Space for Cities


In sustainable cities, patterns of production and consumption shall be conceived to have a minimum impact on the environment. This includes ensuring that emissions do not affect the quality of the air within the city or in the atmosphere, that the soil status and fertility are not endangered, that water sources are healthy, and that the energy consumed and produced does not exacerbate the effects of climate change. Resources should be sourced, distributed and consumed without affecting human health or ecosystems, and — where possible — recycled and reallocated according to the principles of circular economy [1]. 

According to the World Health Organisation [2],  pollution represents today a greater threat than Ebola and HIV, and is worldwide responsible for one in four deaths among children aged under five. In the EU-28, there were more than 500.000 premature deaths attributable to PM2.5, NO2 and O3 exposure in 2013 [3].

The EU has developed standards and instruments to ensure good air quality by tackling a wide range of pollution sources such as urban traffic, domestic heating, power plants and industrial activities [4]. A Partnership on Air Quality has also been created under the Urban Agenda for Europe.

Satellite imagery is today widely employed to provide meteorological information. But that is not all. Earth observation data allows to measure and monitor the temperature and composition of the air and to make predictions on the movements of pollutants in the air. It is also employed to identify urban heat islands (spots in which temperatures are more elevated than in the rest of the city) and to create models to test the effects of different traffic scenarios on air quality.

The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service uses a comprehensive global monitoring and forecasting system that estimates the state of the atmosphere and that can be used to make air quality predictions in Europe and in the main European cities.

In Europe, cities use 80% of the produced energy [5], while globally they are responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. The European Union has pledged to cut its energy consumption by 20% (compared with projected levels) by 2020.

According to the 2015 Trends in Global CO2 Emissions [6] published by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, in 2014 CO2 emissions did not grow and primary energy consumption decreased, as compared to the previous year, for the first time since 1998. This shift is being made possible thanks to the progressive development of renewable energy sources such as hydropower, solar energy, wind power and biofuels [7]. These important changes in the energy sector have been emphasised also through the establishment of a new EU energy strategy and policy, aiming at mitigating the effects of climate change [8].

This trend shows that economic growth does not have to rely on fossil fuel combustion and that energy consumption can be optimised instead of being increased. Even though cities need energy to function, compact cities have the potential to enable energy efficiency gains by optimising the way transport systems, infrastructure or buildings function [7]. Many European cities have demonstrated their commitment to reducing their carbon emissions by at least 40% by 2030 by joining the Covenant of Mayors for climate and energy. 

Satellite applications can support city administrations re-thinking the management of natural resources by providing additional tools to optimise energy consumption, and to enable the use of renewable and green energies. This is demonstrated by the several operational cases in which satellite services are used to foresee the potential of photovoltaic plants, to support smart grids and to monitor wind and hydropower systems remotely. The research on green energies is still far from being concluded. Satellites are expected to play an increasing role in both the implementation and functioning of green energy systems.

Cities are not only made of buildings, people and infrastructure. Indeed, cities with the highest quality of life are well known for their open spaces. Every city is an ecosystem, and maintaining its good status is crucial for the health and happiness of city residents. This implies granting a good balance between green and built areas, sustaining biodiversity, restoring natural habitats and providing ecological corridors for wild species.

The European Union has a Strategy on Green Infrastructure. This can be defined as a strategically planned network of high quality natural and semi-natural areas with other environmental features, which is designed and managed to deliver a wide range of ecosystem services and protect biodiversity in both rural and urban settings [9]. Indeed, green areas are not only spaces for recreational activities; they also play a role in preserving natural environments, absorbing CO2 emissions, improving air quality, and even preventing natural disasters, for example reducing rainfall runoff. Moreover, green areas and infrastructure play a major role in contrasting urban heat islands, since they cool the air temperature, with positive effects on vulnerable people, particularly during heat waves. Furthermore, green areas represent assets that can contribute to other policy areas, creating jobs and opportunities for community development for example.

Satellite imagery carries information to both design and manage green areas. It helps city planners to decide on where to place new parks, provides information on vegetation types and status, allows for the mapping and monitoring of habitats, and it supports policies aimed at reducing air temperature and pollution by restoring and protecting natural lands, ecological reserves, wetlands, and other green areas within and around cities.

Municipal waste accounts for only about 10% of the total waste generated in Europe. However, it has a very high political profile because of its complex character, due to its composition, its distribution among many sources of waste, and its link to consumption patterns. In 2015, in the EU-28 cities generated 477 kg of waste per capital, 44 kg less than in the year 2000 [10]. 

According to the EU Waste Framework Directive, the first objective of any waste policy should be to minimise the negative effects of the generation and management of waste on human health and the environment. Waste policy should also aim at reducing the use of resources, and favour the practical application of the waste hierarchy (i.e. prevention, preparing for re-use, recycling, other recovery, e.g. energy recovery, and disposal) [11].

Cities (and local authorities) are generally responsible for collecting the household part of municipal solid waste. The Waste Directive requires all Member States to separate collection systems for at least paper, metal, plastic and glass. Nevertheless, on average, only 19% of generated municipal waste is collected separately in EU-28 capitals: in other words, 80% of the waste still ends up in the residual waste bin [12].

Satellites can help city managers in their efforts to reduce the impact of human consumption on the environment, people's health, and the city's ecosystem. Satellite imagery helps spotting illegal dump sites within and around cities, which could harm soils, water, and eventually the food we consume. Satellite navigation is instead already used to optimise bin collection services, track hazardous waste and build connected bins. As the initiatives to better manage waste are flourishing among European cities, we expect in the next years the creation and further development of new and existing services relying on satellite data.

Here are some examples of how cities are relying on satellite applications to challenge the effects of climate change and better preserve the urban environment. More success stories are included in our Good Practice Database.


Lyon (France)

Solar energy production & monitoring using satellite information

 City of Potsdam (Germany)

Monitoring environmental sustainability

Exeter (UK)

A more efficient bin collection service relying on satellite navigation

Satellite irradiation data is used to assess the expected hourly output of each PV system installed on the buildings of a Lyon's district. The estimated hourly output is compared with actual production data. In case of difference, an alert is sent so that the faulty PV system can be repaired as soon as possible.

Satellite imagery allows the city to survey the evolution of natural habitats (biotopes), the volume of the city’s vegetation that contributes to maintaining air quality (green volume), and the loss of soil to the construction of roads and buildings (soil sealing).

The Council equipped all its waste collection vehicles with satellite-enabled systems and developed a self-service tool to report missed bins online. The crews are able to report reasons for non-collections on the satellite devices in their cabs, and this information is used in real time to work out a suitable response to customers.