The great myth of urban Britain

Britain seen from the air, with city lights showing The UK by night, seen from the International Space Station - the bright patches are city lights

What proportion of Britain do you reckon is built on? By that I mean covered by buildings, roads, car parks, railways, paths and so on - what people might call "concreted over". Go on - have a guess.

I was prompted to find out the answer to this question after reading this week how woodland is now calculated to cover 12.7% of the UK, the highest proportion since 1924 when records began.

I tweeted the figures after the ONS published them in their UK Environmental Accounts and found I was not the only one surprised. "Do we have a completely mistaken view of what our landscape is like?" I wondered.

The 80% of us who live in towns and cities spend an inordinate amount of time staring at tarmac and brick. On most urban roads, one can be tricked into thinking that the ribbon of grey we see reflects the land use for miles around.

But when you look out of a plane window as you buckle-up ahead of landing at a UK airport, the revelation is how green the country appears.

So what is the answer to my question - have you got a figure in your head?

Until recently, conflicting definitions have made the calculation tricky but fortunately, a huge piece of mapping work was completed last summer - the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA).

Five hundred experts analysed vast quantities of data and produced what they claim is the first coherent body of evidence about the state of Britain's natural environment.

Having looked at all the information, they calculated that "6.8% of the UK's land area is now classified as urban" (a definition that includes rural development and roads, by the way).

Read the report in full

PDF download Report from the UK National Ecosystem Assessment - key findings[6.4MB]

Most computers will open PDF documents automatically, but you may need Adobe Reader

The urban landscape accounts for 10.6% of England, 1.9% of Scotland, 3.6% of Northern Ireland and 4.1% of Wales.

Put another way, that means almost 93% of the UK is not urban. But even that isn't the end of the story because urban is not the same as built on.

In urban England, for example, the researchers found that just over half the land (54%) in our towns and cities is greenspace - parks, allotments, sports pitches and so on.

Furthermore, domestic gardens account for another 18% of urban land use; rivers, canals, lakes and reservoirs an additional 6.6%.

Their conclusion?

In England, "78.6% of urban areas is designated as natural rather than built". Since urban only covers a tenth of the country, this means that the proportion of England's landscape which is built on is…

Paved garden of a terraced house Scotland and the North-East embrace paving

… 2.27%.

Yes. According to the most detailed analysis ever conducted, almost 98% of England is, in their word, natural.

Elsewhere in the UK, the figure rises to more than 99%. It is clear that only a small fraction of Britain has been concreted over.

There will be quibbles. What about the gardens people have paved? The NEA looked at that, noting how in London an estimated 3,200 hectares of front gardens have been covered in concrete, bricks or gravel.

Paving levels are highest, it was found, in the North-East of England and Scotland, where 47% and 31% of front gardens are more than three-quarters paved. The detail in their analysis is impressive.

Quite simply, the figures suggest Britain's mental picture of its landscape is far removed from the reality.

Map from the NEA report showing which areas are urban

This map from the NEA report - also seen on page 20 of the PDF report above - helps to visualise what the country actually looks like.

Land built on

Source: NEA









Northern Ireland


But even it cannot reflect the extraordinary finding that almost four-fifths of what is designated urban land is not built on.

Perhaps our impressions are the result of lives largely spent in the 2% of the country that has been concreted over - at work, at home or travelling between the two in the car or on the bus.

The lesson might be that we need to celebrate the truth about our green and pleasant land.

Or perhaps it simply tells us we really should get out more.

Clustered houses surrounded by fields
Mark Easton, Home editor Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 785.

    This guy really knows how to miss the point.
    Let's see a detailed analysis of how much of the British Landscape is trully wild or natural. I would gues that it is less than 1.5%.

  • rate this

    Comment number 784.

    unusualj (777). Bangkok is majority ethnic Thai, Singapore 80% Chinese, Shanghai virtually all ethnic Chinese. Not all that diverse (and why should they be? Homogeneous populations are more stable, have higher trust, altruism and social capital).

    People are very much not the same the world over. That is why different cultures, languages and nations exist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 783.

    Easton's ignorance is only matched by his passion for regurigitatinng Labours talking points.

    98% of the country isn't built on so its therefore not overcrowded? Rubbish!

    Does he know that by population/km measures England is more crowded than China?

    Amazing what statistics can 'prove' isn't it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 782.

