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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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”