A green and pleasant land

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.



25 Responses to “A green and pleasant land”

  1. Gravatar of JVM JVM
    28. July 2012 at 14:47

    One thing that’s always confused me about the anti-density movement is you’d think it would just be NIMBYs, but I often hear glib remarks against allowing density from people who prefer a suburban-style lifestyle. This is weird because increased density in inner cities will by the same token reduce density in the suburbs relative to baseline. That means fewer people commuting on clogged highways, and fewer people competing for desired locations. It seems to me like if you prefer a suburban lifestyle, you should be shouting from the rooftops demanding an end to density restrictions.

  2. Gravatar of Emma Emma
    28. July 2012 at 14:59

    Even the always environmentally sensitive BBC ran an article last month called “The great myth of urban Britain” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18623096

  3. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    28. July 2012 at 15:05

    Let’s us not forget the effect of Britain’s mad land use everything-controlled-by-official-discretions land rationing policy. That might have something to do with piling folk up into the cities.

    The adoption of such policies by high income cities has, by the way, largely stopped income convergence between American states:

    One of the little factors affecting the US’s macroeconomic resilience. The US is becoming more like the Eurozone.

  4. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    28. July 2012 at 15:10

    JVM: Thinking of it as promoting capital growth through land rationing and it suddenly makes much more sense.

  5. Gravatar of woupiestek woupiestek
    28. July 2012 at 15:22

    It probably helps that England builts the smallest houses of Europe: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8201900.stm
    Also, England is not more populated than the Netherlands. Much more of our `land’ area is actually water (18,4% versus 2%) and the density numbers are not adjusted to that (according to wikipedia’s: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sovereign_states_and_dependent_territories_by_population_density).

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. July 2012 at 15:55

    Everyone, All good points.

  7. Gravatar of Jim Glass Jim Glass
    28. July 2012 at 17:16

    By the end of the next millennium, Tokyo will be a ghost town, and Japan will be empty. The country’s population will be just 500 by the year 3000, and just one by 3500. When that person dies, the Japanese nation will be no more.

    These apocalyptic predictions aren’t the rantings of a doomsday cult, or of a maverick academic out to gain some publicity, but of the Japanese government itself, its Ministry of Health and Welfare…

    From my favorite take on the population crisis.

    Is it related to a state of mind? Maybe to this one

    A startling number of Japanese youths have turned their backs on sex and relationships, a new survey has found.

    The survey, conducted by the Japan Family Planning Association, found that 36% of males aged 16 to 19 said that they had “no interest” in or even “despised” sex…

    If that’s not bad enough, The Wall Street Journal reports that a whopping 59% of female respondents aged 16 to 19 said they were uninterested in or averse to sex…

    The survey paints a bleak picture for Japan’s aging population…

    And those are the years when the hormones run high.

    (Smiley or frownie?)

  8. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    28. July 2012 at 17:37

    Population forecasts?

    I can remember, at the height of the AIDS hysteria, people forecasting population declines in Africa.

  9. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    28. July 2012 at 17:41

    BTW, high-rises can create living space. If you live in a large condo on the 20th-floor, overlooking a park, you feel like you have lots of space. So do most people in the building–even though you are stacked like sardines.

  10. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    28. July 2012 at 18:08

    Rolling green hills don’t make me happy unless there’s blue skies to go with. England seems to have a shortage of those.
    (In general, when I visited England I found the actual country quite disappointing compared to the storybook version in my imagination. Not so with Germany.)

  11. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. July 2012 at 20:24

    Jim, Predictions are fun, as long as you don’t take them seriously.

    Some opinions are better than others, but no opinions are more worthless than older people (like me) offering their opinion on the younger generation.

    Ben. Good points.

    Saturos, I agree about the blue skies, but it’s hard to find a place with consistent blue skies and a consistently green countryside.

    I found Britain a pleasant surprise.

  12. Gravatar of Jim Glass Jim Glass
    29. July 2012 at 00:01

    Some opinions are better than others, but no opinions are more worthless than older people (like me) offering their opinion on the younger generation.

