This animation shows how Europe's population density has changed over 130 years

Soviet tanks enter what is now Kaliningrad on 10 April 1945. This is relevant, you'll see. Image: AFP/Getty.

Want to see 130 years of European demographic change happen in a matter of seconds? Of course you do. Check out this gif:


It comes from the University of Lleida, in Catalonia, which has a whole team, HGISE, which is dedicated to producing historic maps of Europe, the discovery of which is basically our Christmas here at CityMetric.

It's quite hard to see what's going on in that GIF, though: it cycles through so fast that you can get a sense of the pattern of population change, but you can’t make out the details. So, here's a slower version:

That's still a bit nippy, though, so we've separated out the slides from the beginning and end of the time series.

Here's the map in 1870. A century and a half ago, the London area was the most densely populated area of Europe. From there, there were arcs of urbanisation heading up to northern England, east to the Benelux countries, then south down the Rhine Valley and into Italy. To a large extent these were the first bits of Europe to be hit by the industrial revolution.

Now check out the last slide, from 2000:

Austria has densified, to a great extent. So has southern Sweden. And the Mediterranean coasts – from Gibraltar to northern Italy, and also Greece – are way more populated now than they were. We're guessing that's the rise of tourism and holiday homes.

On the other side of the scales, parts of Ireland have actually depopulated: look at the south eastern corner, which is pink in 1870, but yellow now. Even a quarter century after the disaster of the great famine, parts of Ireland were still losing people.

All that said, to a surprising extent, the pattern of urbanisation today is largely the same as it was in 1870. The red areas now are by and large the dark pink ones of 150 years ago. The blue banana, which we've written about before, already existed in the late 19th century. It's just that on this map it's coloured red.

One other thing worth looking at briefly. Look at what happens to eastern Europe in the middle of the 20th century.

Here's 1930:


Here's 1950:

In the decades between those years, you may recall, central Europe had a bit of a time of it. You can see the turbulance in the animation, and when you directly compare the 1930 map to the 1950 one you can see how western Germany becomes slightly more populated, and eastern Germany rather less. 

This is probably in part the effect of changing borders (the units whose population density are being compared simply aren't the same ones). But something else is going on here too. 

Look at the area we've marked with a black dot. (The border of the map changes but we're pretty sure we've got the same area twice.) That's Konigsberg, the one time capital of East Prussia, and the furthest outpost of Germany before the outbreak of war.

Konigsberg didn't have a great time in WW2. In 1939 its population was 372,000; six years later, it was down to 73,000. It's now a Russian city called Kaliningrad, in the exclave of the same name.

That area of Europe, best we can tell, is the most obvious manifestation of the de-Germanisation of large swathes of Prussia that followed the war. Once, the Baltic coast was German; now, it's Polish, and Russian. And one effect of that transition was a massive fall in population density.


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

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CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

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I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.