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.


To see how a city embraces remote work, 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.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.