European Cities Act on Density

The sprawling mass of suburbia has been a disaster for the environment. But now smaller, denser cities herald a renaissance in city living.

Read Time: 2 minutes

November 20, 2022, 5:00 AM PST

By Todd Litman


The  Rue Sainte-Catherine in Bordeaux is crowded with pedestrians in a lively European scene.

Superbass / Wikimedia Commons

“Between the 1970s and early 21st century, most cities went through a period of what urban planners call de-densification. Think of it as middle-aged spread: As societies became more affluent and car-based, low-density housing developments on the outskirts of cities provided larger homes for people who wanted more space but to still be within driving distance of jobs and shops. The growth of suburbia was the predominant trend for most cities all over the world in the second half of the 20th century, says Chiara Cortinovis, an urban planning researcher at Humboldt University of Berlin,” writes Matt Reynolds for Wired.

“When Cortinovis charted the density trends of 331 European cities between 2006 and 2018, that’s exactly the pattern she observed for the first half of that time period. Sixty percent of the cities she studied got less dense between 2006 and 2012. But in the following six years this dynamic suddenly flipped. Between 2012 and 2018, only a third of the cities in the sample were constantly de-densifying, and almost all of those cities were either in eastern Europe or Iberia where city populations are mostly shrinking while suburbia keeps expanding. Instead the picture across the majority of central, northern, and western Europe showed that cities were getting denser. Populations were growing, but most of these people weren’t moving into suburban homes with garden plots and double garages. They were moving into the inner city.”

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