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3 Territorial cohesion: towards a more balanced development

3.2. Urban areas

Growth centres for achieving polycentric development

Connections between urban centres, and between these and rural areas, are a major force for economic development. In the Union, it is the central areas which have the highest level of infrastructure endowment and most developed urban networks (See Map A.9: 'Spacing between European urban areas').

The studies undertaken for the ESDP divided regions into 6 categories: those dominated by a large metropolitan area; densely populated urban regions with polycentric, or dispersed, economic development; regions with a high density of population in urban areas but containing rural areas and with polycentric development; rural areas under the influence of a metropolitan area; rural areas with small and medium sized towns; and remote rural areas.

Polycentric development can occur at two levels:

  • at the EU level, with development dispersed across the Union as a whole in a number of dynamic growth centres, in contrast to the tendency for economic activity to be concentrated in central regions with other areas being peripheral;
  • at a regional level, in areas where there are a number of urban centres, often interconnected, rather than a single dominant one. In Europe, the typical examples are the Randstadt in the Netherlands and the Rhine region in Germany, which contrast with the Paris region in France or south-east England where development tends to be focused on Paris and London, respectively.

The central regions of the Union conform very much to a polycentric model of development, while in peripheral regions, rural areas with small and medium-sized towns are much more important (accounting for 47% of the population there). In the latter, however, the development of urban centres could provide the basis for a more balanced distribution of economic activity across the Union (Map 6).

Over 44% of the population of the EU lives in cities with over 50,000 inhabitants, but only 22 of these cities have over a million 1

The most prosperous regions in the Union are virtually all urban (see Box) - 54 of the 63 NUTS 3 regions 2 with GDP per head of over 50% above the EU average.

Data sources

The two sources used for the analysis are the EU Labour Force Survey and the Urban Audit.

The LFS enables the data to be broken down into three kinds of area according to population density:

  • urban areas: densely populated, made up of contiguous local units, each with a density of over 500 inhabitants per square km and with a total population of at least 50,000;
  • intermediate areas: made up of less densely-populated contiguous local units, each with a density of over 100 inhabitants per square km and with a total population of at least 50,000, or of units neighbouring a densely-populated area;
  • rural areas: made up of sparsely populated local units located outside urban or intermediate areas. It should be noted that local units with low population density but completely encircled by an urban or intermediate area are counted as part of this, while those situated between an urban and intermediate one are counted as part of the latter.
The Urban Audit was carried out between 1998 and 2000 with the aim of measuring the quality of life in towns and cities in the Union. The pilot phase, which is the basis of the data cited in the text, covered a small sample of 58 urban centres, so the results need to be interpreted with care.

Urban areas: significant disparities

Unemployment in EU urban areas taken together averaged 10.1% in 1999, slightly above the EU average (9.2%). Long-term and youth unemployment were also higher than in the rest of the Union, though the rates vary considerably between Member States and seem to be affected more by national factors than by factors general to cities across the EU (see Tables A.8-A.10, in annex).

Many European cites have serious problems of poverty and social exclusion in particular districts. According to the Urban Audit, in cities like Hamburg, Toulouse, Naples, Genoa, Glasgow or Edinburgh, unemployment rates can vary significantly between districts, being up to 10 times higher in the worst affected parts than in the least affected. The same is true of dependency rates.

1.Approximate figures - Source: EUROSTAT-GISCO

2.GDP per head at NUTS 3 level is not always a reliable measure of income because of commuting.

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