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An Incredibly Detailed Map of Europe's Population Shifts

The map provides a level of detail previously unavailable. It is the first-ever to collect data published by all of Europe’s municipalities.

Jun 22, 2015

Since the turn of the millennium, Europe has been undergoing some pretty intense demographic change. Just how intense—and intricate—this change has been revealed in a new map created by Germany’s BBSR, the country’s Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development.

The BBSR collected data between 2001 and 2011. While that might sound slightly outdated, these are actually the most up-to-date figures Europe has to offer, as 2011 is the most recent year for which comprehensive population data is available for the whole of Europe. According to its makers, the map provides a level of detail previously unavailable, as it is the first ever to collect data published by all of Europe’s municipalities. 

The results are impressively comprehensive and reveal a few surprises.

The map works as follows: 

Dark blue patches show an average annual population fall of 2 percent or more, the medium blue patches a fall of between 1 and 2 percent, and the lightest blue patches a fall of up to 1 percent. 

Areas in beige have experienced no statistically significant change, while the red areas show population growth. 

Municipalities in deep red have experienced an average annual population rise of 2 percent or more, the medium red of between 1 and 2 percent, and the pale pink areas of up to 1 percent. 

The different sizes of each colored shape, meanwhile, show the radically different sizes of municipal units across the continent—large in the Baltic States, Turkey, and Northern Scandinavia, but far smaller in Ireland, Greece, and the Czech Republic.

A close reading of the map shows some key trends.

Suburbanization intensifies in Eastern Europe

Look at the Eastern section of the map and you’ll see that many cities, including Prague, Bucharest, and the Polish cities of Poznań and Wrocław, are ringed with a deep red circle that shows a particularly high rise in average annual population of 2 percent or more.

 As this paper from Krakow’s Jagiellonian University’s Institute of Geography notes, Eastern cities began to spread out in the new millennium because it was their first chance to do so in decades.

During the Communist era, a lack of private construction companies and capital put a damper on the building of single-family homes, a restriction that continued to have effects in the early years of capitalism thanks to rapidly shrinking economies and a resulting lack of cash across the region. 

As the economic shock gradually subsided and more capital flooded into these regions, the beginning of this century saw many cities loosening their belts and spreading out.

Still leaving the East

We already know from other available data that Europe is experiencing a migration to the northwest, but the BBSR map adds complexity to this picture and reveals some interesting micro-trends. 

The dark blue coloring of the map’s Eastern section shows that the lean years for Eastern states are by no means over. 

Residents have continued to leave Albania, Bulgaria and Latvia in particular in search of jobs, while even relatively wealthy eastern Germany has been hollowed out almost everywhere except the Berlin region.

Population growth in the Northwest, meanwhile, is far from even. 

While large sections of Northern Scandinavia’s inland are losing people, there’s still modest growth on the Arctic coasts. And while the Scottish Highlands contain some the least peopled lands in all of Europe, Scotland’s Northeast shows remarkable population gains, a likely result of the North Sea oil industry concentrated in Aberdeen.

On the other side of Europe, the map reveals Turkey as a country undergoing intense demographic ferment. As people leave its countryside and move to its major cities and coasts, the country is transformed into a vivid mosaic that arguably shows more intense rises and falls than any other on the map.

Spain bucks the trend

Spain’s trends look a little different from those of Europe as a whole. It’s actually in the country’s Northwest where the population has dropped most sharply, notably in the provinces of Galicia and León, which have long been known to produce many of Spain’s migrants.

But other previously impoverished regions, such as Southwestern Murcia, have grown, a trend continuing along the Mediterranean coast where population levels have risen sharply. 

One reason for this is that the coasts are magnets for retiring or downsizing northwestern Europeans who move here on the hunt for daily sunshine and low prices.

This post has been updated to clarify that the BBSR map reflects average annual population change.

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