It’s not just because they’re old.
Which city do you think is more dense: Paris or New York City?
That’s the question posed by the latest video from Wendover Productions, the folks who render addictively tidy explanations for complex transportation, geography, and legal matters.
After their recent video on why American trains are such a pain, Wendover is channeling their inner urbanist once again to tackle density—specifically, why European cities pack so many more people into their urban cores.
Oops, spoiler alert: The answer is Paris. The French capital has 56,000 people per square mile while NYC, the most densely settled U.S. metropolis, has only 27,000 people per square mile. In fact, old New Amsterdam would only come in sixth on a European density ranking—equal to Lyon, France and below Athens, Barcelona, Monaco, and Frederiksberg.
The big reasons? Age, not surprisingly. Paris and other European cities developed around Medieval transit technology, when walkability was at a much greater premium and wealthiest lived in the urban core. New World urban settlement patterns were largely shaped by faster transportation: first trains, then streetcars, and then private cars. Thus the rise of railroad towns for affluent commuters, streetcar suburbs, and finally the auto-centric sprawl of 1950s America.
Even European cities that developed after these transit technologies typically opted for Old World density, as in Germany’s post-war rebuilding. To explain why, the video offers other factors, from high gas prices and low urban crime rates that kept central cities attractive to residents to generous farming subsidies that preserved nearby land for agricultural use. It’s an ten-minute crash-course in Euro-urbanism, basically. Worth a look as you drive back to your sprawl-riddled suburb. Same as it ever was; same as it ever was.
This feature originally appeared in Citylab.