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Mapping rural/urban areas from population

density grids
F.J. Gallego,
Institute for Environment and Sustainability, JRC, Ispra (Italy)

Summary
We discuss several possible criteria to classify the European Union (EU) into
rural and urban areas. Some unexpected results are highlighted with definitions
based only on population density per administrative unit or only on land cover
type. These abnormal results come partly because the definitions depend too
strongly on the size of the communal territory.
In the approach we propose as a basis for discussion, the classification units are
the communes, but a major role is played by urban agglomerations, that are
defined and determined in a way that does not depend on administrative
boundaries. The classification proposed has three major groups: urban, semiurban and rural. Each of them has been subdivided, but different criteria for subclassification have been prepared.

Some definitions of rural and urban areas
For the definition of a policy on rural areas development, a logical previous step
is defining which areas are rural and which areas are urban. The issue is not
trivial, as we can think at first sight. There is no doubt that the centre of Paris is
urban or a remote area in Lapland is rural, but there are many intermediate
situations and it is difficult to give a definition that is objective, practical,
applicable across the European Union (EU25), and that takes into account the
different aspects of rurality.
One of the issues to be considered is the choice of basic units for the
classification. Homogeneous areas can be defined by clustering small basic units
(Geddes and Flowerdew, 2000); one option is starting with cells of a regular grid
(Librecht et al., 2004). However for small units, few data are available, and often
less reliable. For the approach given here, the commune is selected as basic
unit, because it seems a realistic choice for policy application.
The concept of “rural area” involves a number of socioeconomic aspects, such as
structure of the employment, population age population change. Unfortunately
these data are difficult to collect at the commune level for EU25, and we have
based the study on population density and land cover.

Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids

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classified as urban because the communal territory only includes the small urban nucleus (439 inhabitants in 0. • Some relatively large towns are labelled as rural because the communal territory contains large “empty” areas (table 1). More than 250 communes above 20. Communes with the highest population density in Extremadura Population Badajoz Cáceres Mérida 122225 74589 49284 Area commune 153434 175139 86785 Density 80 43 57 Table 2. but has some limitations: • The commune classification into urban/rural depends too much on the area of the commune. • It does not take into account the characteristics of the surrounding area. Main communes in Extremadura (classified as rural) Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 2 . Cáceres and Mérida) are classified as rural because their communes include wide areas of woodland and shrub. 1994). this definition gives only 6 urban communes. Most of them have a fairly large urban nucleus. Population Aldea de Trujillo Calamonte Puebla de la calzada Valle de Santa Ana 439 5564 5480 1338 Area commune (ha) 35 770 1419 376 Density 1272 723 386 356 Table 1. without taking into account that it is surrounded by natural and agricultural areas.000 inhabitants have a density < 150 and would be considered as rural with the OECD definition. Figure 1 shows the case of Aldea de Trujillo. This definition has the merit of being easily applicable. a specific category might be meaningful for this type of communes containing an urban nucleus and large agricultural or natural areas.3 km2). Let us put an example to illustrate some awkward effects of this definition: In Extremadura (Spain).OECD definition. If the commune is used as classification unit. The main cities of the region (Badajoz. A commune is classified as rural if the population density is below 150 inhabitants per km2. The OECD has given a definition of rural areas based on the percentage of the population of a region living in rural communes (OECD. in particular if it belongs to the outskirts of a big city.000 inhabitants. out of which 4 have less than 6.

