Urban Geography: Why We Live Where We Do


This is Wendover Productions. Sponsored by the Great Courses Plus. Here’s an interesting question: which city
do you think is more dense—Paris, France or New York, United States? It probably seems obvious: New York, the land
of skyscrapers, the Big Apple… right? Wrong. New York, in fact, has a population density
of less than half that of Paris. Paris’s is 56,000 people per square mile
(22,000 per square kilometer) while New York’s is only 27,000 people per square mile (10,500
per square kilometer.) To find a European city with a comparable
population density to New York’s—the densest American city—you have to go all the way
down to number six on the list: Lyon France (27,000 per sq/mile; 10,500 per sq/km.) New York of course has a super-dense urban
core, but then around it is miles and miles of suburbia—just like almost every other
American city. Paris, on the other hand, packs almost its
entire population into a compact urban core. There’s also another interesting pattern
that differs between the two continents: rich Americans live outside the city, rich Europeans
live city center. Compare the income map of Paris to that of
Philadelphia. Of course it’s not perfect, but you can
definitely see a pattern. The most commonly cited reason for both these
trends is the difference in age. Most European cities have existed for hundreds
if not thousands of years, while all but a few American cities only gathered enough population
to be called cities in the past one or two hundred years. What that means is that European cities existed
when all but the super-rich had to commute to work by foot. In the middle ages, Paris had a population
of two to three hundred thousand people, but you could walk from one side to the other
in thirty minutes. It was incredibly densely populated. You just had to live within walking distance
of work. Therefore, the rich paid more for the houses
closest to the center of the city. This is a similar reason to why in historic
European hotels, you’ll often see the nicest and largest rooms on the lower floors—the
opposite of what you’d see today. Before elevators existed, the rich didn’t
want to have to walk up as many flights of stairs. Walking distance was not only important to
big cities. Small villages across Europe were almost always
the same size because their population was dictated by the walkability of the surrounding
fields. European farmers tended to live in small towns
and walk to their fields during the day rather than the homesteading approach used in America. Therefore, villages would only be as large
as the amount of people needed to work the fields within walking distance. American cities, on the other hand, began
their period of rapid growth in a more modern era when decentralizing technologies were
much more advanced. By the time North American cities grew larger
than the distance people could reasonably walk, there was already the technological
capability to create public transportation systems. The first major public transportation innovation
was the steam train in the mid 19th century. This was a very expensive means of transport
and was therefore only for the super rich. Interestingly, because steam trains take an
enormous amount of time to reach speed, the towns that the rich commuted from, known as
railroad suburbs, were generally not just at the nearest bit of countryside, but separated
from the city by a few miles of countryside. The impact of railroad suburbs remains today. On the track of the old Philadelphia Main
Line, there’s a stretch of super-rich communities with huge estates and country clubs from Ardmore
to Malvern. The demographics just never changed from the
time of the railroad suburb. A few decades later, streetcars emerged and
quickly became an instrumental part of the American commute. Much like steam trains, streetcars also created
new communities—this time with slightly less rich upper-middle class individuals. In Washington DC, the wealthy suburbs of Tenleytown,
Chevy Chase, Bethesda, McLean, Rockville, and more all grew as a result of the streetcar. But once again, walking distance influenced
geography. Streetcar commuters had to live within walking
distance of a stop, so naturally there would be a radius of civilization about 20 or 30
minutes walking distance from a stop, then past that…nothing. That meant that between the lines, there was
all this open space where nobody could commute from. Enter: the automobile. At first the car was only for upper class
individuals especially with the distraction of the two World Wars and Great Depression,
however, by the time young Americans returned from World War Two, there had been enough
technological advances to make the automobile affordable for the middle class. Over 50% of households had cars by 1950. At the same time, the government was offering
loans to returning veterans which significantly increased the number of americans who could
afford to buy homes. Instead of buying a small central city home,
this generation opted to use their new cars to commute from cheaper, nicer, and larger
suburban homes. The idea was that the working parents would
go downtown each day while the rest of the family would stay to enjoy the suburb. It was the perfect deal. So that whole history was absolutely true,
but it doesn’t entirely explain why European cities didn’t experience suburbanization as
well. In Germany, for example, many, if not most,
cities were bombed to rubble during World War Two. They had the opportunity to rebuild in any
way they wanted, but then chose to keep their compact design. Today, the average metropolitan population
density in Germany is four times higher than the US’s. At the same time, other cities across Europe
that survived the war experienced enormous population influxes and still maintained their
mammoth population densities. Perhaps the least commonly cited reason for
suburbanization in the US is crime. It’s a bit of an ugly period in American
history that we sometimes forget, but crime levels were absolutely insane in the 70’s,
80’s, and 90’s. There are a ton of different theories for
why this was—perhaps the most interesting being the that the rise in gasoline emitted
lead caused lower IQ’s and higher aggressively. New York had an astronomical 2,245 murders
in 1990. London didn’t even have that many in the
entire 90’s decade. Violent crime rates are still consistently
10 or more times higher in the US. In 1992, a poll was conducted asking departing
New Yorkers why they were moving to the suburbs, and the most commonly cited reason was crime
at 47%. Cost and quality of living were way down at
lower than 10% each. Crime rates are significantly lower in suburbs
as they are typically havens for higher-income individuals. Europeans don’t have to worry as much about
inter-city crime so they’re much more willing to live downtown. Land for suburban housing is also readily
available in the US because farmers have always been quick to sell their relatively unprofitable
land to developers. By contrast, In France, for example, agricultural
subsidies are 12 times higher per acre of land than the US. That’s a big reason why large European cities
are still closely surrounded by small farms. In many European cities, you can literally
take the city bus to farms. Lastly, all sorts of energy are cheaper in
the US. A gallon of gas costs as much as $7 in some
parts of Europe compared to the US average of $2.20. It’s significantly more expensive to commute
by car in Europe so there’s more motivation to live closer to work where either the drive
is shorter or you can take public transportation. Also, big suburban homes aren’t as attractive
in Europe because electricity and heating costs are higher. Suburban life really didn’t live up to expectations. Americans now spend an average of 4.25 hours
per week sitting in cars, buses, or trains traveling to and from work. That’s 2.5% of their entire lives. It’s also been scientifically proven that
commuting from the suburbs is linked to higher blood pressure, lower frustration tolerance,
and higher rates of anxiety. Also, the suburbs are no longer the countryside
havens that they once were. They’re just a continuation of the urban
sprawl. Rich Americans are therefore beginning to
return to the city. With lower crime rates, higher fuel costs,
and an overall shift in attitude, urban cores are having a second renaissance. So that’s why we live where we do. It’s a complicated, controversial, and surprisingly
political history. I hope you enjoyed this Wendover Production
video. I first need to thank my amazing sponsor—the
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Reader Comments

