Charts: 3

Square feet per person in various nations

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

To what extent do we feel overcrowded, as a species? I’m not talking about resources; just psychological factors.

To create this chart I turned to the CIA Factbook, where I looked up the populations of various nations and then divided this number into their land area (excluding lakes and rivers) to get the number of square feet available per person. I represented the results in squares that are all drawn to the same scale.

Of course if you are in Australia, where each resident has almost 4 million square feet to play with, you won’t make full use of your land ration, if only because most of it is desert. On the other hand, when I was in Australia I did feel intuitively aware that the country was, so to speak, empty. As soon as I drove out of an urban area, the emptiness was right there. Conversely, in Hong Kong, where citizens have barely more than 1,600 square feet each, everyone is intensely aware of being crammed into a very crowded place.

Personally I enjoy wilderness areas, but I wouldn’t claim that open spaces are essential for my mental health. I do, after all, still have an apartment in New York City containing just 350 square feet. The apartment next to mine, identical in size, used to be a home not only to a married couple, but also their young child.

I suspect that our romantic yearnings for “freedom to roam” may be just that: Romantic yearnings.


  1. Australians in general tend to diminish the psychological effect of the enormous empty space in the centre of the country by turning their collective backs on it, mainly living in sprawling & crowded urban centres around the edges. Their cities feel as crowded as any European or US city.

    We somehow feel less crowded here in New Zealand than we did living in Oz, even though we “only” have around 1/7 of the space per person than they have there. But even urban Australia felt much less crowded to us than the UK or even worse, eastern China.

  2. I’d say the “freedom to roam” depends on whether you’ve had it or not. I grew up in a rural area and have never really been able to adjust to urban ones– mainly the notion that privacy…as in isolation from even the sounds made by other people…wasn’t more than just a few minutes walk away anytime I wanted it. In a city, if you’re totally tired of dealing with people, you’re stuck…

  3. tbh I think this would have worked better if each box was within the next largest, then use some sort of key for when you get to the boxes that can’t fit into the others.

  4. You really have to take habitablity into account. Most Canadians live in a relatively narrow strip of land near the American border; I’d be more interested in seeing density across populated areas.

  5. Australians in general tend to diminish the psychological effect of the enormous empty space in the centre of the country by turning their collective backs on it, …

    That has more to do with the fact that the majority of the country is either scorching desert or insect-infested swamps. The crowded urban centres tend to be in the few places that are actually livable for non-crocodilians. (Camberra being the exception, of course.)

    There’s no need to invent some subconscious drive to account for this, economic and ecological forces are sufficient to explain it.

  6. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, part of the Unorganized Borough and bigger than Oregon, we have 1/2 person per square mile.

    Of course, it is currently -45 F with wind chill and one must choose between heat and food (Emmonak and other Alaska Native Villages), but Gov Palin says in her state of the state that we should have trickle up economics.

  7. People on Greenland have 400 million sq feet each. That’s much more than those land poor Aussies. Or consider Antartica … 35 billion sq feet per person in summer, 4 times that in winter.

    What’s more interesting is the world average. Total land area 148.3 million sq km, 6.7 billion people, comes to 238,000 sq feet per person.

  8. Alas, it doesn’t really work; in the UK, for example, about half the land area isn’t inhabitable or inhabited — while the mountains in Scotland, Wales, the Lake District and so on aren’t very high, they’re still kind of crinkle-cut — and hence not terribly amenable to building suburban housing developments. Moreover, following the clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, Scotland (land area: about the same as England) is largely depopulated, so that 90% of the UK’s population live in England, a bit less than 50% of the area.

    Much the same goes for Japan, where on Honshu there’s a narrow coastal strip around an uninhabitable interior — 73% of Japan is mountainous.

    Upshot: nice chart, good idea, but it’s only a first approximation.

  9. Given you’re talking about the world here, how about using units that the rest of the world actually use, like square metres or hectares. Square feet – sheesh!

  10. I live in a really rural area in Australia that is still within reach of civilisation. But One thing myself and my mum have noticed when going overseas is an acute awareness of how people from different countries invade your personal space.

    In Australia people are generally uncomfortable with strangers coming within a certain distance. It depends of course on each person individually … but mine is about a metre away. When I was in Japan if someone I didnt know was talking to me I noticed they often tended to stand at times a little closer than I was comfortable with.

    Possibly a side-effect of having such a wide area to grow up in.

  11. Australia doesn’t have square feet? Metric, people!

    As far as the comments about the urbanisation of Australia goes. The fact is that a good percentage of Australia just isn’t inhabitable. In one of the inhabitable areas, after 3 days of more than 43 degrees C (that’s ~110 for you metric-o-philes), there’s a good reason for that. The lack of water is hitting us now. Give it 50 years and it’ll be affecting the US seriouesly too.

  12. And of course so much of Canada is frozen wasteland that something like 90% of our population lives in a 100 km wide strip along the southern boarder with the U.S.

  13. I agree with the other Aussies. I think something like 99% of the Aussie population live in our highly urbanised coastal cities and the rest of Australia is uninhabitable due to the fact it’s a freaking desert with almost no water. Remember, Australia is the driest country in the world.

