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
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