The Impact of Urbanisation on European Wild Land

The land surface covered by urban development in Europe has grown faster than the population in the last 50 years. This infographic demonstrates that half of all land is within 1.5km of a road or railway. The close proximity of transport infrastructure has a negative impact on most wildlife, resulting in reduced numbers of birds and mammals when compared to undisturbed areas. Strategies to protect wild land from further encroachment are identified.

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Urbanisation impact on wild land infographic

Disturbance of wild land by urbanisation

Wild land refers to areas that are remote from urban development and where ecological systems remain relatively undisturbed by human activity. For example, this could include hard to reach areas, such as mountains or moorlands, isolated stretches of coastline, or landscapes that are uninhabited.

The direct impacts of roads and railways on biodiversity are:

  • habitat loss;
  • habitat fragmentation;
  • disruption of migration corridors (leading to isolated populations, genetic impoverishment, local extinctions);
  • road kills;
  • noise;
  • air, water and soil pollution;
  • spread of invasive alien species;
  • hydrology disruption;
  • human penetration.

In addition, transportation networks can bring about future development and the transport using the network produces CO2 emissions, both of which have indirect effects on wildlife.

Impact on European wild land

Almost three quarters of people in the European Union now live in urban areas (European Commission, 2016). During the last half century, the process of urbanisation in Europe has grown much faster than the size of the population, resulting in lower density urban areas and increased urban sprawl (European Environment Agency, 2006). The transport infrastructure network that connects the urban areas together has a significant negative impact on the numbers of animals and birds when compared to areas that are undisturbed by urbanisation (Torres et al., 2016).

Research mapped the transport infrastructure across 36 countries in Europe and assessed the proximity of land to the network (Torres et al., 2016). The study found that half of all land in Europe is within 1.5km of a road or railway. The infographic shows the top five and bottom five European countries out of 36 that were ranked in terms of the distance of land from transport infrastructure by Torres et al., (2016). Perhaps not surprisingly, three out of the top five countries ranked as having land closest to roads and railways are also the most densely populated in Europe. The United Kingdom is the third most densely populated country in Europe (United Nations, 2015). With half of all land calculated as being within just over 900m from a road or railway, the United Kingdom is ranked fifth out of the 36 countries ranked. Similarly, four of the five least densely populated countries in Europe are in the bottom five ranking, with land that is more remote from any transport infrastructure.

Conserving wild land

Strategies will be required to protect wild land in Europe from the expansion of urbanisation and prevent damage to the ecological networks that remain. The infographic highlights that identifying and protecting the qualities associated with wild land can be a start in the process of protecting habitats and networks.

In addition, the process of mapping wild areas and identifying their value could point to opportunities where ecosystem services can be restored. For example, 42 wild land areas have been mapped in Scotland with descriptions that identify their intrinsic qualities. The descriptions, along with guidance, will help to protect Scotland's wild land from damaging development (Scottish Natural Heritage, 2017).


European Environment Agency (2006). Urban Sprawl in Europe: The Ignored Challenge. Report No 10/2006. Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg. Available from:

European Commission (2016). Urban Europe — statistics on cities, towns and suburbs. Eurostat. Available at

Scottish Natural Heritage (2017). Describing Scotland's Wild Land Areas.

Torres, A., Jaeger, J.A.G. & Alonso, J.C. (2016). Assessing large-scale wildlife responses to human infrastructure development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113 (30), pp. 8472-8477.

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision. Custom 2016 data acquired via website:

This infographic appeared in JONO Design e-news. The e-news is published once every couple of months and each issue contains a specially designed infographic.

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