Urban structure affects health and sustainability in Europe

With the rapid pace of urbanisation, it is important to examine its impact on human and environmental health. The existing literature provides mixed results, offering little clarity.

A study recently published The Lancet Planetary Health Examines the relationships between different urban layouts, human health and sustainability.

Urban structure affects health and sustainability in EuropeStudy: Influence of urban configuration types on urban heat islands, air pollution, CO2 Emissions and mortality in Europe: a data science approachImage source: ABCDstock/Shutterstock.com


Cities are home to 55% of the world's population, and three out of every four Europeans live in urban areas, and this proportion is expected to rise to 84% by 2050. Urban life offers more services, infrastructure, job opportunities and social interactions.

However, it also increases socio-economic inequalities and often promotes sedentary lifestyles, which adversely impact health.

Cities face high levels of air and noise pollution, high temperatures and limited access to natural spaces. Urban areas create thermal hotspots known as heat islands and are responsible for 75% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which contributes significantly to global warming.

Compact city design

Smaller cities have more people living in smaller spaces, which reduces travel time and distance and encourages the use of public transport.

This reduces pollution and reduces the carbon footprint. Shorter distances encourage cycling and walking, which facilitate social connections and foster a sense of belonging and community.

Effects of urban sprawl

In sprawling cities, the distances between people's workplaces, schools and recreational venues are greater. This encourages private transport, resulting in higher CO2 emissions per capita.

Fragmentation, complexity, rising costs of infrastructure and irregular layouts create discontinuous and disjointed urban spaces, exacerbating socio-economic inequalities.

Recognition of the close links between urban structure, sustainability and population health has highlighted that many European cities suffer from poor environmental health, leading to increased premature mortality.

About the study

The researchers examined 919 cities in 31 countries and classified them into different urban configurations to see how these relate to environmental exposure, CO2 emissions and health.

Urban configurations were identified based on local climate zones (LCZs) described in previous research. Their use allows cities to be compared based on their characteristics, assessed by a common standard.

European cities were classified into four types based on the urban structure:

  • Compact high-density cities (“compacts”) that were smaller, had higher population densities, and had very little natural area left.
  • Green low-density cities (“Green”) were larger, had lower population densities, and had abundant access to natural areas and bicycle paths.
  • Open low-rise medium- and low-density cities (“open medium” and “open low”, respectively) differed in size and population density, but were either small or medium. Natural areas were at low or medium accessibility levels.

These were assessed for motorised traffic flow, UHI intensity for surface urban heat islands (SUHI), and air pollution (measured by per capita tropospheric NO2 and CO2 emissions).

What did the study find?

Most European cities (261 out of 909) were classified as “open low”. The number of “open medium” (245) and “compact” (246) types was almost equal. The “green” type was the least common, with only 167 cities. Interestingly, Mediterranean cities had the highest proportion of “compact” cities.

City center vs outskirts

In most cities, constructed local climate zones (LCZs) were prevalent in city centers, while natural LCZs were more common toward the outskirts. Motorized road density was slightly higher in the suburbs, but other types of roads were denser in city centers and gradually decreased toward the periphery.

Traffic volume, Surface Urban Heat Island (SUHI) intensity and tropospheric NO2 levels were highest in the centre. In contrast, CO2 emissions increased towards the outskirts of the city.

Organizations involved with sustainability measures

Compared to the other types, a higher flow of motorized traffic was associated with “compact” and “open medium” cities in all LCZs and all concentration zones.

Although both types had similar traffic volumes, their exposure to NO2 was also higher.

The majority of the total urban population was concentrated in “compact” or “open medium” cities.

“Compact” cities displayed the lowest CO2 emissions, where amenities were within easy reach, there was better traffic management and there were opportunities to travel by foot or bicycle on dedicated networks.

However, “compact” cities had much lower per capita CO2 emissions than “green” cities. Complexity, irregularity and fragmentation increase with urban sprawl, reducing the connectivity and continuity of places.

“Green” cities had much higher SUHI intensity than any other type. Still, “compact” cities had lower SUHI intensity than “open medium” or “open low” cities. Of the latter, “open low” cities had lower SUHI than others outside the city centers.

“Green” cities had the lowest mortality rates and better environmental health than all other types of cities.


The study points to a conflict between sustainability and health. The compact city configuration is, in theory, the optimal, healthiest and most sustainable city model. Yet compact cities have disproportionately poor environmental quality and fail on health standards.

Higher density is associated with more polluted areas and fewer natural spaces. Motorised transport is dominant, which negates the theoretical benefits of pedestrian routes, cycle paths and proximity to amenities.

Smaller, lower density cities are probably better off as they are. In contrast, compact cities can be made healthier through better long-distance transport, more reduced traffic and green public spaces, including sky gardens, street trees and small gardens wherever possible, on the campuses of homes, factories, schools, colleges and institutions. However, this may increase property costs and increase inequalities.

from is “Monitoring the environmental quality, accessibility, and equitable distribution of these spaces is important for urban planners to promote environmental and climate justice,

For large sprawling or rapidly growing cities, “Measures such as densification, provision of services and adequate mix [residential and non-residential] Buildings can help create more dense and diverse neighbourhoods with cultural, social and employment opportunities,

,Current European Compact Cities [are] A transitional state in which positive features, such as access to services and low carbon emissions, are combined with challenges such as high traffic volumes and poor environmental quality. Cities are complex systems and solutions require a holistic approach,

Leave a Comment

“The Untold Story: Yung Miami’s Response to Jimmy Butler’s Advances During an NBA Playoff Game” “Unveiling the Secrets: 15 Astonishing Facts About the PGA Championship”