    Sorry should read -

    779 Just got back from a lovely school run including views of local National Trust Park. Weather thankfully holding, hope it's similar on Exmoor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 781.

    779 Just got back from a lovely school took including views of local National Trust Park. Weather thankfully holding, hope it's similar on Exmoor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 780.

    LIKE ^^ @GeoSquared having scimmed the report all is NOT well.. we are losing ecosystem resources faster than we are gaining

    @Mark Easton this is a strange slant on the UK National Ecosystem Assmt. Alarm bells need to be rung about the General Public's lack of awareness / misconception about ecosystems and the services we depend on for survival. The report is snap shot at 1 min to 12 I fear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 779.

    Unusualj 777:
    "........ Get out more & enjoy green UK...."

    I'm on Porlock Hill at the moment enjoying views over Exmoor - where are you?

    Don't bother to reply, moving on to Lynton.

  • rate this

    Comment number 778.

    I know it's a myth, i live in the countryside. Where do people think the food they eat comes from? Why do they think any form of life (eg insects) near them that isn't human is an aberration? Why does the media think nobody lives anywhere except London, so that apart from the BBC there was no coverage of the local election results (except the mayor&assembly of London)? Thanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 777.

    774 Try Singapore, Shanghai & Bangkok very diverse. With rise of BRICs more Europeans will be heading out to these countries also following work.

    775 Same claims in Oz where I was was there recently, where pop. confined to costal strip.

    People are same world over if you're lucky enough to see. Get out more & enjoy green UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 776.

    2.27% is NOT good news!

    Please watch this to understand why:

  • rate this

    Comment number 775.

    Unusualj @ 772:

    Do you include wildlife when you say "we" - "we have a lot of green space"?

    And of course you are correct when you say "immigration is not unique to this country but found across the globe."

    But on average in the UK there are 255 people per sqkm whereas in Australia there are 3.

  • rate this

    Comment number 774.

    unusualj - "all major cities now have very diverse multicultural populations"

    This is untrue, The majority of major cities have relatively homogeneous populations. What you mean to say is that most major cities in the WEST (Europe, N. America, Australia) are "diverse". The flow is all one-way. Only European-origin peoples are surrendering their territory to outsiders. It won't end well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 773.

    771.Ben Essada

    "...what you need is a urban fox...."


    I'm in Green Belt, in principle a so-called "wildlife corridor", but have seen few foxes, urban or otherwise. Perhaps the chicken keepers round here kill them...

  • rate this

    Comment number 772.

    The whole point of the NEA report is that if you look at the country as whole & not just the town/cities within which 80% of us live the REALITY is that we have a lot of green spaces. Having lived in a city state I'm well aware of a true concert jungle & value the green open spaces here in my home. In addition immigration is not unique to this country but found across the globe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 771.

    Eddy from Waring

    “Song thrushes have vanished completely though, thanks to countless utterly pointless cats…”

    Off topic ... but what you need is a urban fox. Since ours moved in the moggies have gone (kept indoors or killed), the songbirds have returned and snail numbers are back to a reasonable level.

    In general a positive result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 770.

    I suppose if you travelled everywhere by train, you'd think the UK peopled entirely by those who throw old mattresses over the fence at the bottom of their gardens...

  • rate this

    Comment number 769.


    "Nowhere in the article does Mark Easton even mention population or immigration".

    That's because the BBC is an adherent to the Marxist principles of 'Common Purpose' and 'The Frankfurt School'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 768.

    UnusualJ @ 767 & Schottberg @ 766/765 both miss the point that Sidney Monroe was making

    The link between statistics & the reality of life are often so far apart they are meaningless

    Take any court case where two "experts" use arguments based on statistics & you'll witness ridiculous levels of manipulation

    That's why corporate lobbies usually win - they have deeper pockets to buy polemic reports

  • rate this

    Comment number 767.

    Sidney Monroe - maybe you should try looking at the country from the air & maybe visit other major world cities. If you live & work in a city you will only see the cit, but the view from the air confirms the stats in the report. A journey on the subway in Paris/NY/Sidney/Washington will show that all major cities now have very diverse multicultural populations, the UK is not unique.

  • rate this

    Comment number 766.

    Sidney Monroe #761

    Nowhere in the article does Mark Easton even mention population or immigration.

    Immigration may be a good or a bad thing but shortage of land is not relevant. Shortage of housing, schools, hospitals, transport etc may be but not land.


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