Could the entire population of the world plausibly live in Great Britain?

Manila, the most densely populated city on Earth. Image: Google.

I’ve been thinking about the issue of population density across the world – and how it varies hugely. Some people think England is particularly crowded and some would probably say that Great Britain as a whole is quite a tightly packed little island. But of course this is all relative.

I was reminded of this recently when I discovered that the Philippines is now on Google Street View. Since I had a few spare moments, and because my brother lives in Manila, I went for a little tour around the city, and was struck by the sheer density of it.

As it turns out, Wikipedia and other sources say the city of Manila is the most densely populated on earth, with over 41,000 people per square kilometre. This is followed by another Metro Manila area (Pateros), at over 30,000, and then Dhaka in Bangladesh at over 28,000.

Where am I going with this? Using these figures as a reference point, I decided to see whether the entire population of the world – currently about 7.4bn – could fit in the island of Great Britain. 

The answer is yes. Some maps and a few words below to help explain...

I've cut out a chunk of Manila and tiled it over GB – somewhat bigly.

If you scale things a little more closely to the real world, you begin to get a sense of what this kind of density would look like on the ground – and remember that in some parts of the world people do live at these densities.

Just not in the South West of England and time soon, thankfully.

I believe getting planning permission for this might be an issue.

To the other end of the country now, around the far north east corner of Scotland, including Wick (current population about 7,000). Not much room to breathe here.

In fact, there isn't much room left for roads or train lines or parks or anything else, so day to day life might be just a little complicated. 

Transport, waste, communications and a few other things would be a bit tricky.

There are about 7,400,000,000 people in the world now, according to current best estimates, and the land area of the island of Great Britain is about 210,000 square kilometers. The maps here don't have lochs and lakes cut out but my calculations do take this into account. 

So, if we had to accommodate the whole world in Great Britain, this gives us a population density of 35,238 people per square kilometre.  Remember, that is a lower density than the City of Manila (that is, the inner part of Manila with a population of 1.7m, rather than the whole of Metro Manila – an area with 13m people).

Let's look at a few more maps now.

Merseyside and surrounding area.

 

Central London, with a slightly wonky looking Thames.

For reference, there are about 300 people per square kilometre in Great Britain at present. There are about 5,500 people per square kilometre in London and about 6,300 in Tokyo.

New York City has a population density of about 11,000, and Paris is quite tightly packed, at about 21,000 per square kilometre (for the 20 arrondissements). Manhattan has about 26,000 people per square kilometre.


There is loads of stuff on the internet about this general topic, including the excellent Per Square Mile by Tim De Chant. The most densely populated country is Macau, at just over 21,000 people per square kilometre.

If all this metric stuff is confusing, then I can tell you that in imperial units the density needed to accommodate the world in Great Britain is about 90,000 people per square mile. No matter how you measure it, that's a lot. Even Manhattan only has 67,000 people per square mile.

The obvious question now of course is what we should do with the rest of the world. Turn it into a park? Nature reserve? Museum?

I'm joking of course: there is also a more serious point here. I'm just trying to put some perspective on the issue of population density across the globe and how we measure it.

London and the surrounding area – not actually all that dense.

It's tempting to look out the window or use our day to day lives to assess what's ‘normal’; of course, this is natural. But when I've been looking more closely at the GHSL global population datasets recently I have been amazed at just how densely populated some cities are – as you can see a little bit from my previous blog post on the topic.

Dr Alasdair Rae is a senior lecturer in the urban studies & planning department of the University of Sheffield. This article was originally posted on his blog, and is reposted here with the author's permission.

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How the big freeze of 1962-3 killed off Britain’s canals

Little Venice, London. This was actually 2010, but you get the idea. Image: Getty.

The English are internationally renowned for banging on about the weather. When British drizzle is compared to the hurricanes of the Caribbean or the cold faced by more landlocked countries, our complaining seems wholly unjustified.

Still, our weather can have ruinous effects on whole industries. The particularly cold winter of 1962-63 was the final nail in the coffin of a centuries old water-borne trade.

At one time canals played an essential role in the UK’s economy. In the early days of the industrial revolution, canals snaked across the map, connecting the coal mines of the countryside to the factories of cities. They fuelled the furnaces and kept the hearth fires burning, allowing for cities to rapidly grow in the closing years of the 18th century.

A map of British and Irish waterways. The canal network is in orange. Image: Peter Eastern/Wikimedia Commons.

Economics is rarely sentimental, though, and when more effective modes of travel came along the canals began their slow demise. Whereas European canals widened to accommodate for ever larger boats, the thin British canals –bar the mighty Manchester ship canal – slowly gave in to the supremacy of those new-fangled trains.

The rise of railway also saw the odd canal being bought and shut down by railway companies. In most cases this was simply about eliminating the competition, but in some the straight canals proved a perfect place for new railway tracks – the fate of South London’s Croydon Canal.

Still, the bargepeoples tightened their belts, and the canal system limped on as a viable option for freight until the early ‘60s, when nature came in with the knockout blow. The Big Freeze of 1962-3 was, as the name suggests, uniquely cold for the UK. Records going back as far as 1659 only recorded two winters colder, and the canal system froze solid.

Somerset, January 1963. The snow stayed for so long it stretched phone wires out of shape. Image: Howard Dublin/Wikimedia Commons.

Facing months of no service by barges, industries that had been reliant on the canals switched to alternatives on the rail and road networks. When the ice finally thawed, and with grim memories of that winter on mind, few returned to using the canals for freight. Besides having dire consequences for that years football calendar, the winter mostly finished canals as a component of British industry.

Luckily many of the canals themselves survived to be repurposed, first for leisure and more recently for living. London’s canal system currently holds around 5000 boats, 60 per cent of them permanent homes. These liveaboards, driven there by the desire for the slow life or the rest of the city’s crippling property prices, are changing the face of London’s waterways.
The water dwellers, along with those drawn to these lateral parks for leisure, have brought business back to the city’s canals. Now books shops, grocers, coffee shops and even bakeries can be found floating on the waters.

So next time the trope of the weather obsessed Brit comes up, you can scoff at other countries hailstones the size of Chihuahuas, or sun you can cook an egg in. Tell them that the weather has shaped British history, too – and with huge climatic shifts on the horizon, it shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

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