  1. Joshua Baruch

    To be honest, as European I also commute 5 hours a week (okay, it includes 1h40m cycling, but still) and I think a lot of people in the world do. That's 30 minutes to and from work. That doesn't include delays or extra commuting I have to do to go to different locations for example. I find that fact very blown up.

  2. Charles Yeo

    The suburb idea turned out to be a terrible idea. Living in cities is way better than living in suburbs. Who wants to drive 1 to 2 hours or more a day to go to the city to work? EVERY DAY

  3. Colin Sutherland

    Many of those streetcar suburbs became low income neighborhoods because motorways demolished poorer neighborhoods, streetcar suburbs became integrated, and white people left because they were racist

  4. Colin Sutherland

    This fueled suburbanization and poverty in older streetcar suburbs as racist property owners dumped their houses for lower prices

  5. Dzingis Han

    i live in a little medival city in Poland(Darłowo 16thousands citizen), i have plenty od friend in US and Canada. Except that we earn much less than in America, from that what my friends say i live in PARADISE, the standard of living is high, crime almost does not exist. I wanted to emigrate becouse of my earnings but i will never do it becouse my friends made me realize that if i will move to America i will lost a lot!
    and this is this moment when i am so proud of my country p.s sorry for my english

  6. CHARGE !

    This comment is really quite late but I realized a few things after watching this video for the 5th time.