Table 3: largest towns with density < 150 inhab/km2 Jerez de la Frontera Uppsala Albacete Linkoeping Badajoz Oerebro Norrkoeping Vaesteraas Joenkoeping Boraas Area commune (ha) 141180 246459 124310 143086 153080 184006 149073 95643 148512 118039 Population commune 183316 167508 130023 122268 122225 120944 120522 119761 111486 101766 density 130 68 105 85 80 66 81 125 75 86 Rural and Urban regions (NUTS3 units) On this basis the rural/urban classification of communes with a density threshold of 150 inhab/km2. • relatively rural regions: between 15% and 50% of the population lives in rural communes. the OECD definition distinguishes three main categories of regions: • mainly rural regions: more than 50% of the region's population live in rural communes. Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 3 .Figure 1: Example of small village (Aldea de Trujillo) classified as urban because the communal territory is small.

heterogeneous NUTS3 units. The criterion is reasonable but has some limitations and produce unexpected results that depend on the delimitation of communal boundaries. Land cover in Rural/Urban communes with the OECD definition. Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 4 . For example the only province in Sicily that turns out to be “mainly urban” is Ragusa. in particular for large. for which attributing the same label of rurality to the whole NUTS3 unit may be unfair. while Stockholm is relatively rural. (Scotland. Figure 2: Rural and urban NUTS3 units according to OECD definition. East Germany and islands missing).• mainly urban regions: less than 15% of the region's population lives in rural communes.

The definition based on the population density for the commune gives an unexpected result: the average proportion of arable land in communes with a population density above 150 inh/km2 is 29%. 2002). The same question can be put for NUTS3 units: which is the percentage of arable land (or agricultural land) in NUTS3 regions labelled as mainly urban.An interesting check for the delimitation of rural/urban areas is the proportion of agricultural land. Tables 6 and 7 give an estimate of such proportions using LUCAS data. relatively rural or mainly rural. We can estimate such proportion with the help of the European point survey LUCAS. -Land Use/Cover Area-frame Survey. the proportion is 48% in “urban” communes versus 40% in “rural” communes. versus 21% in communes with less than 150 inh/km2 (table 4).(Bettio et al. Rural (< 150 inh/km2) LUCAS SSU % arable total arable AT BE DE (West) DK ES FI FR GR IE IT LU NL PT SE UK (No Scotland) total 363 109 1404 715 2973 705 4839 743 96 1672 15 209 551 762 1135 16291 2310 443 4421 1152 11727 10216 15285 3759 2090 6727 67 398 2404 12902 3910 77811 16 25 32 62 25 7 32 20 5 25 22 53 23 6 29 21 Urban (> 150 inh/km2) LUCAS SSU % arable total arable 29 136 763 72 235 11 429 30 5 811 7 398 70 37 265 3298 217 520 2906 183 886 157 1614 124 70 2462 13 737 313 114 1155 11471 13 26 26 39 27 7 27 24 7 33 54 54 22 32 23 29 Table 4 : % of arable land in communes with population density above/below 150 inhab/km2 Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 5 . In principle we would expect that urban areas have a low proportion of agricultural or arable land. For Utilised Agricultural Area (UAA).

AT BE DE (West) DK ES FI FR GR IE IT LU NL PT SE UK (No Scotland) total Rural (< 150 inh/km2) LUCAS SSU % UAA total agricultural Urban (> 150 inh/km2) LUCAS SSU % UAA total agricultural 762 242 2471 794 5921 725 8813 1664 1597 3115 46 229 864 1004 2981 31228 64 258 1329 83 405 12 686 64 41 1424 10 420 105 41 547 5489 2310 443 4421 1152 11727 10216 15285 3759 2090 6727 67 398 2404 12902 3910 77811 33 55 56 69 50 7 58 44 76 46 69 58 36 8 76 40 217 520 2906 183 886 157 1614 124 70 2462 13 737 313 114 1155 11471 29 50 46 45 46 8 43 52 59 58 77 57 34 36 47 48 Table 5: % of area used for agriculture (UAA) in communes with population density above/below 150 inhab/km2 AT BE DE DK ES FI FR GR IE IT LU NL PT SE UK Total Mainly urban 19 55 38 12 25 n.a 69 40 7 89 33 average 33 52 52 65 50 7 56 44 76 49 70 56 36 8 65 42 Table 6: % of the territory used for agriculture (UAA) in rural/urban NUTS3 with the OECD definition Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 6 .a 56 25 n.a 46 n.a 46 36 n.a 57 45 NUTS3 Relatively rural 28 55 55 57 49 19 57 61 75 51 70 57 24 33 75 54 Mainly rural 34 40 55 71 55 6 56 43 76 49 n.

