Elevated environmental concentrations of metals are usually associated with the impact of urbanization. The present study is focused on metal contamination in urban sediments. A field survey was carried out to determine the distribution of four metals, i.e., cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb), copper (Cu), and zinc (Zn), in the coastal urban area of Semarang, Central Java, Indonesia. Sediment samples were collected from 101 grids of 2 x 2 km. To map the spatial distribution of these metals, concentrations of each metal were plotted against the corresponding grid coordinate. Cd was below the detection limit (< 0.03 μg/g) in all samples, whereas concentrations of Pb, Zn, and Cu fell into a wide range. Frequency distributions of Pb, Zn, and Cu concentrations indicated a similar pattern, in which the major proportion of the sites had a low metal concentration. Some sites, however, had extremely high metal concentrations, Zn up to 1257 μg/g, Pb up to 2666 μg/g, and Cu up to 448 μg/g. The data were used to define background concentrations for sediments in coastal zones of Indonesia ('reference values'). The proposed reference values are 25.6 μg/g, 132.2 μg/g, and 40,7 μg/g, respectively, for Pb, Zn, and Cu. The degree of metal contamination of each individual site was classified according to the calculated value of a combined pollution index, W. Four categories of the degree of metal contamination were proposed, i.e., unpolluted, slightly polluted, polluted, and heavily polluted. Based on this classification, from 101 sites investigated in the greater Semarang area, 51 are unpolluted, 36 slightly polluted, 9 polluted, and 5 heavily polluted, (C) 2000 Academic Press.