3 mins

Functional areas as emerging geographies: how to define and measure them

Zintis Hermansons

The understanding of different functional geographies has grown exponentially through the introduction of improved and enlarged lists of territorial typologies. Territorial typologies are the main building blocks that help to further define specific patterns or directions of interactions among people and the places around them.

Although some time ago territorial typologies were products of research discourse, since 2018 the amended EC Regulation on NUTS (Nomenclature of territorial units for statistics) has provided a clear legal framework at the European level on what can be considered an 'urban area', 'rural area' or 'coastal area' (Tercet typologies).

Methods used to analyse and distinguish between territorial typologies have also progressed; for instance, the 'degree of urbanisation (Degurba)' method has recently been endorsed at the global level by the United Nations Statistical Commission.

Nowadays, different types of functional and soft cooperation areas may be identified across European landscapes: functional urban areas, functional rural areas, functional cross-border areas, functional transnational cooperation areas, labour market areas, areas of land-sea interactions, areas of green infrastructure, macroregions, island areas and neighbourhood areas, among others.

The preparatory study for the 17th session of the Conference of the Council of Europe of Ministers Responsible for Spatial Planning identified more than 20 types of functional areas (2017). There are clear benefits in defining and understanding functional areas in terms of policy planning and territorial governance. Recently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released a manual on how to delineate functional areas in all territories (2020), which showcases benefits for better policy design, delivery and evaluation.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has spurred research in detecting mobility functional areas, which are areas of intense human mobility; the idea is to help policymakers to avoid unnecessary large-area or national lockdowns in the future.

“functional areas reflect national and intraregional contexts and thus should not necessarily be a 'European product'”

In the context of the aforementioned two important issues that arise in terms of the policy planning: a) can one think of uniform functional areas that can be comparable across European countries? b) what kind of socioeconomic data can be accessed about functional areas?

Territorial coverage and the availability of clear delineations on functional areas that could be consistently applied to European countries would be desirable, as this would improve statistical comparisons and benchmarking and provide deeper insights on development trends (European Harmonised Labour Market Areas is a fine example).

However, practice shows that functional areas reflect national and intraregional contexts and thus should not necessarily be a 'European product'; national and regional approaches to defining functional areas must be taken into account.

“The COVID-19 global pandemic has spurred research in detecting mobility functional areas, which are areas of intense human mobility”

Luxembourg is an illustrative example of a mismatch between reality and how the country is seen from the 'European perspective'. According to the Tercet framework, the whole country of Luxembourg is deemed a functional urban area.

This is in some ways correct but disregards the fact that the actual functional urban area of Luxembourg city encompasses surrounding territories of Belgium, France and Germany, from where thousands of workers commute daily to Luxembourg.

Data on functional areas are scarce, especially when it comes to pan-European data. This is mostly because functional areas are in many cases defined at the level of local municipalities.

To address this problem, ESPON has developed a web tool that allows the disaggregation of NUTS level data into smaller territorial units, thus providing access to hundreds of estimated demographic and socioeconomic time series indicators for several types of functional areas.

The upcoming 2021 Population and Housing Census round will provide new avenues for updating the most fundamental datasets on functional areas and expanding our understanding on territorial development trends across different places in Europe.

More importantly, the enlarged data sets that will be available on EU-wide 1 km² grids will allow much more flexible, accurate and detailed statistical analysis at functional and cross-border levels.

Zintis Hermansons is Project Expert - Project Development and Coordination at the ESPON EGTC

This article appears in Rural areas: an eye to the future

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