a 28 4 n. forest and natural areas). The example of Aldea de Trujillo mentioned above holds again.AT BE DE DK ES FI FR GR IE IT LU NL PT SE UK Total Mainly urban 12 31 22 12 10 n.a 24 25 NUTS3 Relatively rural 14 30 31 49 26 19 33 23 10 28 28 53 15 27 31 29 Mainly rural 16 9 31 64 27 6 29 20 4 27 n. EEA. 30%). This type of definition is easy to apply if CORINE Land Cover is available. The estimation is made by simple measurement of major land cover classes in CORINE Land Cover (CLC). Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 7 . for example communes with a very small territory are likely to be classified as urban. A method has been explored by DG Agriculture to classify communes into urban and rural on the basis of land cover (DG Agri. except Sweden (CEC. CLC is a land cover map that has been produced with approximately homogeneous specifications in all EU-25. The area of the commune occupied by artificial land is estimated as well as the area of “rural” land cover types (agriculture.a 25 n.a 53 19 n. 1993. A commune can be defined as urban if the artificial areas occupy more than a certain threshold (for example 10%. 2004). similar in some cases to the anomalies found with the OECD definition. 2001). Figure 3 shows another example in Poitou-Charentes. Areas of water are excluded from this computation. but may produce some unexpected results.a 61 26 5 1 17 average 16 25 33 59 25 7 31 20 5 27 28 53 23 6 22 22 Table 7: % of the territory used for arable land in rural/urban NUTS3 Classifying rural/urban on the basis of artificial area. but it is not the only one: 637 communes have been identified with more than 30% of artificial are in CLC and out of urban agglomerations of more than 5000 inhabitants (see below method to define the agglomerations).

With this definition. are not necessarily characteristic of an urban environment. These figures are not very inaccurate and should be seen as an indication of the order of magnitude. Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 8 . such as airports. * Census data were not available for this work. CLC nomenclature contains 11 artificial classes.Argenton-Château (Deux-Sèvres) ~1000 inhab. this type of large communes containing a significant agricultural or natural land is considered a specific category in the draft classification suggested in this paper. mines. dump sites and leisure facilities. Population data have been derived from the Landscan raster layer.) 3089 847 693 688 675 551 432 413 404 388 380 379 Area (km2) 1505 135 1065 396 239 685 301 209 1257 198 888 275 % artificial in CLC 27 29 6 15 25 15 30 22 6 14 4 24 Table 8: some cities with less than 30% artificial land in CLC. and some of them. 49% artificial (CLC) Figure 3: An example of small commune in Poitou-Charentes (FR) with a high % of artificial land in CLC. This classification can be nuanced by separating several groups of artificial land cover types. As suggested above. a number of major cities might be classified as rural because the communal territories are large (table 8). Commune Roma Valencia Zaragoza Málaga Genova Helsinki Szczecin Palma de Mallorca Córdoba Valladolid Murcia Ljubljana Country IT ES ES ES IT FI PL ES ES ES ES SI Population* (1000 inh.

it is useful to define urban agglomerations without using the administrative boundaries of communes. Vintirov (CZ) 36% dump site. For policy definition purposes. The characterisation of a commune should take into account the structure of population density inside the commune and in the neighbouring communes.Figure 4 shows some examples of communes that do not belong to any urban agglomeration). the natural unit might be the commune. leisure zone. For this purpose. A GIS approach to define urban agglomerations. Two layers of information are actually available for this task: Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 9 . Population density represented in raster mode provides an ideal tool for this type of analysis. 15% mine 12% industrial Figure 4: Examples of communes out of urban agglomerations with a high % of artificial land cover in CLC. but have a significant area for an airport. This can be done if suitable information is available on the population density. dump site or mines.

