Space for Cities: Earth Observation for sustainable development


Online event

Main messages from the workshop

Download the full report containing the main messages from the workshop HERE

Space-base data support the achievement and monitoring of our Sustainable Development Goals, and in particular of SDG 11.

Earth observation and geolocation data are crucial to monitor the achievement of 65 out of the 169 targets set up within the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

At the city level, EO can support decision-makers in several sectors. For example, it can enhance our understanding of city growth dynamics and support actions to monitor air quality and the carbon footprint of cities. Satellite Earth observation has also proved its added value to reduce and manage natural disasters and geo-hazards in cities.

The hardware orbiting our planet changes lives on Earth”, Simonetta Di Pippo, UNOOSA Director

GIS portals allow cities to integrate EO data into their management tools. 

Geographic Information Systems are crucial to operationally use Earth observation data to improve public services at the city level, such as cadastral, environmental, and infrastructure management.

GIS are more and more used by  big cities. Neverthemess, most small and medium cities don’t have one.

This is partially due to the lack of technical skills and to the insufficient information delivered to mayors about the availability of EO data, their potential uses, and the added value they can bring to everyday and long-term operations.

Mayors often don’t know where to look for the right EO data and for software to exploit them”. Dominique Tilmans, Eurisy president.

Aligning with the targets of SDG11 and of the New Urban Agenda, EO4SDG has produced the EO Toolkit for Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements.

EO4SDG is a collective intergovernmental effort of the Group on Earth Observations, which aims to put EO to good use to achieve and monitor the SDGs.

Relying on a partnership of over 40 international organisations and experts, EO4SDG and UN Habitat recently released the EO Toolkit for Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements.

The Toolkit includes documented use cases, free and open EO data sets and tools to produce SDG 11 indicators or other urban metrics, and it enables visualisation and access to available EO data on housing, open spaces, urbanisation, and public transport in cities.

“It is nice to have an urban strategy, but you also need the means to monitor the implementation of such strategies”, Orestis Speyer, National Observatory of Athens.

The EO Toolkit for Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements showcases concrete uses of EO to monitor the achievement of SDG 11.

While the Polish National Statistics Office has information useful to monitor the targets of SDG11 based on terrestrial monitoring, these data are not continuous nor harmonised.

To obtain continuous and reliable information, a national consortium created the Polish Urban Observatory, which elaborates methodologies to produce new dasymetric indicators, based on EO and in-situ data, concerning SDG11.


“The use of EO can provide up-to-date, continuous and harmonised information for producing statistics related to the 7th target of SDG11, which is to provide access to safe and inclusive urban spaces”, Anna Markowska, Polish Institute of Geodesy and Cartography

If national policies can help cities accessing and using EO information, cities are also making efforts to develop their own tools and capacities.

Thessaloniki has put in place a Geographic Information System, and created an Urban Resilience Observatory to monitor the implementation of the SDGs in the city.

The Observatory collects EO data to measure indicators under the three pillars of sustainable development: environment, economy and society.

“Through our GIS we aim at promoting data-driven decision-making and policies in our city”, Stella Psarropoulou, Municipality of Thessaloniki

EO data are achieving an increasing spatial resolution, allowing for the creation of platforms g adapted to the specific needs of cities and human settlements.

In addition to use cases, the EO Toolkit also provides access to platforms and tools to access EO data for sustainable cities.

Ensuring a continuous flow of data is essential to achieve the 2030 agenda, as well as the objectives set in other international instruments, such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the New Urban Agenda, and the European Green Deal.

“Data is at the hearth of the Sustainable Development Agenda. Scaling and mainstreaming their use are key to enable efficient urban policies”. Marc Paganini, European Space Agency.

The Copernicus Land Monitoring Service, implemented by the EEA and the EC Joint Research Centre, can potentially contribute to every chapter of the European Green Deal.

The Urban Atlas includes information on cities with more than 50.000 inhabitants. It shows changes in land cover and use in such cities, including information on riparian zones and imperviousness density, on the proximity of green urban areas and of Natura 2000 sites, on the frequency of different types of public transport, on urban trees and, most recently, on the height of building blocks in cities.

Such data has been collected since 2006 and is currently updated every three years. The data is also used by the European Commission and by DG Region to benchmark cities’ needs and distribute regional funds.

“Our economic and social well-being depend on the health of our environment”. Hans Dufourmont, European Environment Agency

The Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL) delivers global spatial information about the human presence on the planet over time. This in the form of built-up maps, population density maps and settlement maps.

The GHSL mapped over 10.000 cities with over 50.000 inhabitants across the globe.

Developed by the Joint research Centre of the European Commission, the GHSL provides data embedded in the products of the Copernicus Emergency Management Service.

Buildings are mapped through satellite remote sensing (currently at 30m spatial resolution). Such data is then combined with data from census to have a precise picture of the population density in a human settlement, which is crucial during crises or disasters.

The information on population and built-up areas can be combined with other data to create different indicators related to geography, environment, disaster risk reduction, and socioeconomics which can be visualised at the city level and that can be freely accessed online.

“EO data can really contribute to filling the data gap we experience in some cities. Data on air quality, temperatures and soil sealing is fundamental to avoid urban heat island effects, to adapt urban materials to climate change and to increase the energy efficiency of our buildings”. Andreas Jäger, ICLEI

Dialogue with cities and networks of cities is crucial to put EO data to use to support sustainable urban policies and strategies.

Training is needed for politicians, for them to understand what you can do with EO data, and also for city managers to turn the data into operable information. Collaboration with private entities can help filling the capacity gap, while national institutions can also have a role to support cities accessing and exploiting geospatial information.

Adapting the language with which we communicate about available data to user communities also is essential to foster technology transfe, as well as presenting data in a visual and intuitive fashion to engage politicians and empower city managers.

Dialogue among countries is also crucial. Finally, the promotion of case studies and the implementation of peer-to-peer learning has also proved to be the most effective way to encourage cities adopting new technologies.

The EO Toolkit for Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements wants to fill existing knowledge and capacity gaps. Cities, regional and national administrations, academia, NGOs and all interested entities are invited to get in touch with the EO Toolkit team to explore collaboration paths.

“Cities are ready to harness the data revolution but would need support and capacity building. Indeed, it is not just a matter of collecting data, but of interpreting them”, Stella Psarropoulou, Municipality of Thessaloniki