    1. Americans have stupid amounts of land. (The gov used to give it out for free!)
    2. Metropolitan areas (i.e NY and LA) or so expensive that cause the rich to move in and the poor to move out.
    3. Homelessness isn't as big of an issue in Europe as it is in America (Relates to previous point)
    4. America has HUGE roads compared to Europe, making it harder to compact more people in the city center.
    5. Manifest destiny really created a lot of rural American settlements.
    6. Look at a population distribution map of the U.S Most of us aren't even close to the major American cities.

  7. Mohamed Osama

    I fucking love this
    If you make a 72 hour video going more in depth in the subject I swear to God you I'd happily watch it
    I want more of this subject, more content, make a dozen documentaried about this

  8. Grant Cooper

    I live in a prairie province of canada. It is very hard for cities and towns to expand since if they want to grow there is a long process taking large fields of rich black soil and replacing it with grey soil.

  9. DareWolfRL - Small channel, pls sub to support

    4.2hrs per week in travel time? Come to London. I used to travel 3hrs per day to work somewhere 8 miles from me.

  10. judepeixoto

    Canadians spend much more than four hours a week in transit. I myself probably spend up to 15 just because depending on where you are things are so spread out.

  11. Akseli Larikka

    The difference in gas prices in Europe and USA comes from the fact that in USA gas is sold by the gallon but in Europe it is sold by the litre. One gallon equals to almost 4 litres.

  12. survivaltest 370

    7:20 "in many European cities you can litteraly take the bus […]"
    Shows fucking Edinburgh xD
    I think noone called this tiny town a city before ! What's next , the city of diss?

  13. Christanna Choi

    Yeah the rich is also moving back to downtown Toronto (aka the nyc of Canada basically) there are new buildings being built by the dozens that starts at $50,000-$8,000,000

  14. Katie Buonpane

    The first minute of this is just false. Also if the surrounding city’s of NYC in Jersey are as dense as Paris. Hoboken is 55k in one square mile.

  15. Ire Min Mon

    Honestly, medieval European villages are the best.

    Living in European city is bad enough. I can't imagine being forced to live in an American city.

  16. Daniel Rothschild

    Rich Americans never really left the city, suburbs were usually filled by middle class not upper class people. Also I noticed how you totally failed to mention horses as a means of transport, and whereas in Europe I could believe they were largely relegated to the wealthy certainly in the US they were obtainable for the middle and lower classes albiet expensive but usually not cost prohibitive (similar though obviously not the same to an automobile), so its not like only the wealthy could have lived in suburbs. Also you omitted other aspects of living in a suburb like better schools, lower taxes and smaller populations which mean greater represantation in local government and comunity institutions like community watch and so on. I'm not saying suburbs are the perfect place to live but don't present them like they are a broken system that rich people fled to with their taxe dollars to escape crime and caused urban blight. Urban blight is usually caused by a failure of municipal policy makers to make laws that encourage growth, and is often correlated to a populace that persistently refuses to hold their lawmakers mayors accountable for thier failure to produce growth. So it is only natural that large segments of the population who do not feel the city is being run corectly and that they are paying enormous tax rates and get very little public services or quality of living increases that they would normally expect, would decide to leave the city and move to a community where they feel represented, and which often have unquestionably higher standards of living, in terms of low crime, low taxes and more comunity support plus cheap land and big houses, would choose not to support a city they see as failing . You are getting angry at the middle class population for leaving cities but are failing to fully understand why they leave in the first place. Cities are like Companies, they more people they are able to meet the needs of the more people come in live there, and if cities really wanted to stop the flow of people out of cities they might look at some of the changes the suburbs have made to the community model, but then again that might not be in the interests of the people that are still living there in who have a right to not want to bow down to the suburbians in the same way the suburbians have a right to leave the city.

