Territories -in- between: A Cross-case Comparison of Dispersed Urban Development in Europe


Alexander Wandl
TU Delft, Architecture and the Built Environment


There is an increasing body of literature suggesting that the conventional idea of a gradual transition in spatial structure from urban to rural does not properly reflect contemporary patterns of urban development and their potential for sustainable development. Furthermore, it is argued that large parts of the dispersed urban areas of Europe are neglected in urban and spatial planning policies. Such areas tend to be labelled simply as sprawl, though there is little evidence about whether such dispersed development is more or less sustainable than other forms of urban development. Moreover, evidence points in the direction that a large amount of dispersed urban development also asks for different planning approaches and instruments, which reflect the complexity and network structure of theses specific settlement patterns.

The research introduces the concept of territories-in-between (TiB) to address the issues surrounding dispersed urban development and to contribute to the understanding of sustainable urbanisation. TiB is an umbrella term that avoids the simple dichotomy of spatial structure into ‘urban’ and ‘rural’. It also avoids the notion of an urban-rural continuum, and is not limited by cultural connotations that come with some other terms like Zwischenstadt, Cittí  diffusa or Tussenland, because those terms belong to a specific place and are not generic.

A cross-case comparison research design was chosen to avoid an approach that is too contextspecific and solution-oriented but which is able to develop methods and principles that can be transferred to other geographical contexts. Ten cases in five countries were studied with the aim to answer the following questions:

—— What spatial structures characterise dispersed urban areas in Europe?

—— Which morphological and functional structures of dispersed urban areas offer the potential for more sustainable development? If so, how can this potential be mapped and measured to inform regional planning and design?

—— Are there similarities and dissimilarities concerning potentials of dispersed urban areas in different locations, planning cultures, topographies and histories?

These questions were answered in detail in four papers, which are summarised below.

Beyond urban-rural classifications: characterising and mapping territories-in-between across Europe

Much of the physical territory of Europe does not fit classic ‘urban-rural’ typologies but can best be described as ‘territories-in-between’ (TiB). There is considerable agreement that TiB is pervasive and very significant. However, typologies of territory or spatial development continue to employ only degrees of either urban or rural. Similarly, spatial planning and territorial development policies rarely make use of the notion of in-between areas but tend instead to divide the territory into urban and rural zones. Questions have been raised therefore, about the lack of understanding of territories-in-between and the lack of attention given to them in planning policy. This paper contributes to a better understanding of TiB, by proposing a method for their characterisation and mapping. It asks if there can be a common definition of TiB that reflects consistent and distinctive characteristics across the great variety of spatial development contexts in Europe. It proposes spatial and demographic criteria for their definition, mapping and comparison. The comparison with widely used urban-rural classifications shows that the notion of TiB has three advantages: (i) it maps the complexity of the spatial structure of urbanised areas on a regional scale, and thereby helps to overcome the prevalent idea that urbanised regions are characterised by a spatial gradient from urban centre(s) to rural periphery; (ii) it emphasises the network structure of territories-in-between and the underlying connectivity of places with different functions; and (iii) it raises awareness that in some parts of Europe a settlement pattern has developed that cannot be understood as either urban or rural.

Towards sustainable territories-in-between: a multidimensional typology of open spaces in Europe

The improvement of ecosystem services provided by open spaces in dispersed urban areas is a crucial challenge for sustainable spatial development in Europe. The typology presented in this article illustrates the different potentials that open spaces in territories-in-between have across ten cases in Europe. Unlike other typologies, neither function nor form is used for the classification, but the potential interaction of open spaces with social, technical and ecological networks. Therefore, the typology informs regional spatial planning and design about the potential ecosystem services in networked urban regions. Consequently, the importance of territories-in-between, which are often neglected by mainstream spatial planning and design, for sustainable development is highlighted.

