The concept of Sparsely Populated Areas (SPAs) originated in the Nordic countries; such areas were typically characterized by land that was not suitable for agriculture but, from the Industrial Revolution, gained value because of their large-scale natural resources (wood, coal, metal ores). Following the accession of Finland and Sweden to the EU in 1995, sparsity gained European recognition as a unique characteristic of these countries' northernmost regions. More recently, sparsity has also been recognised in other parts of the EU, albeit to a lesser extent, notably in northern Scotland and central Spain. However, it should be stressed that, unlike other geographic specificities apart from inner peripheries, the concept of SPA is dynamic, as population densities change over time.
The project identified 24% of the ESPON space as sparsely populated, with 3,7% of population living there.
Traditionally, SPAs are identified on the basis of population densities, with threshold levels of 8 persons/km2 for regional policy and of 12.5 persons/km2 for Competition Policy. However, the resulting delineation is largely determined by administrative boundaries. GEOSPECS has therefore chosen to delineate SPAs on the basis of population potentials, i.e. the number of persons that can be reached within a maximum generally accepted daily commuting or mobility area from each point in space. Two approaches were used. The first evaluated the isotropic distance, i.e., the possibility to commute 50 km from a point in all directions equally. The second evaluated the population potential using 45-minute isochrones along road networks. The application of a common threshold of 100,000 persons (i.e., 12.7 persons/km2) allowed the identification of SPAs and Poorly Connected Areas (PCAs). The extent of economic and social development challenges linked to sparsity does not depend on the proportion of "sparse" or "poorly connected" areas at the regional or national level. The focus is not on uninhabited areas, but on local communities that are economically vulnerable because of the small size of the labour market and where the limited "reachable population" makes it difficult to deliver private and public services cost-efficiently. Thus, Sparsely Populated Localities and Poorly Connected Localities were identified as LAU2 units with at least 90% of their area defined as SPA or PCA.
Most of the SPAs of the Nordic countries (NSPA) are more than a three-hour driving-distance to the nearest MUA (Morphological Urban Area). Moreover, these areas are remote from the main metropolitan areas of these countries, including the capital regions and other agglomerations with more than 500,000 inhabitants (e.g. Gothenburg or Tampere). However, some medium-sized agglomerations are located at the fringe of the NSPA, such as Umeå and Luleå in Sweden, Oulu in Finland, and Trondheim in Norway. These mid-sized cities, often endowed with large universities and industries, play an important role as a regional growth centres for the NSPA as a whole. In Scotland, the SPA is rather remote from the main population concentrations of the Central Belt, which includes Glasgow and Edinburgh. Compared to the previous two main SPA, the Central Spanish SPA is rather close to large agglomerations, located between the agglomerations of Madrid to the West, Zaragoza to the North, Barcelona to the East, and Valencia to the South. Consequently, and also because there are three small MUA within the area (Cuenca, Teruel and Soria), few places in the Central Spanish SPA are more than 2 hours from an urban core.
As illustrated by the case studies, most sparse territories (STs) face the demographic challenges of unfavourable age structure and population decrease, mostly due to outmigration. Compared to the situation in their respective countries and to the European average, the STs have a high proportion of elderly people, especially in the Iberian Peninsula where the proportion of young people is also particularly low. In Finland, Sweden and Central Europe, the proportion of elderly people is also high.
The exploitation of natural resources remains important in the regional economies in SPAs. Although the dominance of such activities is less important in terms of employment, due to modernisation and rationalisation processes in those industries, they are still an important in terms of wealth generated (e.g. GVA) and of maintaining the regional social capital. However, these activities often have environmental impacts with regard both to the methods employed for extraction or production, and to the residues and waste produced by these activities that need to be stored or treated. In SPAs, two main types of such activities can be distinguished. First, activities such as fishing, intensive livestock production and aquaculture, if not highly polluting when taken individually, may have a strong - if diffuse - impact on the environment, as they are often numerous and concentrated geographically. This is particularly evident for the Norwegian coast (aquaculture), the Scottish Highlands (livestock) and, to a lesser extent, the northern part of the Central Spanish SPA (livestock). Second, activities in the mineral and chemical industries and the processing of metals are less numerous and less concentrated geographically). However, each plant has a much greater impact on the environment. This is the case in the Swedish and Finnish SPAs, which have specialised in such activities for decades. These activities engender more localised types of environmental impacts.
These findings are just some samples from the extensive quantitative analysis that was undertaken for GEOSPECS. The entire analysis can be found in the Draft Final Scientific Report, downloadable on the ESPON website.