1. Built environment
March 20, 2018updated 02 Aug 2021 9:29am

Nine things we learned from this population density map of Europe

By Jonn Elledge

“I’ve been playing around with EU population data (2011),” a housing information specialist by the name of Dan Cookson tweeted recently, “Tricky to design interactive map of 1.9 million 1km grid squares that works visually at all scales.”

Tricky, perhaps – but he’s done it anyway, and the resulting map is not just informative but oddly beautiful, too. You can see at a glance which bits of Europe are bustling with people, and which are all but deserted. You can see where cities blend into each other, and where they’re cut off from what one might otherwise think of as suburbs.

Best of all, because it’s a series of 1km squares, you can zoom right in. As a result, you can see which European countries are practically deserted, and which bits of Glasgow are the most overcrowded, all from the same map.

It’s a stunning piece of work, and you should go and look at it right now. But to whet your appetite, here are some of the things we learned from playing with it for a bit.

Spain is basically empty…

The map represents different population densities using seven different colours: yellow suggests a high rise city, reds mean urban, pinks are suburban, blues mean rural and white means completely empty.

 The map contains data for all EU and EEA countries as of 2011 (back when the UK was definitely one of them *sigh*). And, except, in the frozen north, only one is primarily white, suggestion vast tracts of nobody.

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Step forward Spain, where 47m people are packed into the coastal regions, Galicia in the north east and a few cities in the interior.

…except where it’s basically rammed

That, though, means getting a lot of people into a very small amount of space. Compare Barcelona, whose metropolitan area contains around 5m people…

…with Hamburg, which is roughly the same size.

The former has far more of those ultra-dense yellow squares, and they spread far beyond the city proper into outlying suburbs. Beyond that, though, the landscape quickly fades to white. Around Hamburg, the population gradient is far less steep.

Almost nobody lives in the Alps

Well, it probably gets cold there, I guess. Talking of which…

Finland has the most northerly population in Europe

Maybe this is just me, but when I think of the true north of Europe, I tend to think of Norway or Sweden. This is obviously stupid, as Helsinki, which lies on Finalnd’s southern coast, is actually north of quite a lot of Sweden.

What is less obvious is that the more populated regions of Finland continue a long, long way north of the more populated regions of the Scandinavian peninsula. Look:

London is denser in the north and east than in the south and west

That’s probably no surprise – south-west London is a lot posher than north-east – but nonetheless, the extent of it is striking:

But the most densely populated areas are west

The most crowded single square I could find, however, was this one:


Maida Hill, huh? Who’d have thought it?

No one lives in the Pennines either


Liverpool doesn’t really border Manchester

The old metropolitan counties of Greater Manchester and Merseyside were contiguous. So are their modern replacements, Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region.

Look at the population density map, though, and there is very clearly a gap between them:

Wigan and Leigh are part of Greater Manchester, officially. Look at the population density map, though, and they’re not really any more attached to Manchester than they are to Liverpool.

Richard Gadsden, a Manchester LibDem councillor and occasional reader of this site, once suggested to me that it might have made sense to have a sort of buffer zone between the two great north western cities, containing places like Warrington and Wigan that were linked to but not really part of them. Looking at this map, I can kind of see his point.

Density is good

While we’re at it: note how few yellow square there are in the North West. Now compare that with Paris:

Paris and Barcelona are densely populated. They’re also, in many ways, pretty great.

Density is not the enemy. That’s really all I’m saying here.

Oh, and we should build some more houses, but you probably inferred that bit.

You can play with Cookson’s entire map here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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