Nine things we learned from this population density map of Europe

Ooooh, data-y. Image: Dan Cookson.

“I’ve been playing around with EU population data (2011),” a housing information specialist by the name of Dan Cookson tweeted recently, “Tricky to design interactive map of 1.9 million 1km grid squares that works visually at all scales.”

Tricky, perhaps – but he’s done it anyway, and the resulting map is not just informative but oddly beautiful, too. You can see at a glance which bits of Europe are bustling with people, and which are all but deserted. You can see where cities blend into each other, and where they’re cut off from what one might otherwise think of as suburbs.

Best of all, because it’s a series of 1km squares, you can zoom right in. As a result, you can see which European countries are practically deserted, and which bits of Glasgow are the most overcrowded, all from the same map.

It’s a stunning piece of work, and you should go and look at it right now. But to whet your appetite, here are some of the things we learned from playing with it for a bit.

Spain is basically empty...

The map represents different population densities using seven different colours: yellow suggests a high rise city, reds mean urban, pinks are suburban, blues mean rural and white means completely empty.

 The map contains data for all EU and EEA countries as of 2011 (back when the UK was definitely one of them *sigh*). And, except, in the frozen north, only one is primarily white, suggestion vast tracts of nobody.

Step forward Spain, where 47m people are packed into the coastal regions, Galicia in the north east and a few cities in the interior.

...except where it’s basically rammed

That, though, means getting a lot of people into a very small amount of space. Compare Barcelona, whose metropolitan area contains around 5m people...

...with Hamburg, which is roughly the same size.

The former has far more of those ultra-dense yellow squares, and they spread far beyond the city proper into outlying suburbs. Beyond that, though, the landscape quickly fades to white. Around Hamburg, the population gradient is far less steep.

Almost nobody lives in the Alps

Well, it probably gets cold there, I guess. Talking of which...

Finland has the most northerly population in Europe

Maybe this is just me, but when I think of the true north of Europe, I tend to think of Norway or Sweden. This is obviously stupid, as Helsinki, which lies on Finalnd’s southern coast, is actually north of quite a lot of Sweden.

What is less obvious is that the more populated regions of Finland continue a long, long way north of the more populated regions of the Scandinavian peninsula. Look:

London is denser in the north and east than in the south and west

That’s probably no surprise – south-west London is a lot posher than north-east – but nonetheless, the extent of it is striking:

But the most densely populated areas are west

The most crowded single square I could find, however, was this one:


Maida Hill, huh? Who’d have thought it?

No one lives in the Pennines either


Liverpool doesn’t really border Manchester

The old metropolitan counties of Greater Manchester and Merseyside were contiguous. So are their modern replacements, Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region.

Look at the population density map, though, and there is very clearly a gap between them:

Wigan and Leigh are part of Greater Manchester, officially. Look at the population density map, though, and they’re not really any more attached to Manchester than they are to Liverpool.

Richard Gadsden, a Manchester LibDem councillor and occasional reader of this site, once suggested to me that it might have made sense to have a sort of buffer zone between the two great north western cities, containing places like Warrington and Wigan that were linked to but not really part of them. Looking at this map, I can kind of see his point.

Density is good

While we’re at it: note how few yellow square there are in the North West. Now compare that with Paris:

Paris and Barcelona are densely populated. They’re also, in many ways, pretty great.

Density is not the enemy. That’s really all I’m saying here.

Oh, and we should build some more houses, but you probably inferred that bit.

You can play with Cookson’s entire map here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook


Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.