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EURODATA Newsletter No. 5 Article 5 p.20-22

Quality of Life in the Old European Cities Belt

Historical development, structural profiles and modern living conditions

Giampaolo Nuvolati


Table 1: Social Concerns and Indicators and their Corresponding Weights  
Social concerns and indicators Weight
Density and traffic:  
- inhabitants per km2 0.33
- inhabitants per dwelling 0.33
- cars per km2 0.33
- murders per 100,000 inhabitants 1.00
- unemployment rate 1.00
Occupation opportunities:  
- workplaces in secondary and tertiary
sector per 100,000 inhabitants
- beds in hospital per 100,000 inhabitants 0.33
- swimming-pools per 100,000 inhabitants 0.33
- performances in theatres per 100,000 inhabitants 0.33
Social and private integration:  
-suicides per 100,000 inhabitants 1.00

Recent interpretations of economic and structural development in Europe reveal the privileged position of the cities located in the central European countries. Even from a historical point of view the middle-sized towns of the so-called Old European Cities Belt (OECB) situated in the North of Italy, in Switzerland, in the Rhine regions of Germany, in Belgium and in the Netherlands, play a leading role in European growth due to their traditional commercial activities and political independence since the Middle Ages. The aim of research performed at the MZES, University of Mannheim, for the Commission of the European Communities from 1995-1996 - which is still in progress - is to define the concept of quality of life (Allardt 1976, Andrews and Szalai 1980, Zapf 1984, Spanò 1989, Martinotti 1993) and to analyse the modern living conditions in the OECB, also considering the historical (Pirenne 1925, Rokkan 1973, Hohenberg and Lees 1985) and recent economic-functional evolution (Cheshire et al. 1988, Brunet 1989, Conti e Spriano 1989, Cattan et al. 1994) of the European cities. Data were analysed chiefly in order to find out similarities and differences between 149 cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants and located in five countries with a polycephalic urban system: Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Alternative patterns of socio-economic development in Europe can easily be found in literature (Kunzmann 1922). However, the study for the Commission is based on the assumption that the OECB axis remains one of the main privileged areas of European growth.

The map (on page 22) presented here concerns the position of each city according to a General Quality of Life Weighted Index (QOLW). This index is the result of standardising, weighting and summing up the following ten indicators (see table 1).

The criteria used to give weight to the indicators are intended to attribute the same importance to each concern. However, alternative calculations and statistical analyses were computed in order to partly reduce problems resulting from the definition of the indicators and the level of data aggregation in each country as well as from the structure of the general index taken into consideration. Despite some differences, all the results gained converge to form a persistent general picture.

The main findings of the analysis carried out in this research project are (see figures 1 and 2):

a) Urban living conditions prove to be better in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands than in Italy and Belgium, although, as a factor analysis shows, different and contradictory models of quality of life can be observed, especially regarding the Swiss cities. Considering regional aggregations, cities in the North-East-Centre of Italy, the rest of the Netherlands, the South of Germany, and Flanders in Belgium score better values than cities in the North-West and Meridione of Italy, the West of the Netherlands, North Rhine-Westfalia and the North of Germany, Brussels and Wallonia in Belgium. In fact, these regions constitute the more peripheral and monocephalic areas and/or are characterised by the existence of heavy industry districts with corresponding urban disamenities.

b) In general, the quality of life is higher in the small than in the medium-sized and large cities. Nevertheless, in the small countries, such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland, the large and medium-sized cities also have positive, if not more positive, values.

c) Despite the fact that Swiss cities are to be found at the top of the rank they have a contradictory profile in terms of their general economic and infrastructural development as well as some spatial and social problems. The German model proves to be the most balanced one with many positive values for different social indicators and only few negative ones.

d) The German and Dutch cases also show a high level of homogeneity in terms of reduced internal disparities between cities, while the most evident internal gaps can be observed in the case of Italy, caused especially by the large differences between Nor-thern and Southern cities.


Allardt E. (1976), "Dimensions of Welfare in a Comparative Scandinavian Study", Acta Sociologica, XIX, 3.

Andrews F. and A. Szalai (eds.) (1980), Quality of Life: Comparative Studies, Sage Publications, London.

Brunet R. (1989), Les Villes Européennes, DATAR, Paris.

Cattan N, D. Pumain, C. Rozenblat and T. Saint-Julien (1994), Le Système des Villes Européennes, Anthropos, Paris.

Cheshire P., D. Hay, G. Carbonaro and N. Bavan (1988), Urban Problems and Regional Policy in the European Community, Commission of the European Community, Brussels.

Conti S. and G. Spriano (1989), Urban Structures, Technological Innovation and International Metropolitan Networks, Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli, Torino.

Hohenberg P. M. and L. H. Lees (1985), The Making of Europe, 1000-1950, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Massachusetts).

Kunzmann K. R. (1992), "Zur Entwicklung der Stadtsysteme in Europa", Mitteilungen der Österreichischen Gesellschaft, Wien, vol. 134, 25-50.

Martinotti G. (1993), Metropoli, Il Mulino, Bologna.


Pirenne H. (1925), Medieval Cities, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Rokkan S. (1973), "Cities, States and Nations: a Dimensional Model for the Study", S. N. Eisenstadt and S. Rokkan (eds.), Building States and Nations, Sage Publications, London, 73-97.

Spanò A. (1989), "Benessere e felicità nella prospettiva della teoria della qualità della vita", La Critica Sociologica, vol. 90-91, 69-120.

Zapf W. (1984), "Individuelle Wohlfahrt: Lebensbedingungen und wahrgenommene Lebensqualität", W. Glatzer and W. Zapf (eds.), Lebens-qualität in der Bundesrepublik. Objektive Lebensbedingungen und subjektives Wohlempfinden, Campus, Frankfurt/Main, 13-26.

Further information about the project can be obtained from:

Giampaolo Nuvolati
Università degli Studi di Milano
Dipartmento di Sociologia
Via Conservatorio, 7
I-20122 MILANO, Italy

Tel: 0039-2-76004428
Fax: 0039-2-76024749


Legend for Figure 2:

NL W = The Netherlands West

NL R = The Netherlands Rest

I N-W = Italy North-West

I N-E-C = Italy North-East-Center

I I-S = Italy South-Islands

CH N = Switzerland North

CH W = Switzerland West

D N = Germany North

D NWf = Germany North Rhine Westfalia

D S = Germany South

B F = Belgium Flanders

B W = Belgium Walloni

B B = Belgium Brussels

Giampaolo Nuvolati was a research fellow at the MZES until December 1996. He conducts a research project on the quality of life in the European city belt.