EUKN interview with Lewis Dijkstra

2 November 2016

Lewis Dijkstra is Deputy Head of the Economic Analysis Unit in DG REGIO. Lewis is responsible for managing data production, analysis, and reporting. He is the editor of the European Commission's Cohesion Reports, and has recently finished co-editing the 2016 State of European Cities Report  with UN Habitat. His work also includes cooperation with other institutions like the Joint Research Centre, the OECD, the World Bank, the European Environment Agency and others.

Lewis talked to the EUKN about his work, the main findings of the State of European Cities Report including the new degree of urbanisation, and implications emerging from it with regard to evidence-based urban policy-making.


EUKN: As you have edited them both: How does the work on the Cohesion Report differ from the work on the State of the European Cities Report?

LD: The reports are very different in nature. The Cohesion Report is a treaty requirement, which we have to publish every three years, replying to a set of questions: what is the state of cohesion, what is the impact of cohesion policy and other EU policies on cohesion, and what is the impact of national policies on cohesion? Thus, it is intimately linked to Cohesion Policy. Every six years, it includes the proposals for the next programming period of Cohesion Policy.

The State of European Cities Report is a report we deliberately chose to produce. We produced one in 2007 and one in 2010, and then it has been six years since. The 2016 version differs from the earlier editions in a number of ways. We now have much better data from Eurostat, we have much richer information from other data sources, and we have produced a lot of the analyses in-house at DG REGIO and the Joint Research Centre, combined with many contributions from academic experts.


EUKN: What is the most surprising result in the State of European Cities Report in your opinion?

LD: In the first chapter, we applied the degree of urbanisation to the globe. The most surprising finding is definitely that, by using the single definition, our analyses shows Africa and Asia as more urban than Europe or North America. In the media and based on national definitions, Africa and Asia are usually reported as much more rural. This is really an inversion of the established hierarchy concerning the degree of urbanisation.

Another striking finding for me is about the large economic role of metropolitan regions. Since 2000, they have added 9 million jobs to the European economy, whereas the other regions even lost a little bit of employment. This testifies that these metropolitan regions really deliver jobs and growth.


EUKN: Do you think this report will provide some evidence that can be used to mobilise political support for cities in Europe?

LD: The report tries to change the way people think of cities. For too long, we have only thought of cities as locations of problems like pollution, poverty, or crime. I think we need to think about cities as solutions. They already offer a lot of solutions, but they can do even more in an enabling framework. This message emerges very strongly from the report.


EUKN: How can the report then add to evidence-based policy-making in Europe?

LD: The report does not only talk about cities, but it covers the entire territory including cities, towns and suburbs, and rural areas. This holistic view shows that cities in Europe are already quite dense, so they will remain to be far more resource-efficient than rural areas or suburbs. Concerning the issue of sprawl, we should first and foremost aim at creating liveable, affordable cities without overemphasising the need for cities to be even more dense and compact.


EUKN: How does ‘the European city’, according to the report, differ from other types of urban development?

LD: There are two characteristics that stand out from the report. First is that most European cities are not particularly big. The other things is that they have a moderate density located between the low levels in North America and the high levels in Asia and Africa. Thus, when it comes to combining a relatively high quality of life and a moderate ecological footprint, European cities can serve as very good examples.


EUKN: You have already mentioned the degree of urbanisation introduced in the State of European Cities Report. Can you tell us a bit about the existing limitations and challenges of this indicator?

LD: At the recent Habitat III Conference, the World Bank, the OECD, and the EU committed to developing a global definition of cities and settlements. This commitment is based on the idea that cities need indicators based on agreed-on boundaries in order to learn from each other. Right now, such a globally valid definition of a city is lacking. Hence, even a question as simple as ‘How big is your city?’ cannot be answered reliably or comparably.

We have already applied the degree of urbanisation to a new population grid that we have created together with the Joint Research Centre and with data from CIESIN Gridded Population of the World from Columbia University. So, we take the population data and combine it with a building detection layer. Simply put, we take the people and put them in the houses. The result is the population grid we provide online (

On that grid, we have applied the degree of urbanisation. This means that we can identify urban centres, urban clusters, and rural grid cells. The step of translating these grids into municipalities – cities, towns and suburbs, and rural areas – still needs to be performed globally. The reason is that we do not have access to all boundaries of municipalities in the world.

To solve this, statistical bodies and everyone working on this topic can download the grid we provide for free via our website and match the data with their municipalities. There will also be a toolkit for download, so that national statistical institutes can apply the degree of urbanisation grid to their own population grid they might have produced already.

Eventually, we wanted to propose a method. This is why we will hold world-wide consultations in the upcoming years in order to receive feedback on the method’s strengths and weaknesses. We also want to improve the grid by using high-resolution satellite data that better captures buildings, and apply that to the population data.

The biggest obstacle to this work is to overcome scepticism towards a method that is not based on national definitions. We hope that people will have a critical and serious look at the method to get an informed debate going. The website is very useful for such an evidence-based debate: We can show our specific findings on the online maps, unlike other indicators like the World Urbanization Prospects.


EUKN: You have described the role of national-level partners. What will be the concrete role of the OECD and the World Bank in further developing the method?

LD: We hope to go to a number of countries and regional fora to discuss this work, but that really requires a collective effort. The World Bank can help us creating a much greater outreach due to its many relations with developing countries. These networks will facilitate the organisation of trainings for organisations and authorities in developing countries on how to apply this method, how to interpret the results, and how to use the tools.  The OECD, through its engagement in Latin American countries and in China, is also a very important partner in this regard.

Also, both organisations have already been actively engaged with this work for quite a while. The OECD and the EU developed a common definition of cities, and the World Bank has already applied the degree of urbanisation to a number of their partner countries. So it is a continuation of an established partnership with both organisations.


EUKN: You presented the degree of urbanisation indicator at Habitat III. What will happen next?

LD: There will be a number of key moments to report back in the near future, such as the World Urban Forum in Malaysia in early 2018. As for now, the website will be turned in a tool that can be used to consult all the different partners. There will be meetings between the involved institutions, deciding on a timeline and important next steps. We will prepare a joint letter from Eurostat and the UN Statistics Committee to all national statistical institutes, asking them to look at this data and provide feedback. Also, we will reach out to a number of countries from different continents for a close engagement to get hands-on feedback on how the method is working when being applied. All the feedback and experiences will be used to modify the methodology, so we can eventually present that to the UN as our proposed definition of cities and settlements.


EUKN: As a last point: How does the recently launched Urban Data Platform relate to the general efforts of creating more evidence-based policy-making in Europe?

LD: The Urban Data Platform addresses one of the Urban Agenda for the EU pillars, namely better knowledge and data. It also provides easy access to a lot of data in the State of European Cities Report from Eurostat, the European Environment Agency, the Joint Research Centre, etc., making it easier for cities to find information about their city and other cities. The goal is to further feed and improve this database and to enable cities to find city peers for exchange and comparison in certain categories. I know that many urban researchers and policy-makers are very interested in having such data. Thus, we are trying to meet a long-standing desire and interest at city level, and I am hopeful that cities will find their way to the platform and will make good use of it.


More information on the report, the method, and further data platforms: