We think of Canada as a long way north – but half its population lives south of Milan

Toronto: same latitude as Nice. Who new? Image: Getty.

This article was originally posted on David Taylor's data visualisation blog Prooffreader.com in November 2013. David very kindly agreed to let us repost it here, which is pretty lovely of him.

Canada is farther north than the United States: everybody knows this, and for the most part it's true.

But an article in Monitor on Psychology says people tend to take these geographical mental shortcuts too far: most Americans are surprised to find that all of Florida is farther south than the Mexican border, for example.

So let's see how much of the United States is below Canada's most southerly city, Windsor, Ontario (I won't cheat and count the little islands in Lake Erie that belong to Canada):


For the record, the red area comprises 22 per cent of the surface area of the contiguous United States (38 per cent if you include Alaska), and 15 per cent of its population. Windsor is just 25 km further north than the California-Oregon border.

The paper also states that both Americans and Canadians tend to imagine Europe to be more southerly than it is in relation to them: they equating Spain's latitude with the southern states, for example. Let's have a look, without that pesky Atlantic Ocean in the way:


Once again using the online tool Mapfrappe, I've marked the Latitudes of Windsor and of the 60th parallel, which divides the Prairie provinces from Northern Canada.

You'll notice Windsor, which has some cold winters, is even with northern Spain, which decidedly doesn't. That's another mental shortcut we all share: north = cold. But it's not that simple when you have a nice Gulf Stream warming your coastline, as Europe does.

The geographical comparison was less surprising to me than the demographic one. In 2013, I posted a blog about Canadian population by latitude, whose data was a little coarse because Canada Post and Statistics Canada have copyrighted the most finely detailed geographical boundaries used in the census.

But a wonderful reader pointed me to the ISLCP II Project, which lists the population of the entire planet for every quarter-degree of latitude and longitude (albeit from 1995, but I'll take it). Have a look at the relative populations by latitude of the United States, Canada and Europe:

The most northerly Canadian city with a population of over 500,000 is Edmonton, Alberta: it's at about the same latitude as Dublin, Manchester and Hamburg. Around 15 per cent of Europeans live farther north than this. (The demarcation of Europe and Asia is fuzzily defined; I chose it as including Istanbul and Moscow, which is north of Edmonton.)


In fact, the median latitude of population in Europe is nearly 4 degrees higher than in Canada – that's around 400km.

Thanks to these histograms I realized I'm as susceptible to that misfiring geography heurism as anyone: in my mind, Hawaii was about the same latitude as Sacramento, California. But it's over 500km farther south than the mainland United States.

David Taylor is a Montreal-based writer, who runs the data visualisation blog Prooffreader.com.

Editor's note: the calculation that the median Canadian lives at between 45 and 46 degrees latitude, roughly on a par with Milan, is CityMetric's own. If we've screwed up, it's our error, not David's.

 
 
 
 

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.