  17. David Kubánek

    Also interesting how cultural attitudes could contribute to this. Of course, culture is also shaped by the very same economic and political elements mentioned so difficult to establish causality

  18. JoseitoEdlVodao

    Dinesh D'Souza says this income distribution is due to the Democrats "inner city" projects to keep voters dependant on them. I'd like to see an alternative explanations.
    https://youtu.be/aQSxPzafO_k?t=72

  19. Aram

    The beginning of this video is honestly pretty misleading, New York really is more dense than Paris. The reason why the “city” of New York is less dense than the “city” of Paris is just because the city boundaries of New York include much more of the metropolitan area, while French cities in general are extremely conservative and only factor in the truly urban part.

    For entities which we can fairly compare, we can look at Paris vs Manhattan, which respectfully have 2.1 million vs 1.6 million people in an area of 40.7 vs 33.6 square miles, for a density of 53 vs 73 thousand people per square mile. So, both urban cores are obviously very dense, and New York’s urban core is a bit more sense.

    Next, we can compare New York City as a whole to the Paris metropolitan region, to see that New York fits 8.4 million people in 784 square km of land, almost as many as Paris fits in a 12th of the area, 12.2 million people in 12,000 square kilometers.

    For a truly accurate comparison, we can look at the New York metropolitan area against the Paris metropolitan area, to see that the New York Métro fits 21 million people in 11.8 thousand square kilometers, while as I mentioned before, the Paris metro fits 12.2 million people in 12 thousand square kilometers. In just about exactly the same area, Paris fits almost half the population that New York does! So not only is the urban core of New York more dense than the urban core of Paris, the area surrounding the urban core of New York is more dense than the area surrounding the urban core of Paris. New York is thus indeed more dense than Paris in every sense of the way.

  20. Charles Rablin

    What is urban sprawl, anything that is not high rise? . Are there only two types of housing? Is the word "sprawl" an an appropriate name for neat little houses in cul de sacs.?

  21. ThePhilosorpheus

    Important "detail": centralization is driven by a "socialist" mentality, which is more prevalent in Europe (the city is first a center of power and second a center of business). America is decentralized because it focuses on the private sector most (cities are center of business first and power second). The difference can be traced back to the monarchist history of Europe while America was already founded on Enlightenment values

  22. CosmicPlays

    The Philly income map is complete bullshit and a quick google search proves it. The areas surrounding the city are extremely wealthy and the farther you go away the more impoverished it becomes, that is until you reach the suburbs.

  23. balamstudios

    1- Use international metric system.
    2- America is a continent, not a single country, so add comparisons to other American countries like Brazil , Mexico or Canada. Dont say 'American ' to refer only to USA.

  24. Pokemoneuro

    I honestly prefer living inside the city, rather than around it. There's just so much more diversity inside the city, not just in the people, but the suburbs in the US always have exactly the same house copypasted 200 times. Who'd wanna live in that????

  25. Slykeren

    The need for car's in the US and Canada are a in my opinion a huge factor in poverty. It is very hard to live without a car in canada, in calgary, everything is a minimum of an hour commute by public transportation, and because less people use it, its slow and sometimes unreliable.

  26. OnlyOneTem

    In North America, you need to buy a $5,000 hunk of metal to get you everywhere. This hunk of metal costs you thousands of dollars per year to maintain and depreciates in value as you own in. Why again do we accept this way of life?

  27. OppressiveStraightWhiteMaleChristian

    It is almost like the Europeans, with their mono-culture, don't understand why US cities are different. What a bunch of entitled, white people.

  28. aislinn e

    this was interesting, but as a londoner i feel like our city is more like new york than paris when it comes to suburbanisation. we apparently have a population density of 11.7k per square mile, which is comparitively pretty sparse, and underwent MASSIVE suburbanisation in the 50s-70s, both with poor people being moved to garden city estates and rich people moving to commuter towns that got consumed by the sprawl over time.

