Views on Sustainable Urban Planning from Europe

By Dominic Stead

The role of urban form, or the physical arrangement of land uses, in contributing to sustainable development has been recognised for more than two decades in European policy. Soon after the publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987, European policy started to call for a stronger role for land-use planning and began to set out a case for denser mixed-use urban development – key elements of the compact city paradigm which began its ascendance around that time. The environmental arguments for denser mixed-use urban development were often most prominent in policy despite the fact that there are also some strong social and economic benefits associated with this type of development.

European policy on sustainable urban form

One of the first references to urban form in European policy can be found in the Green Paper on the Urban Environment from 1990, which took the traditional European city as its inspiration and argued for denser, more mixed forms of development. Similar ideas can also be found in the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP), published in 1999, which explicitly referred to the compact city approach to planning. Subsequently, the European Commission's 2004 preparatory document on the Urban Thematic Strategy advocated high density, mixed-use settlements, the reuse of 'brownfield' land and empty property, and planned expansions of urban areas (instead of ad hoc urban sprawl). More recently still, the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities (signed in 2007 by the European Ministers responsible for urban development) highlighted the mixing of urban functions such as housing, employment, education and recreational use in urban neighbourhoods as a desirable and more sustainable approach to urban development, particularly in terms of resource efficiency.

Arguments in support of urban form policies

Various reasons for managing the urban form are identified in these European policy statements. Most often however, managing urban form is justified on environmental grounds, such as reducing greenfield or agricultural land consumption or lowering the need for car-based travel (and reducing transport energy consumption). The potential social and economic benefits associated with managing urban form are often surprisingly given less attention in these documents despite the fact that some of the social and economic impacts of urban form can also be very important. Examples of such benefits are increased community safety, greater access to services, lower costs of development and infrastructure provision, and wider employment opportunities.

The 1990 Green Paper on the Urban Environment for example highlighted strategies for dense mixed-use developments as a way of increasing local accessibility to jobs and services, stating that dense mixed-use development is more likely to result in people living close to workplaces and the services they need for everyday life. Meanwhile, the ESDP argued that spatial development policy can make an important contribution to climate protection through energy-saving from traffic-reducing settlement structures and locations, and the 2006 Thematic Strategy on the Urban Environment highlighted the need for high-density and mixed-use settlement patterns and the avoidance of urban sprawl as a means to reduce resource-use, such as land consumption and transport and heating requirements.

Urban form can also be used as a means of addressing issues of sprawl and poor urban quality. Several European policy documents mentioned above regard urban sprawl as a key issue to be addressed through urban management and urban form policies. For example, the 2007 European Green Paper on Urban Mobility raised the concern that the suburbanisation of development and the resulting dispersal of home, work and leisure facilities have often resulted in increased transport demand, with negative consequences for energy consumption, congestion and environmental pollution. Meanwhile, the European Commission's 2004 preparatory document on the Urban Thematic Strategy argued that environmentally unsustainable and unattractive urban areas are often the result of poor land-use decisions, with the clear implication that planning needs to be improved.

Planning as both problem and solution

Unsustainable patterns of development are not necessarily the consequence of a complete or partial lack of planning. Even strong planning powers can sometimes lead to unsustainable outcomes if the underlying principles are unsound or if planning practice is insufficiently coordinated with other areas of policy-making. This is recognised in the 1990 Green Paper on the Urban Environment, which pointed out that strict zoning policies can often lead to the separation of land uses and thereby increase travel demand and traffic levels, with implications for urban environmental quality. This problem prompted the Green Paper to call for a fundamental review of the principles on which urban planning practice is based. Meanwhile, the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities of 2007 identified the role of urban planning, and stronger controls of land supply in particular, as an important means of preventing urban sprawl and increasing the efficiency and sustainability of resource use in cities.

Limits to urban form policies

There are clearly limits to the influence of Europe on urban planning policy, which is primarily a matter for national and sub-national levels of government, rather than the European level. Moreover, implementing urban form policies at any tier of government can pose numerous difficulties. The 2004 preparatory document on the Urban Thematic Strategy for example recognises that there are limits to acceptable urban densities and that some urban areas suffer from poor quality environments due to overcrowding. Reversing urban sprawl and increasing land-use densities is thus no easy task. For reasons of competence and subsidiarity (taking decisions at the lowest appropriate level), European policy is clearly wary of prescribing standard planning solutions for making land-use decisions or defining 'ideal' settlement patterns. As the 2004 preparatory document on the Urban Thematic Strategy recognised, each town and city is unique, which makes the solutions needed to achieve more sustainable urban development very specific to each case.

Complementary packages of policies

Urban form and planning control remain important means of addressing sustainable development in cities and have rightly continued to feature in various European policy statements on the urban environment over the course of more than two decades. The terminology may have changed (and new terms have certainly emerged) over this time, but the basic message remains essentially the same: planning and urban form are crucial to urban sustainability. However, this should not be regarded as a general panacea: planning is only one of a range of different types of policy tools that needs to be used to tackle the problems of unsustainable development in cities. Many other types of policy instruments are also available, and tackling unsustainable urban development in an effective way will usually require combinations of different instruments employed in an integrated manner.

In other words, urban planning policies need to be supported by complementary policies, which might for example address issues such as vehicle technology, energy sources and prices, and building standards. To make significant advances towards more sustainable patterns of urban development, these combinations of policy instruments also need to be accompanied by changes in individual preferences and consumption patterns. After all, urban planning can provide some of the necessary conditions for more sustainable choices but it is ultimately the preferences and behaviour of individuals that will determine the real extent to which cities become more sustainable.

Back to Nordregio News Issue 2, 2011