Most of Britain is poorer than the European average, and other things we learned from this map

Mmmmm. Statistic-y. Image: Eurostat.

So there’s a map of Europe doing the rounds on the Twitters this morning, one which never ceases to fascinate me. There’s an extract of it above; the whole thing is shown below. It's from Eurostat, the European statistical agency, and it shows, basically, which bits of Europe are the richest.

The map breaks most of the continent into regions known as “NUTS 2 statistical units” (or, “Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics 2 statistical units” for long), and colour codes them by a measure of economic activity, using data for 2014. In this case it’s GDP per capita (how much wealth is produced), expressed in purchasing power standards, or PPS (basically, how much that wealth will buy you in that bit of the world).

All of which is a long way of saying that the blue-ish bits of the map are generating enough money to be richer than the EU-28 average, while the red-ish bits of the map are poorer than it.

Some caveats, before we look at the map. Firstly, in some ways, NUTS 2 regions are bloody stupid. London is split into five of the things, while the whole of the Republic of Ireland gets just two.

This isn’t as silly as it first sounds – the former has nearly twice the population of the latter – but it’s probably a bit misleading to imagine that the British capital can be broken down into five discrete economic units, or that the Republic of Ireland contains just two. So we should be wary about how literally we take this colour-scheme.

The other thing to remember is: GDP per capita doesn’t tell us everything. Transfer payments exist. Rich regions can and do support poorer ones – through the EU structural funds (we’re going to miss those), and through things like welfare systems within countries. What’s more, a region composed entirely of loaded retired people would, I suspect, look pretty bad on this map, while actually having fairly good living standards.

But that’s enough caveats spoiling our fun, what can we learn from the map?

Let’s start with the “well, duh” stuff. Firstly, there’s a definite east/west divide: the ex-communist countries of eastern Europe are by-and-large poorer than the capitalist ones of the west.

There’s possibly a north/south divide too, but this is less pronounced than you’d expect: parts of northern Spain and Italy are doing alright, while parts of the Nordic region, and – especially – large chunks of the British Isles, are not.

Some of this can be explained by the second predictable element: cities are, mostly, richer. In those southern countries, it’s the regions around Madrid, Barcelona and Rome that are doing best. In France it’s Paris, in Finland it’s Helsinki, in east Germany it’s Berlin. That blue island in the red sea of Romania is Bucharest.

So far, so predictable. But other things are more surprising.

For one thing, there’s a sort of arc of prosperity reading from Italy northwards. At first this looks like the blue banana megalopolis we’ve banged on about before – except it isn’t, because the reason it’s called a banana is it curves past the low countries into Britain. Which this doesn’t.

In fact, Britain doesn’t come out that well on this map. South central England, East Anglia, Cheshire and the north East of Scotland (Aberdeen, basically) are the only bits of the UK above the EU average. Even Essex and Kent – places not short of rich London commuters – come in more at than 10 per cent poorer.

The UK is not alone in division. Italy’s north-south divide is as well known as ours (only upside down), but we talk rather less about the fact France and Spain also have radically different economies depending on which bits of them you go to.

Oh, and it’s very sweet the way they’ve boxed out Liechtenstein just so they can tell us they don’t have any data.

As I said at the top, we should be wary of over-interpreting this, for all sorts of reasons. But is clear is that, for all the government’s talk of booming Britain and sclerotic Europe, the UK is substantially poorer than large chunks of the continent: western Germany, northern Italy, Scandinavia and the low countries.

But it’s fine because Brexit means Brexit and we’re apparently going to make a success of it.

So anyway, to sum up, I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed.

You can see the whole map, with commentary from Eurostat, here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.

Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.


The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.