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

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The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.

The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.