Considering settlement characteristics and population dynamics together over multiple spatio-temporal scales, the present study analyzes the spatial distribution of sparse settlements and population surrounding a large city in Southern Europe (Athens, Greece), in relation with long-term metropolitan growth and recent economic downturns. Results of the analysis identify regional-scale processes of urban compaction during economic expansion (2000s) with incorporation of scattered settlements in a high-density urban fabric, and moderate urban dispersion affecting low-density, peripheral areas in the subsequent period of recession (2010s). However, more heterogeneous dynamics were observed at the local scale. With economic expansion, a slight increase in the number of settlements was observed in local districts experiencing intense sprawl in earlier decades. With recession, a slight decrease in the number of settlements was, in turn, recorded in some rural districts surrounding compact urban centers, likely acting as local hotspots of urban re-densification. Given the multiplicity of socioeconomic factors involved, our findings highlight how urban development follows sequential phases of compaction and dispersion, based on locally differentiated spatial regimes characterizing settlement expansion and population growth. Sustainable urban management should face more actively with increasingly fragmented settlement dynamics at the fringe, prefiguring an appropriate spatial balance between urban centers and sparse settlements in light of recent demographic trends.
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