According to Wikipedia, the Atlanta metro area has about 5.3 million people (a bit more or less depending on where you draw the boundary line.) The population density is 243 per square kilometer (630/sq. mile.) I’d like you to contemplate the following thought experiment. Suppose Atlanta adopted a Portland-style land use plan, and didn’t allow any growth beyond the current perimeter. Let’s also suppose that over the next few decades Atlanta’s population grew from 5.3 million to 8.3 million, with all of the new residents packed into the current area.
Sounds like nightmarish hell, doesn’t it? And yet England is not just more crowded than Atlanta today, with 1053 people per square mile it’s more crowded than Atlanta would be with 3 million more residents packed into the current metro area. And yet whenever I visit England it doesn’t seem like it’s crowded at all. Yes, London seems quite crowded, but only 8 million of the 53 million Englishmen live in London. The rest of the country seems to be a charming set of rolling green hills, country houses, quaint villages, etc. So what’s going on here?
One answer is that “overpopulation” is a state of mind. England is more densely populated than China; indeed even more densely populated than the eastern half of China (where most of the people live.) It’s more densely populated than Japan, or the Netherlands. It just doesn’t seem that way.
Outside of Africa, the world’s population has nearly peaked (it’s 6 billion non-Africans, whereas in 100 years it’s expected to be 6.5 billion.) Since most places are far less crowded than England, it looks like the world as a whole will never end up being particularly densely populated. So why does it seem like it is? Here are a few theories:
1. Terrain: In places that are very mountainous (China and Japan) the population will seem denser, as people will be squeezed into the lowlands. In flat places like the Netherlands the crowding will seem worse because you will see the country in two dimensions, not three. The ideal is a green and gently rolling countryside, which provides views in three dimensions, allowing you to see the actual size of places much more easily. England is really big; one could spend a lifetime exploring its 50,000 sq. miles. Instead, it is flat places the size of England (Illinois, Bangladesh, etc.) that seem much smaller than they actually are.
2. Compact cites: Prevents the sprawl that makes the Atlanta metro area seem more crowded than England.
3. Wealth: Wealth allows people more elbow room. It’s why a one story high third world shanty town seems much more densely populated than Paris or London. When I first visited China, the train stations seemed like the black hole of Calcutta. Their new ones are big and spacious and airy and seemingly uncrowded.
4. Good infrastructure: America’s infrastructure is not quite as good as you’d expect for a country as rich as we are, and the resulting traffic makes it seem a bit more crowded than it is.
5. Low pollution. When there’s lots of air and water pollution (and litter) it makes the place seem overcrowded, even if only subconsciously. That’s one reason China seems more crowded than England, which benefits from both better technology and favorable ocean breezes.
I suppose this is just a longwinded way of saying that Yglesias and Avent are right about urban policy. Or that Europe is best. But I’m not really anti-suburb. There are few places on earth that offer more attractive living conditions than my current place of residence, the suburb of Newton, Massachusetts. And I don’t think this model is unsustainable. Suppose a carbon tax doubles the price of gasoline. Does that force Newton residents back into the city? You’ve got to be kidding; that’s just pocket change for them (I mean for us.) And even if it wasn’t, most suburban residents would prefer to adapt by getting a hybrid car with double the miles per gallon, rather than give up their nice suburban neighborhoods and be squeezed into some urban apartment building. Yes, a carbon tax would make a difference in land use at the margin, but it’s not going to be a game changer.
All this was motivated by the new English census:
PEOPLE in Britain are living longer and having more babies—and more foreigners are joining them. That is the main finding from the 2011 census results released on July 16th. The population of England and Wales is growing faster than most demographers thought, at 7.1% for the decade, thanks mainly to immigration and a rise in fertility fuelled by the newcomers. But there is another, still less expected, change: big cities that were shedding people a decade ago are growing at a terrific rate. . . .
Manchester’s population grew by 19% in the ten years to March 2011, much faster than its surroundings (see map). . . .
Are urban populations growing because people want to live in cities again or because they have to? It is a mixture of the two, says Tony Travers of the London School of Economics. Moving to London generally enhances a career because so many companies are based there and people change jobs a lot—the so-called “elevator effect”. This may just about be true of Manchester. Lately sticky jobs and housing markets have glued urbanites in place. But supply makes a difference, too. As big cities have welcomed growth in their centres, many small towns have resisted it.
This is quite different from America, where small towns are usually more welcoming of growth than big cities. Perhaps not surprisingly New England is the area most similar to old England in this regard; many small Massachusetts towns resist growth, and Boston is growing faster than many of its suburbs. But even Boston severely restricts growth.
PS. The English decennial population growth wasn’t that much lower than our 9%. Perhaps we need to revise our (American) assumptions about demographic decline in Europe.
PPS. It’s an interesting coincidence that I grew up in an area of rolling green hills, and I spent my youth bicycling over them. Is it actually the ideal? Or just nostalgia on my part? BTW, my home state (Wisconsin) is the same size as England, but has 1/10th the population. England is actually more attractive, although I’m not sure exactly why.
PPPS. I excluded Africa because I have doubts about the population forecasts for that continent.