You’ll never guess which is the most densely populated country in Europe
Credit: Getty Images   

Here’s a question for you:

Leaving aside very small countries such as Monaco and Luxembourg, what is the most densely populated nation in Europe?

The conventional answer is the Netherlands with 505 people per square kilometre, followed by England on 426.

And yet according to Alasdair Rae, the true answer is Spain. Rae may be a professor of urban studies and planning at Sheffield University, but how can he possibly be right? Spain’s population is smaller than England’s, while it’s geographical area is almost four times bigger. That surely settles the matter.

Or does it? Rae’s insight is that the Spanish population isn’t spread out over Spain, but rather a small part of it. This is how he puts his case in a thought provoking piece for the Conversation:

“A good way to understand this measure is to look at Spain. It has a population density of 93 people per km², giving the impression of a sparsely populated country. This is borne out in the map, where much of Spain appears to be empty; much more so than any other large European country.

“…Yet characterising Spain as a sparsely populated country does not reflect the experience on the ground – as anyone who knows Barcelona or Madrid can tell you.

“Spain contains within it more than 505,000 1km squares. But only 13% of them are lived in.”

By recalculating population density in each country using only the land area where people actually live he produces a measure of what he calls “lived density”.

By this yardstick, Spain’s population density leaps from 93 people per square kilometre to 737 – way above the equivalent for England and the Netherlands. From a human point of view, Spain is a densely populated country that happens to have a lot of empty countryside attached to it. Another good example is Iceland – which has a conventional population density of just 3 people per square kilometre, but a more convivial 187 when it comes to lived density.

All of this is an object lesson in the way the statistics can be demonstrably ‘true’ and yet completely misleading as to how people actually experience their lives. The political consequences of this phenomenon are explored in ‘Blindsided’ – a special series for UnHerd from our Flyover Country editor Henry Olsen.

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There’s a further point worth unpacking from Professor Rae’s detailed analysis of population density.

It’s often argued that because just 11% of England is built on, there’s plenty of room to build new houses while leaving most of the English countryside untouched. This is true (even if it does ignore the fact that the urbanising impact of development extents beyond its immediate ‘footprint’). However, it distracts from the fact that we could, if we were willing to do the redevelopment, pack a lot more living space within our cities – especially the global ones – which, crucially, is where the highest demand is:

“Spain has the most densely populated km² in Europe; more than 53,000 people inhabit a single 1km² area in Barcelona. France also has an area with more than 50,000 people in a single km², in Paris.

“There are 33 1km² areas across Europe with a population of 40,000 or more: 23 are in Spain, and ten are in France. England’s most densely populated km², in West London, has just over 20,000 people in it. “

As I’ve argued before, cities like London could densify – and furthermore do it sympathetically, even beautifully.

Traditional architecture and street patterns are not only compatible with density, they’re a time-tested way of sustaining it over decades and centuries.

If we want to push up ‘lived density’ then we must make density liveable.