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August 13, 2015updated 02 Aug 2021 9:40am

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

By City Monitor Staff

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.

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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.

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