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The ESPON 2013 Operational Programme
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Functional Urban Areas in Europe, 2001

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data source and more Map: (initially produced by FOCI) updated by Spatial Foresight 2014  

  • Cities of more than 250,000 inhabitants are spread out over most of the European territory, ensuring access to essential services and contributing to regional growth and development.
  • Europe contains a core area where almost all areas belong to FUAs of very large or large cities. This area is interrupted by the stretches from the Midlands to Northern Italy, and stretches to the border between Poland and the Czech Republic.
  • Main areas with a more limited urban endowment include the North of Scandinavia, along an axis stretching from Algarve to Luxembourg, West Ireland and Northern Scotland.
  • A good economic performance does not necessarily depend on a dense urban system. Some of the most competitive urban areas are located outside the core area.
  • Polycentric development is a key to territorial cohesion in Europe. It should not be restricted to the European level but also be promoted on lower territorial levels (transnational, cross-border, national, regional).

Observations for policy

The overall pattern for Europe is a polycentric network of Functional Urban Areas comprising cities and agglomeration areas of different size and with different functions. A denser urban structure can be identified for the so-called ÔÇśBlue BananaÔÇÖ. The European periphery is less densely populated and thus characterised by less dense urban systems.

However, a dense urban system is not necessary for economic success. Some of the most competitive urban areas in Europe fall outside the ÔÇśPentagon areaÔÇÖ. Yet, most of these urban areas are capital cities. Therefore, it is especially important for these countries to establish links to other second tier cities in order to further promote polycentric development also on national and regional level.

Functional Urban Areas are delineated on the basis of commuting patterns. Wider daily mobility ranges increase the demographic and economic mass that is gathered within a single urban area. Patterns of FUAs are therefore also determined by transport policies. They can evolve into more fragmented sub-units or wider integrated units depending on the urban development and mobility objectives that are pursued.

Policy context

The urban dimension plays an important role in the current funding period 2014-2020. The European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) aims at fostering new and innovative solutions in the field of sustainable urban development. Within this framework, integrated actions are necessary in order to tackle different challenges affecting urban areas, such as economic, environmental, climate, demographic and social challenges.

The Territorial Agenda 2020 emphasises polycentric development as a key to territorial cohesion in Europe. If cities and regions that are a part of a polycentric pattern cooperate, this results in added value from which not only the centres but also wider regions can benefit. Aiming at polycentric development is thus a means to foster the territorial competitiveness of the EU territory outside the more densely populated core ÔÇśBlue BananaÔÇÖ.

In this sense, the 6th Cohesion Report provides evidence and emphasises that some European capital cities and metropolitan areas outside the ÔÇśPentagon areaÔÇÖ, such as Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Prague, Bratislava or Madrid, show a high level of competitiveness according to the Regional Competitiveness Index 2013.

Map interpretation

Europe is characterised by a polycentric network of FUAs. This network reflects the diversity and density of the European urban system, embracing cities and urban areas of different size and with complementary functions.

A denser urban structure can be observed in central Europe in an area from the UK through the Benelux countries, Germany, Southern France and Northern Italy to the Czech Republic and Poland.

Countries in Northern Europe like Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Baltic States and some areas on the Iberian Peninsula, and in Southeast Europe (Greece, Romania, Bulgaria) are less populated and have less dense urban systems.

Concepts and methods

The map shows the number of inhabitants in Functional Urban Areas in EU28+4 in four classes. The first one contains small FUAs with 50,000-100,000 inhabitants. The following classes comprise FUAs with 100,000-250,000, 250,000-500,000 and more than 500,000 inhabitants.

FUAs are delineated on the basis of commuting patterns. The underlying idea is areas of functional urban interaction can be delineated on the basis of patterns of daily mobility between places of residence and work provide. Functional urban areas are considered as areas within which economies of agglomeration and scale can be achieved. Corresponding diseconomies of scale and agglomeration can also occur, e.g. as a result of congestion.


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