Comparing the landscape fragmentation and accessibility of green spaces in territories-in-between across Europe

The positive effects provided by green spaces on human well-being in dispersed urban areas is a potential advantage in urban development and a key challenge for sustainable spatial development in Europe. This article presents a methodology that allows for the comparison of the potential of green spaces in territories-in-between across Europe, in a way that crosses the fields of urban ecology and urbanism. The article adds to the existing knowledge and understanding of the relation between the spatial organisation of systems of green spaces and their accessibility to biodiversity and human wellbeing. First, it adapts a green space fragmentation index in a way that it can be applied to the specific spatial characteristics of territories-in-between. Second, it combines the fragmentation index with an indicator for the accessibility of green spaces in order to integrate aspects of ecology, human wellbeing and the spatial heterogeneity of the relation between them. The methodology is applied to ten areas across western Europe in order to inform decision and policy makers including urban planners, designers and environmental agencies. The approach enables assessment of the potential of the system of green spaces for biological diversity and human well-being in an integrated manner.

Territories-in-between: investigating forms of mixed-use in Europe’s dispersed urban areas

A large part of Europe’s population lives in dispersed urban settlements, much of it labelled as sprawl: monofunctional low-density urbanisation. There is increasing evidence though that this may be a too simplistic way of describing them, as some of these territories-in-between (TiB) urban and rural have undergone a process of densification and diversification. This paper investigates whether and how mixed-use appears in TiB. The paper uses data on the location of economic activities and the residential population at a 500 m by 500 m resolution. It concludes that in the eight cases in four European countries mixed-use is widespread and that more than 65 per cent of the area is mixed. Moreover, the paper demonstrates, by developing a multi-scalar typology of settlement characteristics including measures of grain, density, permeability and centrality, that local and regional settlement characteristics can explain the location and intensity of mixed-use areas. Although the building types and form of local urban tissue vary significantly in mixed-use areas, we conclude that across all four countries, the cross-scale settlement characteristics are similar.

Atlas of territories-in-between

The four papers are completed by an Atlas of Territories-in-between and a meta-analyses across all papers and cases. The Atlas presents a rich compendium of original maps illustrating the morphological, functional and relational properties of TiB, and the resulting potentials for present and future sustainability. The cross-case comparison of the ten dispersed urban areas across Europe uses 25 indicators to assess the current state and potentials for the future sustainability of these areas. The indicators cover the aspects of the provision of different ecosystem services, multifunctionality and mixed-use. The methods developed to assess the potential for future sustainable development combine both regional and systemic aspects with local and place-specific elements. It does so drawing on extensive modelling and spatial analyses of the settlement patterns, systems of built and unbuilt open spaces as well as on demographic and economic location patterns.


Do dispersed urban areas have distinct characteristics? In sum, the findings show that dispersed urban areas in Europe are quite distinct from urban and rural areas and that they share characteristics from one place to another. The findings also show that the well-worn notion of a continuum from urban to rural does not stand up to the evidence, and is a crude simplification of the complexities and socio-ecological systemic relations which characterise TiB. It follows that effective spatial planning for such areas needs to be built on a more careful analysis of characteristics and potential for sustainable development. 

The research investigated three aspects of sustainable spatial development, the potential of multifunctionality, the provision of ecosystem services and the presence and potential for mixed-use. The potentials for multi-functionality in TiB go beyond the buildings. Especially grey open spaces provide a significant potential for multifunctionality. Greenspaces have an inherent potential through multifunctional use to not only lessen the negative impact of climate changes but also to provide a positive effect on the liveability of citizens.

The maps presented in this study show that the most common green spaces, but also significant parts of grey spaces in TiB have the potential for multiple ecosystem services. The form of the potential is very distinct according to the spatial relation of a specific open space to its centrality as a resulting characteristic of the street network, accessibility to and connectivity of services as well as densities of services, production and consumption.

Mixed-use, preferably integrated into a pedestrian-oriented environment, is a further aspect of sustainability. The research shows that TiB are more mixed than commonly referred to. The typology presented in this paper shows that mixed-use in TiB could be related to specific settlement characteristics. The characteristics investigated were: grain, density, permeability, centrality and closeness to transit stations and motorway entries.

This leads to a generalised conclusion: the networks of small towns and cities form a robust spatial structure that can facilitate multi-functionality, mixed-use and ecosystem services, on both local and regional scales. But these qualities are under pressure by one-dimensional planning approaches which tend to focus on densification only. There is a significant potential to develop green and grey open spaces along with the network of grey infrastructures to provide ecosystem services and also facilitate multi-functionality.



March 27, 2020

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