Delineating functional urban areas using a multi-step analysis of artificial light-at-night data

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A functional urban area (FUA) is a geographic entity that consists of a densely inhabited city and a less densely populated commuting zone, both highly integrated through labor markets. The delineation of FUAs is important for comparative urban studies and it is commonly performed using census data and data on commuting flows. However, at the national scale, censuses and commuting surveys are performed at low frequency, and, on the global scale, consistent and comparable data are difficult to obtain overall. In this paper, we suggest and test a novel approach based on artificial light at night (ALAN) satellite data to delineate FUAs. As ALAN is emitted by illumination of thoroughfare roads, frequented by commuters, and by buildings surrounding roads, ALAN data can be used, as we hypothesize, for the identification of FUAs. However, as individual FUAs differ by their ALAN emissions, different ALAN thresholds are needed to delineate different FUAs, even those in the same country. To determine such differential thresholds, we use a multi-step approach. First, we analyze the ALAN flux distribution and determine the most frequent ALAN value observed in each FUA. Next, we adjust this value for the FUA’s compactness, and run regressions, in which the estimated ALAN threshold is the dependent variable. In these models, we use several readily available, or easy-to-calculate, characteristics of FUA cores, such as latitude, proximity to the nearest major city, population density, and population density gradient, as predictors. At the next step, we use the estimated models to define optimal ALAN thresholds for individual FUAs, and then compare the boundaries of FUAs, estimated by modelling, with commuting-based delineations. To measure the degree of correspondence between the commuting-based and model-predicted FUAs’ boundaries, we use the Jaccard index, which compares the size of the intersection with the size of the union of each pair of delineations. We apply the proposed approach to two European countries—France and Spain—which host 82 and 72 FUAs, respectively. As our analysis shows, ALAN thresholds, estimated by modelling, fit FUAs’ commuting boundaries with an accuracy of up to 75–100%, being, on the average, higher for large and densely-populated FUAs, than for small, low-density ones. We validate the estimated models by applying them to another European country—Austria—which demonstrates the prediction accuracy of 47–57%, depending on the model type used.

Original languageEnglish
Article number3714
Pages (from-to)3714
Number of pages1
JournalRemote Sensing
Issue number18
StatePublished - Sep 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 by the authors.


  • Artificial light-at-night (ALAN)
  • Boundaries
  • Functional urban areas (FUAs)
  • Multiple regression modelling
  • Optimal threshold

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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