BBC BLOGS - Mark Easton's UK
« Previous | Main | Next »

England's legacy as an urbanised society

Post categories:

Mark Easton | 18:28 UK time, Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The National Statistician Karen Dunnell prompts me to re-open our recent discussion on crowded Britain.

Crowds of people in streetEngland, her figures suggest, is once again the most densely populated country in Europe.

I say "once again" because our place at or near the top of European population density tables has been maintained for roughly 200 years.

As birth-place of the Industrial Revolution, Britain stole a march on our continental neighbours. English population increased by 187% between 1770 and 1870 while most other European countries saw population increase by only 79%.

The towns of Liverpool and Manchester became gigantic cities as average incomes more than doubled. In 1845 Friedrich Engels noted how in a century the country around Manchester had been transformed from a swamp into "the most densely populated strip of country in England".

Britain was witnessing urbanisation on a scale that the population could barely comprehend. The contribution of farming to the nation's output fell from about half to just under a fifth as the steam-driven factories took over.

And it is our level of urbanisation that explains why it is that Britain in general, but England in particular, has such a high population density compared to other countries. Our industrial endeavours created an urban landscape that has remained unmatched by other nations.

The United Nations Populations Division has a nifty website that allows you to compare the urban-rural ratios in almost every country on earth.

If you look at major European countries you can see how the UK has led the urbanisation table for decades.


1950 2005
UK 79% 90%
GERMANY 68% 73%
FRANCE 55% 77%

When we talk about population density, we are really talking about urbanisation - a global phenomenon that, according to some clever statisticians, saw the majority of the world's people living in cities on 23 May last year. On that day, a predicted global urban population of 3,303,992,253 apparently exceeded that of 3,303,866,404 rural people.

Now, I mention all this because the discussion about population density has become bound up with debate about immigration. Internal migration is currently the principal cause of population growth in the UK and one of the arguments deployed by those who want greater restrictions on immigration is that Britain (or more specifically England) is already too crowded.

I have written about this before and I know both immigrants and overcrowding inspire deep passions.

The issues, I think, deserve to be separated. Urban centres can thrive on very high population densities - cities like Barcelona have a much higher density than even London. Infrastructure needs to reflect demand but, assuming the extra population generates wealth, this is clearly feasible.

Intelligent regeneration and development has brought many English cities to life in recent years and demand for urban living has seen people clamouring to live in these densely populated communities.

Historically high levels of immigration pose important economic and social questions but I remain unpersuaded that we cannot cope with the extra people. We are and have long been a highly urbanised country, an historical legacy that has helped maintain our status as a global power.


or register to comment.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.