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 Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 765.

    Sidney Monroe, no it is not nonsense to rely on statistics, it nonsense to look out of a city window and think the whole country is like what you see. I look out of the window and can see only countryside. Presumably therefore I can claim the country is completely empty of people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 764.

    763.Sidney Monroe

    "...When was the last time you saw a Small Tortoiseshell?..."


    Plenty of those where I live, nearish some big cities, but others are scarce.

    Song thrushes have vanished completely though, thanks to countless utterly pointless cats. We now have a plague of garden snails and other pests, since their main predator bird has gone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 763.

    It is nonsensical to rely on 'statistics' like this when anyone can look around them and see how overcrowded this country is. Its a sad world when now politically correct manifestoeslike this are deemed more important than the destruction of the countryside. When was the last time you saw a Small Tortishell? They used to be everywhere. Who cares as long as we can squeeze in more people?

  • rate this

    Comment number 762.

    Mass urbanisation/industrialisation has clearly had a major impact on the environment. To have just over 12% of the UK covered in 'woodland' is a travesty of the modern age and should be treated as a cause of concern by the political establishment but as Lenin once said, "what is to be done?

  • rate this

    Comment number 761.

    This article sums up the BBC. Firstly he is described as 'home editor' What, does he knock down extensions then? Then he goes on with a thinly described editorial on how Labour was right to flood the country with 4 million people. What has this got to do with news or current affairs?

  • rate this

    Comment number 760.

    We are short of farmland from which to feed ourselves, and so need to import food.

    Food production always requires vastly more room than accommodation.

    Why do we assume other countries will always have agricultural land to spare, to feed us? Who's to say they should they not allow their populations to grow too, like us?

  • rate this

    Comment number 759.

    Man, is this twit getting paid for this hogwash? This is just pathetic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 758.

    MH @ 754:

    "refuse to accept such statistics"
    Which statistic - choose one & we'll discuss it

    "to give them a sense of worth"
    Don't weaken any argument you may have by spouting silly comments

    "population increases theyd be horrified"
    Not true
    We can discuss birth control & immigration policy

    "the population is ever increasing"
    UK birthrate is 1.7 - so the indigenous population is falling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 757.

    But this seems to totally overlook the fact that most farmland is not 'natural' but productive industry. A far better measure is to monitor the decline in wildlife and wild flora The much publicised decline in pollinating insects is just one indication that the environment is severely degraded by human intervention.

  • rate this

    Comment number 756.

    Interesting stats, but still does not answer, or re-look at the first statistic at woodland.

    What percentage of the UK is in it natural or 'wild' state? The greater percentage of England for certain may not have tarmac on it - however it still remains cultivated or managed for the greater part.

  • rate this

    Comment number 755.

    Nimby is a very emotive word for someone who just wants to protect what they have from being changed. One could ask 'if I don't care about my own back yard, who will?'

  • rate this

    Comment number 754.

    The environmental obsessives will totally refuse to accept such statistics, They are so blinded by their own sense of self importance, they need this crusade to give them a sense of worth. Ask them if they would advocate restricting population increases ...theyd be horrified...yet the population is ever increasing and these people need to live long as it isnt near NIMBY's !!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 753.

    What a strange use of the word "natural". A quick glance at the map shows that most of the UK and almost all of England is urban or farmland - neither of which are natural. This map saddens me greatly, and is a reminder of how we have almost totally destroyed our natural environment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 752.

    A survey a some years ago said land size of football pitch could fit one person in it. 10 yrs ago it had gone down to less than tennis court, it will be even less now, more like a squash court. The reporting is misleading, normal BBC. We get flooding due to less land due to building. We have well over a million empty properties,business/houses. We do not need any more, overpopulation is the prob

  • rate this

    Comment number 751.

    This is all very well but look at the light pollution in this photograph! Urban light spill destroys the night sky. In some areas of London and the midlands, the night sky is not visible at all. We must care more for our night time environment and turn the excessive lighting down. Light pollution has been shown to affect the ecology of the countryside and health of people. We don't need this!

  • rate this

    Comment number 750.

    f @ 744:

    You say "We should not give in to nimbys who oppose every new development on selfish grounds, eg. wanting a field outside their house."

    I agree with the sentiment of your argument but like most animals we are naturally territorial.

    If after a lifetime of work you moved into an idyllic cottage on the outskirts of a small village, you may find yourself opposing a planned housing estate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 749.

    Yes, there are large areas of rural land.

    One issue is that the transport is so poor that people cant really get to it - therefore the great majority never see it. Try driving through rural leicestershire to get to someones farm and you suddenly realise how far you can go surrounded by just fields. Travelling on a canal is another interesting revelation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 748.

    What an encouraging article.I live in Glasgow.Fifteen minutes in any direction from town and your in the middle of glorious countryside which is available for walking,hill walking,climbing etc,and the amount of the city which is taken up by parks is significant.Outside of Glasgow and in most of Scotland,to quote Billy Connolly..."there's nobody there"

  • rate this

    Comment number 747.

    When I said open up a little (746), I meant for leisure access not building on! :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 746.

    It appears the vast majority of land is enclosed farmland. Perhaps the feeling of living in a concrete jungle and traveling built up, tarmaced corridors is because we are being generally restricted to those environments? Perhaps it tells us we have more land to open up a little than previously thought?


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