Population dense

Yet again, the Daily Mail runs a story about an increase in immigration rates. Yet again, they bring up the fact that England has a high population density. (Edit: The part about population has been split into its own article now.)

I’ll leave it to other, more talented bloggers to comment on how accurate the immigration figures are (Edit: Hooray Exclarotive and Five Chinese Crackers!). I just want to say something about this population density canard.

Their statistics were released on the day it was revealed that England is now the most overcrowded country of the 27 in the European Union.

It has more people per square mile than the Low Countries, which has long been the most densely populated region of the continent, MPs have been told.

Only tiny Malta, an island city state with a population no bigger than that of Bristol, has greater population pressure in Europe.

(Edit AGAIN: Five Chinese Crackers points out that the Dutch population density is much, much higher than England’s if you adjust for inland seas and lakes.)

Firstly of course, England is not one of the 27 EU countries, the UK is. The population density of the UK as a whole, according to the Guardian currently 256.3 people per square kilometre, is still lower than that of Belgium or the Netherlands, and since farms, reservoirs and power stations in Wales and Scotland (and to a lesser extent, Northern Ireland) provide to consumers in England as well, quoting the figures just for England and claiming that number is unsustainable is a bit misleading. One might as well look at the population density figures for North and South Holland – provinces of the Netherlands – which have 976 and 1,227 people per square kilometre respectively, over double that of England’s 402.1 people per square kilometre. Île-de-France région has 973.5 people per square kilometre. Canton of Geneva, a Swiss republic, has a 1,607 people per kilometre.* Clearly if you just give figures for part of an economy, cutting out the areas that include the bulk of the farmland or wilderness, you’ll get answers that don’t necessarily reflect a region’s ability to support itself.

The existence of the EU makes population density as a direct measure of stress even more dubious. The Channel Tunnel makes it possible – and relatively ecologically sustainable – to ship food from the sparsely populated far north of France, and of course Northern Ireland can easily trade with its less densely populated neighbour via the land border. Would perhaps it be better to look at the average population density of the UK’s “catchment area” if you really wanted to work out how much “population pressure” there was? It would be a bit trickier, but certainly doable.

So, if we’re going to break the country up into smaller parts to analyse it, why not break it down further. Let’s ignore all the undeveloped land which distorts these figures, and just look at the brightest hotspots. By far the densest populated part of the country is London, with a population density of 4,800 people per square kilometre – by comparison, the second placed North West region has a population density of 490 people per square kilometre, or about 10% that of London. Most immigrants to Britain come to London, so if you want to complain about immigration increasing stress on the country, that seems like the place to start.

Is London any more densely populated than any other European city? Not really. Central London is about as densely populated as central Hamburg, and far less densely populated than Paris. A few more cities that aren’t given in that graph: Amsterdam: 4,459 pp/km2, Madrid: 5,375 pp/km2, Milan: 7,123 pp/km2, Geneva: 11,725 pp/km2, Barcelona: 15,991 pp/km2. Plenty of European countries have cities far more densely populated than anywhere in the British Isles.

The UK isn’t really particularly “stressed” by population increase – at least any more than any other European country – it’s just that an unfortunate quirk of our geography makes it much easier to manipulate the figures by presenting England as its own little island, unaffected by its neighbours. If by some quirk of history we called, say, the cantons of Switzerland or the provinces of the Netherlands “countries”, then England would pale in comparison to some of them.

* I know that Switzerland is not an EU country, but I’m considering it here because geographically it still lies in Western Europe. It’s funny how the argument only involves ever us being most densely populated in the EU, conveniently ignoring South Korea, Japan, Israel, etc.

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  1. #1 by alex on Thursday, 26th August 2010 - 19:23 UTC

    It’s 15 years since I did GCSE geography, but I stil remember the crucial difference between a high population density and “overcrowding”, something the Mail totally fails to grasp.
    The classic example is somewhere like Greenland – a massive total area that gives a teeny tiny population density. But the vast majority of the island is uninhabitable and if you only count the areas where it’s possible for humans to live the density shoots up to Western European levels.

  1. Mangling migration at the Mail | exclarotive

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