EU cities: standards are high, but quality of life is low

A new report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) suggests that modern urban areas provide high standards of living and prosperity, but are less successful in delivering ‘quality of life’ to all citizens. If local, national and European authorities focus on sustainable living, they can drive new social, cultural and economic initiatives needed to protect the environment and secure the long-term future of city dwellers.

‘Quality of life’ is difficult to define. It encompasses different things for different people, including: wealth; housing and the local environment; employment, education and skills; family; work-life balance; health and health care; and the perceived quality of society1. The report raises awareness of the complex relationships between the many perspectives of quality of life: from the health benefits of living near green spaces to the impact of an individual’s housing choice on the environment.

Almost three-quarters of Europeans live in cities. There are over 16,000 urban areas, each accommodating more than 50,000 inhabitants2. Thus, action on the urban environment is crucial to ensure quality of life across Europe. Urban populations are expected to grow as people search for a better quality of life, driving urban migration and sprawl. Policies often target specific problems, such as housing or income, but those that do not take into account the broader, long-term view, can produce conflicting outcomes. For example, focusing on job creation or transport development to improve quality of life in one sphere can have negative consequences on another, particularly the environment.

Cities have the potential to deliver good quality environments that promote physical, mental and social well-being. This includes providing clean air and water, space for cyclists and pedestrians, green open spaces, low noise levels and safe neighbourhoods that encourage physical activity and social interaction. It is especially important that these benefits are equally available to all citizens.

The impacts of climate change add new complexities to urban policy. Climate change could significantly alter migration patterns as people seek more hospitable environments. More extreme weather events could lead to a greater risk of flooding, a shortage of drinking water and heat waves. Hot weather has serious consequences for vulnerable sections of urban populations, especially the elderly, very young and those with respiratory and heart problems.

Nevertheless, European policies combined with local initiatives can drive processes that help mitigate the effects of climate change. Encouraging and providing citizens the real choice to live more sustainable lives could reduce current consumption and production patterns, conserve energy and reduce emissions that contribute to climate change and poor environments.

Guidance for the integrated sustainable management of cities can be found in the European Commission’s ‘Thematic Strategy on the urban environment’3. This report emphasises that quality of life in Europe’s cities and towns can be enhanced in the future only if development of sustainable policies are integrated at all levels of governance. Such policies should concentrate on collective long-term objectives rather than short-term sectoral targets.

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