    I am just about your age and esteem your opinions highly, especially about the younger generation. As I esteem my own about my three kids and all their damn… never mind.

    As I relentlessly tell my children in the futile hope they will ever listen, experience is the source of wisdom, and our amount of experience seems about the optimum. If I can’t remember what it was like to be young, I can at least remember when I could remember. While they have no idea what it’s like to be slipping into early dementia wise through experience, so one up for our side.

  13. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    29. July 2012 at 04:39

    Scott, right on to another of my pet subjects, population predictions, density, urbanism… all full of myths. I’m with you and fairly optimistic on it all, globally speaking. The English countryside btw is the model of a mixed-use landscape that preserves a lot of the natural species alongside human activities. To expand on this, in academia there are two competing conservationist visions, one of mixed use coexistence, and the other of clear separation between human and “pristine” and unpopulated reserve areas. Most conservationists prefer the nature reserve model, I prefer the mixed use model.

    “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.”

    Not just England. Once again taking Austria since I have more insights there. Pop. growth was not quite as high as in the UK but not bad either, about 5% over the last decade, much of it through immigration (about 19% of residents are foreign born). And Austria isn’t even particularly foreigner-friendly. Recent data, 2011 pop. growth 0.4%, jobs growth 1.5% and btw, NGDP +5% RGDP +2.7%. It may not be Asia but it’s not stagnating either.

  14. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    29. July 2012 at 05:10

    Scott, England beats Wisconsin because of the climate. Not only is Wisconsin colder, but the western part is prairie and oak savanna, whereas England’s topography is wetter and more lush. Well, that is how I see it. Though I wonder how much of English charms are cultural? We see Englishmen wearing wool sweaters and caps and think rustic charms while we see Wisconsinites wearing jeans and Green Bay Packers t-shirts as trashy?

  15. Gravatar of RebelEconomist RebelEconomist
    29. July 2012 at 09:04

    Another weekend post that is surprisingly connected with your normal output, Scott.

    One reason why the England that you have seen looks nice is the never-ending rent-seeking battle for housing advantage in Britain. Those who have a nice house fight like hell to retain their position, hence very restrictive planning regulations that keep the nice places looking a picture, and dump on less influential places – go to a poor edge of London suburb like Thamesmead or a Manchester district like Wythenshawe, and it does not look so nice. People borrow heavily to chase their dream, and those already living the dream want to keep it, leading to a strong constituency to keep interest rates down and house prices high. Besides diverting energy away from building productive wealth like capital and skills, thirty years of indulging this constituency has created a situation where house prices are unsustainably high given where interest rates would need to be for the BoE to meet its inflation target. The economic authorities are therefore desperate to change the monetary policy framework to avoid being forced to upset people. This is where you come in, Scott. NGDP targeting offers the British authorities just such an escape route, and I would not be surprised if they take it.

    I know less about the US, but it seems to me that stocks are the vehicle of choice to easy affluence there. I dare say there are many middle aged, middle class Americans who are hoping that stock capital gains will carry them to a comfortable retirement with the minimal need to make sacrifices to save. They are, however, disappointed with the recent performance of the stock market and would welcome any stimulus that boosts stocks. Only you can say, Scott, whether that is part of your motivation, sub-consciously or not, for advocating NGDP targeting in the US.

  16. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    29. July 2012 at 10:08

    It seems like cities in the US are so densely populated because there are so many fat people here.

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. July 2012 at 17:52

    Everyone, Good points.

    Rebeleconomist, I believe I would personally benefit from monetary stimulus, but not all that much. Since I don’t expect to impact policy, the possibility of personal gains are certainly not why I spend 8 hours a day blogging.

    I would add that I expect borrowers and lenders, workers and capitalists, to all gain from monetary stimulus.

  18. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    29. July 2012 at 23:39

    Scott, one small sideline: Why do you call your idea “monetary stimulus”? Your idea does not call for stimulus. It calls for the systematic stabilization of monetary throughput in the whole economy (a flow variable) by continuous adjustment of the quantity of money (a stock variable) based on the forecasted need for it. Or so I understand it. While this is clearly different from the idea of keeping the stock variable constant (gold standard), it is not an ad hoc stimulus that you advocate. You advocate to keep the money flow systematically growing instead of the stock. That is the big idea here, not some kind of discretionary “stimulus”. Or am I missing something?

