Does this map actually show every European town with over 1,000 residents?

Mmmm, misleading. Image: Sp33d3h/Reddit.

Sometimes in my travels around the backwoods of the internet I spot a map so pleasing, one that does such a perfect job of telling a story, that it goes straight to the top of the list of things I plan to pontificate about as soon as I find a spare moment.

And then I start to wonder whether perhaps it might just be a bit too good to be true.

So it was with this beauty, posted to Reddit by user Sp33d3h. It uses a single red dot to show every town or city in Europe with a population of over 1,000. You can instantly see which bits of the UK are heavily populated, and which are relatively rural. You can see the way Europe's population thins out the further you head north or east. You can see the Alps.

It's lovely.

Click to expand.

It's probably not right, though.

For one thing, the boundaries between countries are often just a little too well demarcated. You can see at a glance where Denmark ends and Germany begins; you can also spot the boundaries between Bulgaria and Romania, or Poland and Slovakia.

Rough national boundaries in blue.

Now, it's possible that there's some geological feature demarcating the boundary which means that urbanisation becomes much heavier on one side than the other – but the fact those boundaries (most of which are relatively recent inventions) are visible over such long distances suggests something else is going on. It looks like me like there’s a disconnect in the data – like it’s being collected in different ways in different countries.

Which, if you think about it, it obviously would be: literally nobody has the resources to go round counting all the settlements of 1,000 people or more across an entire continent. It's all but certain that this map is collating datasets collected by other people, and national boundaries are the most likely place for one dataset to stop and the next begin.

One of the commenters on Reddit who's examined the map on the Harvard website that provided the data for this one speculates that what we're actually looking at is municipal or administrative boundaries. Except if we zoom in it's not even clear that's it, because here's what you get in London:

Nope, no idea. Image: Harvard WorldMap.

I am reasonably familiar with all sorts of ways of chopping my city up into bits, and that doesn't look like any of them. I have literally no idea what these units are. (Also, it's not immediately obvious why the Greater London conurbation should really be a few dozen settlements rather than one big one.)

So – as pleasing as this map is it probably isn't anything as useful as every European settlement of over 1,000 people.

That doesn't mean we can't tell anything useful from the map. The way the dots are distributed within countries is probably quite telling. So we can see, for example, that the most rural parts of Great Britain are in mid Wales, Scotland outside its central belt, and the far north west of England:

We can see that the fringes of France and Spain are generally more populated than the middle:

And that Scandinavia empties out, the further north you get:

But internationally, I fear, this map tells us little – or rather, we can't tell when it is telling us something, and when it's just a quirk of the data.

As much as I'd love to see a map which actually did what the one at the top of this post claims to, I fear that no such data set exists. I mean, how would you even begin to count every settlement that small?

For what it’s worth, here's a map showing population density across Europe, using roughly county-sized lumps. Enjoy.

Image: DBachmann/Wikimedia Commons.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

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 citymonitor.ai 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.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

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!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

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