  14. “I suspect that our romantic yearnings for “freedom to roam” may be just that: Romantic yearnings.”

    I’m not exactly sure who you’re speaking for when you quit speaking for yourself here.

    There are some of us for whom the the “freedom to roam” is a way of life, not a romantic yearning at all and others who, unable to roam, suffer tangibly for it.

  15. I wonder if it isn’t more of a factor of where we are raised and how we spent our youth. I live in the Denver area. Grew up here. Much of my recreational time was spent going up into the mountains. My dad’s idea of a good time was to go as deep into the woods as possible and fish for a week or two. If we ran into someone else, we didn’t go far enough.

    I lived on the east coast for a while in a rural area of Maryland. I was never able to find that empty feeling I could get in Colorado except Christmas day on the beach. We could walk for an hour or two and never see another person. A woman out there once confided to me that she could never live out west because the towns were too far apart. It scared her when she and her husband were vacationing there. I yearned for what she feared.

  16. Hmmn, don’t folks like E. O. Wilson and Denis Dutton argue that there are strong biological-evolutionary factors determining our aesthetic views of landscape? Like how we’re more-or-less hardwired to want savannah-type landscapes, with wide prospects interspersed with trees and open spaces, with water somewhere in view? Or is your thesis that we’ve all been sold a bill of goods by Wordsworth, Thoreau et al.? (Or are you just miscapitalizing “Romantic” because it follows a colon, as is common practice?)

  17. I think it would be more interesting to see density data plotted on a map with a color scale. Maybe use a log scale, so you could see variations in the sparsely populated areas or variations between the densest areas.

  18. Here’s how I would love to see this kind of information presented. (And yes, I’m too lazy to do it myself, at least right now, but it would involve a lot more work than a quick visit to the CIA factbook): A histogram with “Number of people” on the Y axis and “People who live in the same square mile” on the X axis (or square kilometer, if you prefer). In other words, a histogram of crowdedness, with respect to people rather than to places. (Or it could be presented in a Gini-like graph, with cumulative people on X and cumulative land-share on Y). Just to get a gut feel for how many of us are in crowded areas and how many of us do venture out into the frozen / desert / mosquito-and-gator-infested areas to live. Gets rid of the whole “Most of my country is uninhabitable” problem.

  19. yes, much of canadas population is close to the US, but this doesn’t have all that much to do with the states. our oldest cities are founded on the great lakes and the saint lawrence river beceause that makes sense.

    also canada is p. cold.

    global warming should be good with us – high elevation, wild tracks of tundra rebecoming plainsland – gonna be interestng.

  20. @#5 billegible:

    Canadian density map:

    US density map:

    Me, my perception of how “crowded” a place feels is tied to how big the sky is. I grew up in the midwest where the sky goes on forever. I feel far more “crowded” in a small Denver suburb than I do in downtown Chicago, because the mountains cut off the sky. (I know the buildings do too, but that’s different.)

  21. For those kinesthetic learners out there, especially the school age ones, you can convey this information by laying out sheets of paper on the floor and having students physically occupy the space to get the feel for levels of crowdedness.

  22. Any chance someone might make a rug? Increase the colour saturation first and bing! a nice fireside talking point.

  23. And wouldn’t there be a need in a graph like this to account for subjective experiences of landscape and population density, as, for example (though I’ve never been to either), wouldn’t folks in Monaco experience their space radically differently from folks in Hong Kong, despite their relative equality on this graph? Wouldn’t certain factors of the built human environment (big buildings, light pollution, etc.) have huge subjective effects on how density feels in a given place?

  24. I moved to Detroit from a small rural town as an adult. Earplugs are still essential to a good night’s sleep due to the continuous low level commotion that lifelong urbanites overlook. I need my space around me and I usually get it. If not I just step off the map for a long hike or drive and come back when I’m good and ready.
    It’s hard to imagine 639 square feet/person. I’m alone in the house and this 900 square foot ROOM seems crowded with me in it.

    1. I don’t mind seeing people around me, or being physically crowded, so much as the noise. In cities like Mumbai and Cairo, it seems like everybody gets up at 0300 for the sole purpose of testing their horns and waking up the roosters.

  25. @#26 Eyebrows McGee: Thanks for the maps; the U.S. map was definitely a surprise to me. Such low population density across the middle of the map!

  26. Darksun @#18,

    I think I have to disagree with you about
    “and the rest of Australia is uninhabitable due to the fact it’s a freaking desert with almost no water.”
    actually if we look at a water availability map

    we see vast areas in the Top End with average rainfall greater than 500mm/year.

    In fact Australia’s wettest places are up in the tropical north (around Cairns) where not too many people live. The main reason these places are sparsely populated is mostly historical, since most Aussies are descended from Northern Europeans who settled in the climates more suitable for their lifestyle and farming practices, that is where their descendants continue to live, as that is the region they are most comfortable with.
    In other words, its just too bloody hot for most of us who live in the eastern seaboard (and the bottom of WA as well).

