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Compact or spread? A quantitative spatial model of urban areas in Europe since 1990

Manuel Wolff, Dagmar Haase, Annegret Haase

Changes in urban residential density represent an important issue in terms of land consumption, the conservation of ecosystems, air quality and related human health problems, as well as the consequential challenges for urban and regional planning. It is the decline of residential densities, in particular, that has often been used as the very definition of sprawl, describing a phenomenon that has been extensively studied in the United States and in Western Europe. Whilst these studies provide valuable insights into urbanization processes, only a handful of them have reflected the uneven dynamics of simultaneous urban growth and shrinkage, using residential density changes as a key indicator to uncover the underlying dynamics. This paper introduces a contrasting analysis of recent developments in both de- and re-concentration, defined as decreasing or increasing residential densities, respectively. Using a large sample of European cities, it detects differences in density changes between successional population growth/decline. The paper shows that dedensification, found in some large cities globally, is not a universal phenomenon in growing urban areas; neither the increasing disproportion between a declining demand for and an increasing supply of residential areas nor actual concentration processes in cities were found. Thus, the paper provides a new, very detailed perspective on (de)densification in both shrinking and growing cities and how they specifically contribute to current land take in Europe.


PLOS ONE, Vol. 13, No. 2. (28 February 2018), e0192326, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0192326 
Key: INRMM:14608961

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