the number of nuclei identified depends very strongly on the characteristics of the population grid. The grid should have covered EU15. • Applying a threshold of 500 inh/km2. A first visual inspection suggests that the population of rural centres below 20.000 inhabitants may be strongly underestimated. in particular for small communes). 2001). Further check is needed. A total of 3886 agglomerations have been identified counting for a total of 287 million inhabitants For the small size classes. Other abnormal results can be found. Subset of the Landscan global population database (Dobson et al. Urban agglomerations are classified by classes of size. Selecting polygons > 5000 inhab. but due to various problems of data availability (CLC or commune boundaries). The reference date is 2002 and the resolution is 0. • Converting to polygon shape. but the coverage incompleteness is a serious limitation. The 1 ha grid obtained from 1991 commune data is more accurate. 2000) in Lat-long co-ordinates. • Selecting nuclei > 5000 inh. corresponding approximately to 920 meters in the north-south direction and a varying width (750 meters at 35° latitude and 390 meters at 65°). The resolution of this population density grid is 1 ha in equal-area Lambert Azimuthal coordinates. • Computing the total population of each polygon. Finland. This grid has been produced by disaggregation of regional data. Water was excluded from this operation by masking with CLC.5’.• • Disaggregation of the 1991 census data by commune with the help of CORINE Land Cover (Gallego and Peedell. • threshold of 500 inh/km2 • majority filter 3x3 cells (with coast line as mask) • Buffer by “maximum” in a 3x3 moving window (no mask) • Converting to polygons • Estimating the population of each urban polygon by summing the values of the grid cells inside the polygon. • Buffering with a 5x5 moving window (no mask). • Majority filter with a 11x11 moving window to smooth the shape and eliminate small centres (with mask). With this layer we have applied a series of filters to define urban agglomerations: • Smoothing by averaging values in a circle of radius 500 m. (notice that the population estimated from the grid layer is not very accurate. several major areas are missing: Sweden. The operation was slightly different with the 2002 Landscan layer in lat-long coordinates to adapt for the coarser resolution. Steps were: • Converting the population layer (estimated number of inhabitants per cell) into a density layer dividing by the area of each cell (varying with latitude). Figure 5 illustrates the case of Tampere (Finland) in which the algorithm Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 10 . Scotland and the eastern Länder of Germany.

per size class.000 inhabitants from Landscan and below for the 1991 grid. Figure 5: a slightly abnormal result in Finland. The shape of both polygons does not perfectly correspond to the CLC urban area. Some agglomerations have been estimated above 50. In Both cases the area is identified as the largest urban agglomeration in Europe. but working with the coarse resolution layer leads to a larger single polygon where the finer resolution had separated several agglomerations. Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 11 . different accuracies. Figure 6 shows the different results obtained from both population layers in the Ruhr-Rhine area between Dortmund and Bonn. different parameters chosen for smoothing and buffering. Size (in 1000 inh) 5-10 10-20 20-50 50-100 100-200 200-500 500-1000 1000-2000 2000-5000 >5000 N. nuclei 1303 808 911 453 207 128 36 24 13 3 Total pop 9302 11109 29894 31789 28148 39301 26029 35848 45334 30142 Table 9 : number of nuclei identified > 5000 inhab.identified 2 separate agglomerations disregarding the link between them. This is due to several reasons: different reference date. even if it is through a GIS algorithm. but illustrates as well that a certain subjectivity remains always when urban agglomerations are defined.. etc.

by soil quality.) identified from the 1991 population grid (1 ha resolution) and the 2002 Landscan grid. The major classes proposed are: Urban • Fully urban communes: > 99% in an urban nucleus>5. hill. by land cover profile (predominantly arable.Figure 6: different urban agglomerations (>50. etc. plain). Each class can be subdivided by size of nucleus. Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 12 . Draft proposal for a typology of rural/urban communes We have classified nearly 108. Semi-urban • Communes with an urban nucleus and large rural area: Dominant commune of an urban nucleus (Medium-small urban centres of rural areas).000 inh. by topographic roughness (mountain. forest…).000 communes into the three major categories. • Mainly urban communes with moderate rural area: 50-99% in an urban nucleus>5.000 inhab.000 inhab. A commune can be considered dominant in the nucleus if it has > 50% of the population of the nucleus. each of which has been subdivided and can be further split with different criteria.

