Europe’s cities are becoming more crowded—that’s a good thing | Popgen Tech
Cities are unpredictable places. Not just in the hustle and bustle of dusty street corners, but over time itself. Take Leipzig for example. Once the fifth largest city in Germany, it plunged into sharp decline after German reunification in 1990. Residents left the city in droves and decamped to new developments outside the city limits. By the year 2000, one in five houses in the city stood empty.
And then everything changed. In the new millennium, the German economy began to gather steam and jobs flowed back to the center of Leipzig. Those once vacant properties were demolished to make way for new housing developments. As new immigrants chose to make their homes closer to the heart of the city, Leipzig’s suburban sprawl began to contract again. Today, it is one of the fastest growing cities in Germany, adding about 2 percent to its population every year.
Leipzig’s rags-to-riches transformation has been dramatic, but it is just one sign of an urban renaissance taking place across the continent. After decades of slowly creeping outward with the creation of new suburban commuter belts, Europe’s cities are becoming denser again—and in the process offer a potential boon for the environment and our well-being. American cities, take note.
Between the 1970s and early 21st century, most cities went through a period of what urban planners call densification. Think of it as middle-aged sprawl: As societies became more affluent and car-based, low-density housing developments on the outskirts of cities offered larger homes for people who wanted more space but were still within driving distance of work and shops. The growth of suburbs was the dominant trend for most cities around the world in the second half of the 20th century, says Chiara Cortinovis, an urban planning researcher at Berlin’s Humboldt University.
When Cortinovis mapped the density trends of 331 European cities between 2006 and 2018, this is exactly the pattern she observed for the first half of that period. Sixty percent of the cities she studied became less dense between 2006 and 2012. But in the next six years, this dynamic suddenly reversed. Between 2012 and 2018, only a third of the cities in the sample were continuously gentrifying, and almost all of those cities were either in Eastern Europe or Iberia where city populations are mostly shrinking while suburbs continue to expand. Instead, the picture across the majority of central, northern and western Europe showed cities becoming denser. Populations grew, but most of these people did not move into suburban homes with garden plots and double garages. They moved into the city center.
Cortinovis was surprised by how clear these results were. European cities have grown steadily in population size while barely growing in terms of their overall urban footprints. And it wasn’t just in cities like Leipzig that experienced an exodus of residents in previous decades. “This also happens in cities with a long-term growing trend,” says Cortinovis places like London, Stockholm and Naples. “This means that these cities do have some capacity to absorb newcomers.”
As cities become denser, this means that these new people must live on land that has already been developed within the city limits. Most likely, this is due to a combination of vacant lots being filled, more people living in shared apartments and condos, and existing downtown land being converted to denser housing. While this inner-city densification took place, the development of natural or agricultural land on the outskirts of cities slowed dramatically.