Urban Legend: Why Are European Cities so Much Denser than American Ones?


At a glance, it seems obvious New York City would be more densely populated than Paris, but in fact the reverse is true: New York has only half the population density of its French competitor. In Europe, too, rich people tend to live in the hearts of cities, not in their suburbs as they often do in the United States. This fantastic short video will take you through the reasons for these differentials in just ten minutes:

Most people attribute this to the age differential — young American cities are much younger. Europeans walking to work preferred and paid a premium for proximity (and to live on lower floors before the advent of elevators). A similar effect can be found in small towns: villagers would walk to work in fields. And this is part of the story, but per the video above (and text below) there are other forces at work in the modern age.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., railroads took time to get up to speed, making it easy to build suburbs further out and not just adjacent to cities. Streetcars in turn created upper-middle-class suburbs closer into town. Finally, the automobile filled in the gaps between railroad and streetcar lines.

But why didn’t European cities experience a similar trend? In part, ones that were damaged during in world wars generally rebuilt the way they had been, and the rest kept their legacies of density throughout.

There is also the history of crime: violent urban crime drove those who could afford it out of the hearts of cities. Rural land is also cheaper in the U.S. thanks for fewer farm subsidies, making it easier for developers to buy and build remotely.

Cheaper energy costs also drive car ownership state-side, reducing motivation to locate homes close to work. Energy prices also mean that heating huge suburban homes in America is much more affordable. But these commutes are linked to higher anxiety and the trend is reversing, bringing the rich back into cities.