• Suburban (peripherical urban): intersects an urban nucleus >5. but is in the area of influence of an urban agglomeration. The geographical distribution of communes classified as “urban with a significant rural area” is quite uneven (Figure 7). Urban and semi-urban communes.000 inhab. 193 209 407 369 256 352 175 255 246 160 2622 Urban with rural area Suburban (periferical urban) 991 569 576 229 83 29 5 1586 1256 1837 1340 831 860 388 375 310 212 8995 1 2483 Table 10 : Number of urban communes classified as urban or semi-urban. 109 136 185 227 172 291 187 212 252 173 1944 Mainly Urban 50-80% urban agglom. 1996). The area of influence has been defined through a “gravity indicator” (Wang and Gouldmann.. Rural • Peri-urban rural areas: does not intersect with any urban nucleus>5. • Remote rural: distant from urban agglomerations. Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 13 . that takes into account the population of the agglomeration. This category still needs further analysis. Many communes that should have been classified as rural peri-urban appear in this class because of the spatial inaccuracy delineating urban agglomerations with Landscan database. A modification in the threshold of the nucleus size might be recommended. Size of the agglomeration (in 1000 inh) 5-10 10-20 20-50 50-100 100-200 200-500 500-1000 1000-2000 2000-5000 >5000 Total Pure urban 90 140 362 661 537 908 439 958 858 1424 6377 Mainly Urban 80-99% urban agglom. We found 10999 communes with more than 50% of the territory in an urban agglomeration.000 inhab and is not in any of the previous categories. 6377 were >99% inside the urban agglomeration. In several countries they cover a large proportion of the territory.

) 5-10 10-20 20-50 50-100 100-200 200-500 500-1000 >1000 Figure 7: Communes with an urban nucleus and a significant rural area. The classification as “semi-urban” of communes that have part of the communal territory inside a small agglomeration needs to be reviewed. but this is consistent with the definition. that appears to touch the 4 communes. Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 14 . with a too wide buffer. In most cases it corresponds to an artifact generated by the scarce spatial accuracy of the Landscan database used for the delineation of agglomerations and the excessive buffer applicated around the nucleus due to the coarse resolution of the population grid. 4 communes around are classified as “suburban” because of the coarse delimitation of the urban nucleus. This may be debatable because the threshold of 5000 inhabitants may be too low. Figure 7 shows an example of these effects: Laureana di Borrello (Calabria) is classified as a “commune with a small urban nucleus and a large rural area” in the category “between 5000 and 10000 inhabitants”.Communes with an urban nucleus and significant rural areas Nucleus size (*1000 inhab.

we may want to know if it is near an urban agglomeration. Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 15 . but take into account as well the size of the agglomeration.000. we consider rural all communes that do not intersect with the urban agglomerations identified with the criteria specified above. Some of these communes are close to urban nuclei and have some influence from them. In order to classify communes into peri-urban and remote. we have to quantify the influence of an urban agglomeration.Rural communes classified as semi-urban Serrata Candinoni Laureana di Borrello Ferloleto Galatro 3 0 3 6 Kilometers Figure 7: Example of rural communes classified as suburban due to the coarse identification of urban nuclei.000. In this draft classification. the large agglomeration will have a stronger influence on that commune. and if this agglomeration is large or small. for example part of the population may be working in the city rather than in the commune of residence. It is also useful to give a criterion to decide which is the most influent agglomeration to a given commune. For example if a certain commune is 10 km far from an agglomeration of 10. the criterion should not be only based on distances.000 inhabitants and 15 km far from an agglomeration of 1. For a specific rural commune (that has not been classified as urban). Peri-urban rural communes.