  29. Danger Gunner

    Bullshit. This is complete tripe. You cannot compare a european country to the USA. Germany covers an area of approximately 137,847 square miles, while the United States is approximately 3,791,400 square miles. In terms of area, the closest states in the US are Montana, which is slightly bigger than Germany, and New Mexico, which is a bit smaller. If the USA was not 27x's the size of germany maybe you could draw a conclusion. As it is, Wendover Productions compared a raisin to a watermelon. That is some mighty bad fruit salad and a complete waste of 10:04.

  30. Wilhuff Tarkin

    Am I crazy to think that the impressive high crime rate was due to the lack of gun control policies??? As a European we don't have any contact with gun therefore crimes are less common

  31. Thom

    Nowadays when it comes to transportation we might as well get used to mentioning CYCLING ! It's by far the best we have for our money, plus it's greener. European cities are steadily developing a more cyclist-friendly approach to urbanisation. IMO more people should open their minds to human-powered means of transportation, besides, gets one healthier, at no expense. It's a win-win-win !

  32. infinitecanadian

    I live in a city with more than 150,000 residents, yet it still feels like it is in the country (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada). It is a center of both agriculture and manufacturing.

  33. Nick3xtreme Gaming

    Ive lived in the suburbs my whole life and i like it, its quite, private, plenty of space, and its beautiful. Ive been to the city many times in my life and its a loud chaotic mess.

  34. Stanley T.

    Europe had leaded petrol for as long as the USA, so that does not explain crime rate differentials, and Canada has sprawling US type cities and has always had low crime. Racism, inequality and a culture of violence are the US's problems.

  35. Sa Da

    Yep all the rich Americans moving back downtown, building big ass condos, and kicking out the “inner city” residents that live there. If you go into DC and see very hipster-like areas and new shops to eat and shit, there’s a good chance that 10-15 years ago the place was rundown or hood.

    All those people who got pushed out are moving out to the suburbs wherever it’s cheap, any apartment complexes or condos that have section 8 vouchers or low rent are becoming like mini-hoods now lol.

  36. Adrien Lamotte

    You have an interesting claim at the start of the video, where you claim that Paris packs almost its entire population inside the city. Maybe we should find a common definition of the term city, because while Paris itself is rather small and very densely populated (with 2m inhabitants), it is the center of a very large urban area, with kilometers of suburbs.. And 12m inhabitants. This takes the population density of the entire Paris urban area to about 4.500 inhabitants per square kilometre according to the Wikipedia page "unité urbaine de Paris" (I don't have the figure in square miles, sorry).
    And these suburbs are very essential to the life of the city, they're not just there by happenstance.

  37. 74 Green

    I know its 3 years ago but WHERE did you find $7 gallon fuel in the UK??? accounting for the change in exchange rates etc etc it was more like $11-$12 gallon.

  38. Steve

    I live in what would be considered an "exurb", more or less a suburb of a suburb, and I work in a small village that is a drive away from the population center of my area. It's actually great because I never deal with traffic…as the main flow is going the opposite direction of me.

  39. Steve

    Just reading the comments here shows how different city people and country people really are. It's no wonder politics have always been so divided between them as well (for the most part). To use American terminology, it's not even "red state" vs "blue state", it's urban vs rural. I live in a more rural area of a "blue state" and my district is very "red". Same can be said about some urban districts in "red states" being very "blue", like for example Austin Texas.

  40. FlawdaFootball

    How can you have an entire discussion about American urban planning and suburban sprawl without mentioning very deliberate racial redlining which led to white flight and a collapse of the tax base, and the destruction of black-majority neighborhoods with highway expansion in the 1950s-1960s.

  41. Nasty Nick

    I got some ugly truths that may seem offensive to our new found sensibility's but the crime rate has dropped due to unwanted pregnancy in the urban community, abortions are directly responsible for crime reductions in America

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