Why are US urban areas more spread out (as in, less dense) than European urban areas are?

Futurist

Ad Honoris
May 2014
21,029
SoCal
#1
Why are US urban areas more spread out (as in, less dense) than European urban areas are?

This article provides some possible explanations of this:

Are Europe’s Cities Better?

However, I want to hear as to what all of you think in regards to this.

Also, here's an interactive world population density map. You could explore Europe and the US on this map (by zooming in on this map) to see what exactly I mean in regards to US urban areas being more spread out:

Mapping Population Density Across the Globe

Anyway, any thoughts on this?

Also, as a side question, what do you think that it would have taken for European urban areas to have become as spread out as US urban areas are?
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,298
Dispargum
#3
Cost of real estate. As with all prices, it's determined by the supply of land and the demand for land. The high population and smaller land mass of Europe means that land costs more so people buy smaller plots. People prefer space and buy larger plots if they can afford it, but most Europeans are lucky to have any kind of lawn or garden around their homes.
 

Futurist

Ad Honoris
May 2014
21,029
SoCal
#4
Shrink the US down to the size of Belgium.
Not all European countries are as tightly populated as Belgium, though.

Cost of real estate. As with all prices, it's determined by the supply of land and the demand for land. The high population and smaller land mass of Europe means that land costs more so people buy smaller plots. People prefer space and buy larger plots if they can afford it, but most Europeans are lucky to have any kind of lawn or garden around their homes.
That's an excellent point, but what about European countries with a low population density? I'm specifically talking about Eastern Europe here:

 
Aug 2016
977
US&A
#5
I suspect having very old cities may have something to do with it. The lack of automobiles meant people could travel in much smaller areas, albeit over shorter distances. Walls are expensive, and the necessity of walling large cities meant that space inside was limited. I am not sure how much urban planning typically went into medieval cities, but I suspect it wasn't much. These factors probably contributed to the current differences.

That said, the USA does have a lot of space. Wyoming only has 6 people per square mile. Alaska has even less. I believe there are still "homesteading" laws in a few states where if you live on some property for a certain amount of time, it becomes yours.
 
Likes: Futurist

Futurist

Ad Honoris
May 2014
21,029
SoCal
#6
I suspect having very old cities may have something to do with it. The lack of automobiles meant people could travel in much smaller areas, albeit over shorter distances. Walls are expensive, and the necessity of walling large cities meant that space inside was limited. I am not sure how much urban planning typically went into medieval cities, but I suspect it wasn't much. These factors probably contributed to the current differences.
Can't walls be torn down? Also, even if walls still remain, can't cities still expand beyond them? After all, it's not like European cities have to worry about Mongol raiders nowadays--now do they? ;)

That said, the USA does have a lot of space. Wyoming only has 6 people per square mile. Alaska has even less. I believe there are still "homesteading" laws in a few states where if you live on some property for a certain amount of time, it becomes yours.
Yeah, but so do parts of Eastern Europe, such as Russia, Belarus, and the Baltic countries.
 
Aug 2016
977
US&A
#7
Can't walls be torn down? Also, even if walls still remain, can't cities still expand beyond them? After all, it's not like European cities have to worry about Mongol raiders nowadays--now do they? ;)
They can, but what was inside the walls still remains there until it's torn down. The plots of land will remain the same unless someone buys multiple ones and merges them. The roads remain the same unless you're willing to disrupt many many things by widening or rerouting them. I don't doubt that cities in Europe could spread out more, but that process takes time. A city is an ecosystem and it's not easy to change things without heavily disrupting daily life, not to mention the expense involved.

Yeah, but so do parts of Eastern Europe, such as Russia, Belarus, and the Baltic countries.
I looked up Belarus, it has 120 people per sq. Mile. Sure there are places in Europe that have low pop. Density, but they aren't as common, and traveling between European countries is usually not as easy as traveling between US states.
 
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Futurist

Ad Honoris
May 2014
21,029
SoCal
#8
They can, but what was inside the walls still remains there until it's torn down. The plots of land will remain the same unless someone buys multiple ones and merges them. The roads remain the same unless you're willing to disrupt many many things by widening or rerouting them. I don't doubt that cities in Europe could spread out more, but that process takes time. A city is an ecosystem and it's not easy to change things without heavily disrupting daily life, not to mention the expense involved.
That's an excellent point. The interior of the city will remain dense even if less dense suburbs are constructed around it.

I looked up Belarus, it has 120 people per sq. Mile. Sure there are places in Europe that have low pop. Density, but they aren't as common, and traveling between European countries is usually not as easy as traveling between US states.
Belarus's population density isn't particularly high by US standards. Indeed, a lot of US states have a comparable or even higher population density:

 

Grimald

Ad Honorem
Nov 2011
5,906
Hercynian Forest
#9
First of all, not all American cities are less dense than European cities. There is much variation within the United States: For example, New York City and Philadelpia are very different from Houston or Los Angeles. And not every European city is as dense as Paris, Barcelona or Naples (and even those cities have considerable urban sprawl around them).

Having said this, the general phenomenon that you describe is certainly true. There are several reasons for that.

The most important one is the different effect the automobile had on American and European cities from the 1940s onwards. The United States was the most wealthy country after WWII, and it was the first country where a significant part of the population could afford a car. Also, the automobile was integrated into the ideology of the American Dream and was understood as an expression of unlimited mobility and freedom.

There was a conscious policy in the United States of the 1950s to promote the usage of automobiles versus that of public transport, which resulted for example in the building of the interstate highway system and many local highways that completely changed the fabric of American cities.

There was also an increase in crime in American inner cities, which accelerated this development. Many middle-class families moved out of the inner cities to the new, safer suburbs.

However, in Europe there was a similar parallel development. The difference was that Europe after WWII was much less wealthy, so the new suburbs did not predominantly consist of single-family detached houses, but denser multi-family residential dwellings. Also, in many European countries, this development set in later, and the rebuilding of the cities into car-friendly spaces with urban highways was less pronounced, not least because there were still huge parts of the population that could not afford a car and were in need of public transport.

If the urban planners had had unlimited resources, cities in a number of European countries today would probably very much look like American cities. They also dreamt of car-friendly urban spaces, garden cities, low-density residential areas, and most importantly, the functional separation of the different parts of a city (e.g. separation of residential areas, where people would live, and industrial or business areas, where people would work).
 

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
13,758
#10
The US is almost the size of Europe but still has 60% less population..... Historically this delta was even more, for example in 1900 the population of Europe was about 400 mio, that of the US some 76 mio or about 5 times less... In 1950 it was 550 mio for Europ and about 150 mio for the states....
 

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