On a socio-economic level, the Belgian coastal zone has a typical character that differs from the rest of Flanders, with also marked differences occurring within the region. In many cases, the seaside neighbourhoods demonstrate metropolitan characteristics such as a high population density, an increased risk of deprivation, loneliness, limited facilities for less mobile people, pressure on the housing market, more people living alone, etc. Despite an important tourism sector, two seaports and an international airport, there is still an above-average unemployment rate and the supply of high-quality jobs for the highly educated is limited (Breyne et al. 2007, Dauwe et al. 2019). The hinterland municipalities are mainly characterised by a distinct rural character with low population densities and an increased outgoing commuting intensity.
On 1 January 2020, the coastal zone had 426,075 inhabitants (coastal municipalities: 339,501; hinterland municipalities: 86,574), which corresponds to an average population density of 373 inhabitants/km². A clear distinction can be made between the coastal and hinterland municipalities, with a respective average population density of 708 and 131 inhabitants per km² (Rijksregister, 1 January 2020, processed by D&A | provincies.incijfers.be).
In 2020, nearly 30% of the population in the coastal zone is ageing (65+), an increase of 23% since 2010. On the contrary only about 15% of the coastal residents is under 18 and a slight decrease during that same period is noticeable within that age group and the people between 18-64 year (active age group) (Rijksregister 1 January 2020 processed by D&A | provincies.incijfers.be). Moreover, the coastal zone counts a high number of deprived neighbourhoods with 25% of the households living in a deprived neighbourhood (Kansarmoedeatlas West-Vlaanderen 2021).
On 31 December 2018 the region employed 186,354 employees amounting to 34.3% of the population of West Flanders. At the end of 2018, the share of employed people in the secondary sector (construction+industry) was 13.7% in the coastal zone, while it was 26.0% in West Flanders as a whole. On the other hand, in the coastal municipalities no less than 88.2% (86.0% in the entire coastal zone) of employment is situated in trade and services, of which tourism, horeca, but also care make up an important part (see also Dauwe et al. 2019, West-Vlaanderen Ontcijferd 2020). The communal unemployment rates varied greatly in 2018 with Lo-Reninge (2.4%) registering the lowest rates and Ostend the highest (10.7%) (Vlaamse Arbeidsrekening, processed by POM West-Vlaanderen).
The coastal zone contains >325,000 housing units (2020). The total number of housing units in the coastal municipalities is significantly higher than the number required to house the population. On average, 35% of these housing units are not used for permanent residence (= a housing unit where a household is domiciled). This phenomenon occurs mainly in seaside neighbourhoods. The demand for second-homes also means that the housing units in the coastal zone are on average more recent than those in the rest of Flanders. Another striking feature is the high relative share of apartments in the coastal municipalities (46%) compared to the hinterland municipalities (13%) (Kadaster, processed by D&A |provincies.incijfers.be). There is also a trend towards smaller households, for example, 40.9% of the households in the coastal municipalities currently consist of a single person (Rijksregister 1 January 2020 processed by D&A | provincies.incijfers.be).
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