities to create a neighbourhood development strategy and plan which meets the basic needs of the local population.
  • Socio-economic citizenship: universal access to social services is ensured by the state, and a balance is sought between provision for all and a more bottom up provision where services are tailored to individual needs. Institutionalised spaces must be provided so that innovation can be promoted beyond volunteerism and spontaneous social mobilisation.

Sustainable green cities

In Europe, cities have tended to become less densely populated in the past 50 years, gobbling up farmland as they grow. The EU-supported PLUREL project5 explored four scenarios for future urban growth, based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Emissions Scenarios:

  • Hyper-tech: a future of rapid economic and technological growth coupled with declining energy prices.
  • Extreme water: a heterogeneous world with regional and fragmented economic growth and technological development.
  • Peak oil: an environmentally and socially conscious society with a global approach to sustainable development and high energy prices.
  • Fragmentation: slow economic growth, international distrust and the development of a fragmented society in terms of age and ethnicity.

The PLUREL project predicts that these scenarios will have differing effects on urban development. For example, the 'hyper-tech scenario' is predicted to favour the growth of small, polycentric towns which is likely to increase the conversion of agricultural land to urban environments. In contrast, the high transport costs associated with the ‘peak oil scenario' would favour the development of high density urban living. The ‘extreme water scenario' will probably require significant sums to be spent on land defence and adaptation measures against climate change. More disbursed cities, with a concentration of migrants in the inner core, are predicted to develop if a ‘fragmentation scenario’ develops.

A key challenge for future cities, arising from research supported by the European Commission, is to develop as compact urban centres where the residents have easy access to local green space. Basic requirements to achieve such a ‘green compact city’ are:

  • Coordination between transport, land use and open space planning.
  • Preservation of green infrastructure for walking and cycling.
  • Creating new urban landscapes in the green compact city.
  • Urban containment and integrated territorial policies.
  • Promotion of urban-rural interfaces.



1 PACT - Pathways for Carbon Transitions project. For further information see:

2 IMISCOE – International migration, Integration and Social Cohesion. For further information see:

3 Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion: A Statistical Portrait of the European Union, Brussels. This data is calculated on the basis of the common threshold of 60% of the median equivalised disposable income. For details see:

4 Social Polis. For further information see:

5 PLUREL: Peri-urban Land Use Relationships – Strategies and Sustainability Assessment Tools for Urban – Rural Linkages. For further information see:

World and European Sustainable Cities: Insights from EU Research is a report published by the European Commission, DG Research.


Contact: Domenico Rossetti di Valdalbero,