  19. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    30. July 2012 at 00:33


    I believe I would personally benefit from monetary stimulus, but not all that much.

    The central bankers and their friends must absolutely adore you. Not only can they gain at your expense, but you even believe that you benefit.

    I am rather impressed at how well they have people fooled. They finance universities that teach students the alleged benefits of monopoly counterfeiting, and those students then go out and continue the tradition of “educating” the masses. It should not be surprising that central bankers are such huge financiers of the economics profession. Why not print money to get the intellectuals on your side? The state thugs protect the money monopolist, and the money monopolist finances both the state thugs and the intelligentsia, all at the expense of the more vulnerable and powerless voters and taxpayers.

    I am almost afraid to ask, but how do you perceive yourself to benefit when others print money for themselves and their friends? How do you benefit when your cash and income is devalued? Your interests cannot be material per se. They must be something akin to recognition, like being told you’re a good boy, kind of like how a worker in a gulag seeks to gain recognition from the commissaries.

  20. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    30. July 2012 at 00:41


    Everyone, Good points.

    Since you did not append the typical “except Major_Freedom of course”, then does that mean you think I made good points? If so, then uh oh, that is not good. I’ll probably have to rethink what I said.

    Could you say “except Major_Freedom of course” so that I can get back to being as sure as before that I am on the right track? It would mean a lot. Thanks a bunch.

  21. Gravatar of Octahedron Octahedron
    30. July 2012 at 07:59


    Most established people living in suburbs would probably just buy a hybrid or more fuel efficient car to relieve the pain of a higher carbon tax, but what about people renting or younger people looking to buy? It might be more efficient for them to continue renting or buy a less than desirable home closer to work to make their commute shorter. The trend recently has been for younger people to choose to live closer to more density compared to the previous generation.

    Of course this brings up another issue: US policy favors dispersing density(inadequate transportation, tax deductions for mortgage and not rent, tax subsidies artificially keeping gas prices low,etc..). People would much rather live in a suburb than pay a little bit more to live in a denser environment because their standard of living might be a little bit better compared to a place like England.

  22. Gravatar of bob bob
    30. July 2012 at 08:49

    Population density? I thought I was reading Yglesias for a moment.

    Weather is a factor when it comes to how pleasant a city feels, just see how many people in the UK bought homes in Spain, with its California weather. The population density there is askewed by the agrucultural seas of Castille.

    NowNow Spain shows the regulatory influence on sprawl like no other. The 90s brought laws that made building very easy, so Spaniards built, making the southern coast look awful in the process. But Spain kept building as tall as usual, due to very subdued limitations on building height.

    Compare that to the limits on US suburbia. Would we really have the same huge suburbs if minimum plot sizes and parking spots didn’t force the low population density on us?

  23. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. July 2012 at 17:00

    mbk, I favor a non-discretionary regime, that’s right. But we don’t have that regime. Under the current discretionary regime I favor easier money right now. Stimulus.

    Octahedron, I agree.

    Bob, I suppose we’d have a mix, a people have different preferences.

  24. Gravatar of Green space and overcrowding within urban areas – Urban, city, town planning, land use, zoning, transportation and transit, environmental issues, urban design, community development, subdivisions, revitalization – City-Data Forum Green space and overcrowding within urban areas - Urban, city, town planning, land use, zoning, transportation and transit, environmental issues, urban design, community development, subdivisions, revitalization - City-Data Forum
    1. August 2012 at 12:17

    […] […]

  25. Gravatar of Mars Mars
    30. August 2012 at 06:12

    “Green and pleasant land” is a clue here. This is One World, Communist code-speak. The plain fact is that they have said aloud their plan to crash the First World economies to make room for the Fourth World, the Global Government of the Elite Few with us, humanity, in greatly reduced numbers, being their psychotronically-controlled minions and sheeples. Don’t fall for it. It is not in your interest.

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