Most people on the planet live in dense aggregations, and policy directives emphasize green areas within cities to ameliorate some of the problems of urban living. Benefits of urban green spaces range from physical and psychological health to social cohesion, ecosystem service provision and biodiversity conservation. Green space coverage differs enormously among cities, yet little is known about the correlates or geography of this variation. This is important because urbanization is accelerating and the consequences for green space are unclear. Here, we use standardized major axis regression to explore the relationships between urban green space coverage, city area and population size across 386 European cities. We show that green space coverage increases more rapidly than city area, yet declines only weakly as human population density increases. Thus, green space provision within a city is primarily related to city area rather than the number of inhabitants that it serves, or a simple space-filling effect. Thus, compact cities (small size and high density) show very low per capita green space allocation. However, at high levels of urbanicity, the green space network is robust to further city compaction. As cities grow, interactions between people and nature depend increasingly on landscape quality outside formal green space networks, such as street plantings, or the size, composition and management of backyards and gardens.