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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.



To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.

Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.