A new paper highlights the potentials in of peri-urban landscapes to be recognized as complementary providers of urban ecosystem services when green areas in cities are reduced by densification. Photo: S. Zeff/Azote

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peri-urban landscapes

No longer on the fringes

Why peri-urban areas should be seen as much more than just spaces between cities and their outskirts

Story highlights

● Further densification of cities will create an increasing demand for ecosystem services provided by the peri-urban landscapes around them

● Peri-urban landscapes should be seen as a complement to the city rather than a fringeland

● Rethinking and reframing the per-urban areas will potentially contribute to a more nuanced discussion on strategies for urban development

The UN predicts that by 2050 well over half of all humans will live in cities. How can cities continue to support this growing population without wreaking havoc on the environment surrounding them? One growing trend towards sustainable urban development has been to densify already built up areas. But what effect is this strategy having on the peri-urban landscapes that surround these cities?

In a new article published in the journal Land Use Policy, centre researcher Erik Andersson and colleagues from Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and the Royal Institute of Technology attempt to answer these questions. They seek to investigate if the densification of cities will push the many functions existing in urban areas out to the peri-urban landscapes and how the governance of those landscapes may adjust to meet these new pressures.

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A source for increasing number of functions

Cities are resource intensive. Densification has led to a reduction of green spaces to satisfy the need for housing and other services. Further densification will create a shortage of ecosystem services within cities and thus put an increasing pressure on peri-urban landscapes.

Peri-urban landscapes are an important functional space for cities

Marcus Hedblom, lead author

Co-author Erik Andersson explains, “It’s most likely that if this densification continues, space shortage will force people to rely more heavily on the surrounding peri-urban areas for ecosystem services such as food production and recreation.” In the future, he continues, peri-urban zones will grow outwards to accommodate urban needs for an increasing number of functions.

One of the implications of these changes is that urban planning will need to be re-thought to include peri-urban areas. In fact, keeping these areas intact can actually safeguard ecosystem services and contribute to the well-being of city dwellers.

Lack of clear ownership a strenght

Peri-urban landscapes are often under a mix of private and public ownership that involves many actors. Due to this complex and sometimes unclear ownership structure there is a risk of conflict and little communication between stakeholders. In fact, there is currently a vacuum in governing per-urban landscapes.

The researchers stress that unlike the highly planned urban areas, the flexibility and current lack of unified governance is actually a strength to build on and not a problem that needs to be solved. Less established structures could open up a window of opportunity for governance.

"This flexibility may contribute to a high adaptive capacity potentially allowing provision of diverse land-uses and ecosystem services to shift even with a single generation," says Marcus Hedblom.

To improve the governance it will be important to establish dialogue and partnership between key actors at several levels of society. The process of re-framing the urban landscape to include peri-urban areas is a way to establish dialogue between stakeholders. It can be used to discuss both how to secure the multifunctional landscape that can provide multiple functions and achieve flexible local governance that can respond to changing circumstances.

Learning from success

The researchers highlight two examples where this kind of integration and planning is already being done. The first is the green wedge system in Stockholm and the second is the Model Forest Initiative.

The "green wedge” system in Stockholm shows how a previously unrecognised landscape has become incorporated into multi-level governance.

"When the city of Stockholm expanded it did not densify everywhere but left long, wide stretches of continuous green-areas," co-author Sara Borgström explains.

In one of the wedges a dialogue was initiated between NGOs and municipalities and regional planners. The partners realized the potential these areas hold for numerous activities (and ecosystem functions) as well as their vulnerability to increasing urbanization due that they were not formally protected or planned. These dialogues created a formalized partnership between key actors and eventually led to a local-level formalized governance structure.

Similar lessons came out of the International Model Forest Initiative. This initiative encourages users of landscapes to find ways to combine long-term ecological sustainability with the activities framing and feeding local social, cultural and economic needs. They achieved this through dialogue that involved all people in the system. The initiative currently includes more than 60 large scale landscapes covering 84 million hectares in 31 countries.

Conceptual illustration of the urban green wedges in Stockholm and their relation to the urban centre, urban fringe and rural hinterlands. Illustration taken from Hedblom. M. et. al. 2017. Flexible land-use and undefined governance: From threats topotentials in peri-urban landscape planning. Click on illustration to access article

Two steps forward

The researchers suggest two key ways to reframe and re-think about urban-rural links and improve their governance:

1. Change the present perception of peri-urban areas from simply a space that exists between cities and rural areas to a landscape with a high potential and importance for both urban and rural residents.

2. Create platforms for dialogue as a first step towards amending unclear governance of these areas.

"If stakeholders can meet in a dialogue for solutions rather than the present ad-hoc activities, there is a window of opportunity to govern these areas for future metropolitan scale sustainability," Marcus Hedblom concludes.


Researchers present literature and case studies from Northern Europe to illustrate their thought for future planning and research. Although the perspective draws primarily on the North European experience, the discussion about urban-peri-urban interactions has global relevance, although the specific details –which functions, what governance solutions – will differ. The review of the scientific literature as well as planning document indicates that while a useful concept for discussions about new, denser cities, the term “peri-urban” is still vague. A clear conceptualisation as a functional space linked to the city may serve to bridge the perceived gap between “urban” and “rural”.

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Published: 2017-04-11


Hedblom, M., Andersson, E. Borgström, S. 2017. Flexible land-use and undefined governance: From threats to potentials in peri-urban landscape planning. Land Use Policy 63, 523–527

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Erik Andersson studies flows of multiple ecosystem services and benefits, often with cities and urban residents as the final end users, the impact this use has on both ends of the supply chain, and how and when these flows may change over time.

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