These maps reveal the truth about population density across Europe

Barcelona: one of the most crowded places in Europe. Image: Getty.

It’s often said that England is the most densely populated large country in Europe – typically in discussions about the nation’s rising population, and the growing strain on public services. But it’s not true.

With 426 people per km², as of 2016, England is densely populated when compared to most other European countries. But it’s not as densely populated as the Netherlands, where there were 505 people per km², or a much poorer country such as Bangladesh, where there were 1,252 per km².

Yet simply dividing the number of people by the land area of a country is not always the best way to understand population density. Consider a country such as Russia, where urban density is high, but there are vast swathes of empty land. The figures will tell you density is very low (eight people per km²); but this it not what most people in Russia experience in their daily lives. The same is true of Australia, Canada and other large, highly urbanised nations.

That’s why I set out to understand the topic in more depth, using alternative measures of population density. I looked at 39 countries across Europe and came up with a set of statistics to help us understand settlement patterns in a more nuanced way. If you are interested in looking at this issue globally, I recommend Duncan Smith’s World Population Density interactive map, or the World Bank’s data comparison tool.

A bird’s eye view

To begin with, I took Eurostat’s population density grid data for 2011 and mapped it. This divides Europe into areas of 1km², and then gives a population count for each area, so that we can compare like-with-like across Europe. As you can see from the map, it provides a good overview of where people live, and where they don’t live: notice the sparse settlement pattern in the Alps or northern Scandinavia, or indeed much of Spain.

European population density. Data: Eurostat. Mapping: by the author.

This bird’s eye view helps us to understand the wider context. For example, we can see an area of high population density extending in a rough arc from north-west England down to Milan, with a little break in the Alps. This is the so-called “blue banana”, or dorsale européenne (European backbone), identified by French geographer Roger Brunet in 1989, and it is home to more than 110m people.

But we can get further clarity still by honing in on “built-up” density, which takes into account only those 1km² areas with people living in them. I call this figure “lived density”, since it provides a way of seeing the kinds of population densities that people experience in their day-to-day lives, within built-up areas.


The Spanish distribution

A good way to understand this measure is to look at Spain. It has a population density of 93 people per km², giving the impression of a sparsely populated country. This is borne out in the map, where much of Spain appears to be empty; much more so than any other large European country.

The reasons for this date back to Medieval times, as Daniel Oto-Peralías at the University of St Andrews has explained. Yet characterising Spain as a sparsely populated country does not reflect the experience on the ground – as anyone who knows Barcelona or Madrid can tell you.

Spain contains within it more than 505,000 1km squares. But only 13 per cent of them are lived in. This means that the “lived density” for Spain is in fact 737 people per km², rather than 93. So even though the settlement pattern appears sparse, people are actually quite tightly packed together.

In fact, Spain could claim to be the most densely populated major European country by this measure, despite its appearance on the map. This also helps explain why Spain has the most densely populated km² in Europe; more than 53,000 people inhabit a single 1km² area in Barcelona. France also has an area with more than 50,000 people in a single km², in Paris.

Barcelona from above: possibly the most densely populated km² in Europe. Image: author provided.

There are 33 1km² areas across Europe with a population of 40,000 or more: 23 are in Spain, and ten are in France. England’s most densely populated km², in West London, has just over 20,000 people in it. Globally, the highest figure is close to 200,000, in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

See for yourself

When we look at “lived density” across Europe, it’s fair to say that England is a densely populated country – but it still sits behind Spain and the Netherlands on the list of major European nations, and below the microstates of Monaco, Andorra and Malta. The lived density figure for the Netherlands is 546 people per km², compared to 531 for England, 204 for Wales, 200 for Scotland and 160 for Northern Ireland.

Although these population numbers are a little dated now (they are based on 2011 data), they can still demonstrate how population density figures might differ from what we experience in our day-to-day lives. Arithmetic population density measures can be useful, but on their own they don’t always help inform public debate, or match up with our perceptions of urban density.

I have provided the data for all 39 countries, where available, so you can compare the figures for yourself. By using a more sophisticated measure, we can gain a more nuanced perspective of settlement patterns and relative densities and, hopefully, better capture the reality on the ground in towns and cities.

Population density metrics. Data: Eurostat. Calculations by the author.

The ConversationNote: the final column shows how many 1km cells have people in them, but within that the level of density also varies, so this is not a “percent urbanised” measure.

Alasdair Rae, Professor in Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.