  27. entheo @#34

    It’s not just the heat that stops people living at the top of QLD. My sister lives in Bundaburg which isnt even that far north and their is a distinct lack of modern conveniences and just basic infrastructure. Biggest example is of course the health system up there. Recently moved to the area and need a medical certificate to prove your sick and can’t go to work? Get on the waiting list to see a doctor that can take months … and I’m not kidding, it’s not an exaggeration.

    If the government made the top end a little more livable you might find people would start spreading out a little bit … But your own image of the rainfall still proved that most of Australia doesn’t get that much rain at all.

    Even Brisbane which according to that map gets roughly 1600+ mils a year is having water shortages. Interesting isn’t it?

  28. I’ll second that.

    Lots of Aussies on this one…

    Many Australians believe that the interior is ’empty’. Standard way of thinking of a country that hasn’t changed from the first whites reaction in 1788, going “this is weird, lets change it to look like where we come from”.

    The centre of Australia, to anyone who knows more about Australia, is alive, kicking and full of water. It’s just not Amsterdam, that’s all.

    Slowly people are realising that we need to conserve water, stop planting non-indigenous plants only, and that global warming will wipe out probably about 2% of our houses (or less, that’s to say a huge sweep of many parts of our coastline going underwater as the ocean levels rise).

    I think that if we are to ‘develop’ the Top End, Broome would make a LOT of sense.
    Its one of the closest towns to Singapore, and I believe it isnt surrounded by swamp (Cairns or parts of Darwin). Multi-ethnic communities….

    You’d just go troppo a hell of a lot.

  29. an alternate view of density–

    “While flying from Alaska to San Francisco, Chris Nye, also of the Alaska Volcano Observatory, looked out the jet window at clusters of houses in the Lower 48. He wondered how much land it would take to accommodate everyone if they lived with the elbowroom we have in Alaska (more than 2 square kilometers per person). He calculated that people in the Lower 48 would need the land area of about five Earths to live at Alaska standards, and if everybody on the planet desired our space, it would take the land area of more than 100 Earths to fill that request.”

  30. Here’s a few reasons why the ‘top end’ of Australia is sparsely populated, apart from the heat:
    1. Tropical diseases. There’s minor Dengue fever epidemic in northern QLD right now. You also have a good shot at getting malaria or being infected with Australian bat lyssavirus (closely related to rabies).
    2. Crocodiles.
    3. Box jellyfish.
    4. Swamps.
    5. Mountains. Not very tall, but rugged enough to be hard to build/farm on.
    6. Rainforests. You could chop them down to get farming land, but that would wipe out endangered species and contribute to the deterioration of the Great Barrier Reef. Besides, the rainforest soil is very poor and gets depleted quickly, especially with the erosion caused by the torrential monsoon rains.
    7. Cyclones.

    Some of the top end also belongs to Aborigines, and you need a special permit just to visit – forget about moving there.

  31. Having grown up in Colorado, I agree with Banjopoet’s comments… anyplace in the mountains where you encountered someone else — or EVIDENCE of other people — meant you hadn’t gone far enough. But I have lived in Hong Kong for almost 20 years now, and I must vigourously disagree with the perception that we’re totally squeezed into tiny vertically-stacked boxes. I mean, okay, yes, we are… but by the same token, something like 75% of Hong Kong’s total area is uninhabited country parks with hiking trails scattered throughout the subtropical splendor. We also have a huge amount of water, and if you sail (which you really should, if you don’t), an entire world of open space emerges. So *my* Hong Kong is a city of extremes… intense population density on the one hand, with plenty of open and incredibly wild space on the other.

  32. I live in Hong Kong. Nobody here feels cramped, it’s the price we pay for convenience. With so many thing available in Hong Kong without much of a walk, let alone a drive (at least in Hong Kong Island). We’ve all gotten used to the urban density, and I wouldn’t live in any other place. Except New York City. Or SF. Or Toronto.

  33. I believe there’s a fundamental error to this analysis. “I looked up the populations of various nations and then divided this number into their land area (excluding lakes and rivers)” Lakes and rivers provide meaningful space to many people. For example, local rivers and lakes provide recreational space year round. In the summer, they provide a meaningful way to escape the sense of being surrounded by people and or things. In the winter they provide a totally flat playground. Given this, Australia will quickly fall below that of Russia and Canada.

    Even further, to make this interesting, the land mass capabilities should be analyzed for “usable” space. Deserts are rarely usable, unless you have a dune buggy. ;-)

  34. I definitely get that cramped feeling in Denver, but I’m in an apartment here in the city. My father left me 12 acres in S. Colorado and once you get used to feeling of isolation you begin to yearn for it.

  35. Small living spaces also bring the added benefit of an inability to ammass a large ammount of stuff. If done properly, in the end you are left with only the things that you actually love and/or use regularly.

  36. I think you should recreate that and include Mongolia and Bangladesh (or does someone know even more extreme examples?)

  37. couple of things,
    1. you forgot India!
    2. why did you make Squares? (instead of the actual shape of the country)

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