- Population of functional regions are important for territorial development as it largely determines the size and functionality of the labour market, but also the critical mass for cost-efficient delivery of services of general interest
- Understanding sparsely populated areas in terms of population potential instead of merely population density reflects better the socio-economic realities and inter-regional diversity. However, it does not necessarily change the delineation of sparsely populated areas as currently used at EU level
- Areas with the lowest population potentials are mainly to be found in Northern Europe, including large parts of Finland, Sweden, and Norway, plus Scotland and some areas in Ireland. The same applies in the Spanish inland, some regions in France, and most of Greek inland
- Areas with low population potentials in Nordic countries are mostly islands or regions close to areas with average or above population potentials.
Observations for policy
The introduction of population potentials, i.e. a total number of persons within a significant distance from each locality, demonstrates the economic and social meaning of ‘sparsely populated areas’.
The problem in these areas is not that there are few persons by unit of land area, but the total number of persons that can be reached within a daily mobility distance is limited. Population potentials allow taking into account both intra-regional diversity in terms of degrees of sparsity and the effect of neighbouring regions.
Sparsely populated areas are a concern for European territorial development and cohesion. The small size of individual localities and the wide distances between them effectively limits the population of functional regions. As a result, the population of functional regions is important for territorial development as it largely determines whether, for instance:
- Labour markets can operate efficiently with a sufficient number of actors to generate dynamics of offer and demand that may regulate the local economy, and a wide enough scope of employment opportunities to attract in-migrants;
- Public and private services can operate cost-efficiently with the number of people present;
- Services of general interest can be delivered to the population without interventions from public authorities.
The map shows the population potential at local level. This is the total actual population plus the population living within 50km, i.e. commuting distance.
At the European level, this map shows that areas with low population potential (blue) are mainly to be found in Northern Europe, i.e. large parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway, plus Scotland and some areas of Ireland. Furthermore, they are to be found, for instance, in the Spanish inland, some inland regions in France, most of the Greek islands, as well as areas in Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania.
In particular in the Nordic countries, many areas with low population potential are located next to each other, and often with considerable distance to population centres with average European population potential (yellow). While in other parts of Europe areas with low population potentials are mostly either islands, or areas close to areas with average or above average population potentials.
Overlaying this with the delineation of sparsely populated areas shows that the areas with Europe’s lowest population potential are generally well covered by the delimitation based on average regional population densities.
Concepts and methods
The map builds on two concepts: sparsely populated areas and population potential. According to DG Regio, sparsely populated areas are defined as NUTS3 regions with a population density of less than 12.5 inhabitants per square km. The same information is stated on paragraph 30.b of the EU guidelines on national regional aid for 2007-2013 (2006/C54/08).
The 50km threshold is here considered as a proxy for a possible desirable maximum daily commuting distance. The map shows the total population of a municipality plus the population within commuting distance. Such a measure corresponds to the so-called population potential in statistical terms.