70012 123243 52699 88782 8176 13954 22214 36230 21041 13952 765 Total area Km2 19960 78235 340038 547725 78248 166910 348840 800096 660613 1067734 16 . because comparisons are made for each commune separately. Figure 7 and Table 11 illustrate a classification in which rural communes are sub-classified according to the gravitational indicator given in the previous section. a ) = 2 d (c. a′) ∀ a′ ≠ a Rural communes can be classified according to the intensity of this gravitational attraction indicator or according to the size of the most influent agglomeration. a ) > G (c. a ) where c is the commune and a the urban agglomeration. The population of the commune c is not considered. mixed and rural. the most influent agglomeration a is the one with the highest “gravitational attraction”: A(c ) = a ⇔ G (c. for example we could define a buffer of 5 km around communes of 5. With the draft scheme presented here. from peri-urban to remote areas. This scheme still needs a lot of improvements. We have chosen an alternative approach based on a “gravitational index” To simplify the problem. both communes and urban agglomerations are represented by their barycentres. The influence of an agglomeration on a commune has been quantified through a “gravitational attraction” indicator: pop (a ) pop (a ) or G (c. (Landscan) in 1000 inh. Communes are classified by levels of accessibility with this gravitational attraction index.000 inhabitants. a ) d (c.000 to 10. we would have three main classes of communes: urban. Urban Mixed Rural Purely urban Mainly urban Suburban Urban with rural areas Close peri-urban Medium peri-urban Far peri-urban Medium remote Remote Severely remote Unclassified Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids Number communes 6377 4566 8995 2483 4871 8721 15458 27461 17839 11157 767 Total Pop. A provisional classification scheme. For a commune c.000. Each class can be subclassified through several criteria. a ) = 2 (1) G (c. and of 50 km around communes of more than 5.Defining the most influent agglomeration to a commune. but may be useful as a basis for discussion. A possible way to tackle the issue is defining an “area of influence” of an urban agglomeration through a buffer of a width that depends on the size of the commune.000 inhabitants.

Table 11: A possible scheme of classification. A good method should be Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 17 . Figure 8: A possible classification of communes Discussion Giving an absolutely objective criterion to classify a geographical area into urban and rural areas is probably impossible. that is subjective to a certain extent. Any method requires a choice of thresholds.

Others have not been classified because of recoverable problems in the GIS processing. • Changing the size threshold for urban agglomerations.000 inhabitants. We use the terms “urban nucleus” and “urban agglomeration” in a rather unspecific and exchangeable way. and some inaccuracies certainly appear. significant improvements are needed before submitting the results to validation by Member States. partly because of the population data grid used and partly because of the processing. such as perimeter/sqrt(area). • Better tuned criterion to measure remoteness.000 inhabitants. 1997) considers a threshold of 50.000 communes is strongly based on the previous identification of urban agglomerations that do not take into account communal boundaries. It might be meaningful to classify into relatively small nuclei. and Caribbean territories were not included. Malta. Formula (1) might need an adaptation. so that a potential user can easily tune thresholds for a better adaptation to specific needs. At short term: • Some communes have not been classified. often with an approximately round shape and complex agglomerations. Many issues have not been addressed. The results presented here are conceived as a basis for discussion. At long term: Mapping rural/urban areas from population density grids 18 .flexible. for example Vanhove (1999) suggests 30.000 in August?. A shape indicator. • The class we have called “suburban communes” needs further reflection. Some improvements can be made at short term. The variety of situations included in it is too high. If the approach is considered to be a valid basis. for example how to deal with major tourist areas: How to consider a coastal commune that may have 2. Many communes are classified in this group just because they are not too far from a medium size town. We have considered the commune as the unit for classification The method we have used to classify the approximately 108. and some need a long-term work. A number of arbitrary choices have been made. and the Buckwell report (European Commission.000 inhabitants in the winter and 30. Some of them because the population density grid used did not cover the whole EU25: Cyprus. Figure 7 suggests that the importance of major agglomerations is too strong. might be useful for this purpose. Atlantic islands. that need to be discussed.

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