Population density is a common way of measuring and comparing places around the world. In short, it is an average of the number of people living in a specific area. These calculations can be made on a macro level (continents and countries), right down to the micro (cities and towns). The higher the population density, the more people who live in that space.
Based on estimates produced by the United Nations (UN), the most densely populated continent as of 2020 is Asia with 150 people per square kilometer. This is not surprising given that Asia’s population makes up just under 60 percent of the total world population.
Europe—which is the main subject of this article—is the second most densely populated at 34 people per square kilometer. Next comes Africa and then South America. With the exception of Australia, North America is the continent with the lowest population density at 20 people per square kilometer.
For inquiring minds, the population density of Earth is roughly 57 people per square kilometer.
Three Most Densely Populated European Countries
According to the UN, Europe’s current overall population exceeds 747 million people. This number accounts for approximately 9.78 percent of the total world population. These individuals, however, are not evenly spread across the continent, ultimately creating areas—sometimes entire countries—that are much more densely populated than others.
Moncao is a city-state and country located on the French Riviera with an overall population of 39,296 people, making it one of the countries in Europe with the least amount of residents. Regardless, it is the most densely populated country in the continent at 18,960 people per square kilometer. It is also considered the most densely populated sovereign state in the entire world.
2. Vatican City
Located in a pocket in Rome, Vatican City is the world’s smallest independent nation-state; it covers only 0.49 square kilometers, making it significantly smaller than even Central Park in New York. It currently has the lowest population of any European country at just 801 people. Nonetheless, it is the second most densely populated country in Europe at 2,273 people per square kilometer.
Malta is a European island country located in the Mediterranean Sea. It existed as a British colony for well over a century until it gained its independence in 1964. It measures 316 square kilometers and ranks third on this list with a population density of 1,505 people per square kilometer.
One quick glimpse at the top three and it becomes quite clear how they are similar: they are some of the smallest countries in all of Europe. It stands to reason that the smaller the space, the more people are forced to pack together. Generally speaking, a higher population density means that the population—regardless of what it is—is high in comparison to the size of the country. For example, the Vatican has the lowest population of any country in Europe, but all the clergy and Swiss Guards must co-exist in such a small finite space. This rule also goes for other high-ranking countries on this list like San Marino.
Of course, there are several reasons to explain why these countries specifically rank in the top three. Monaco, for instance, attracts a lot of the world’s wealthy due to reduced income taxes and the luxury of living on the French Riviera. In fact, approximately 33 percent of all residents in Monaco are millionaires.
Three Least Densely Populated European Countries
Iceland is an island country located in the North Atlantic. It measures 103,000 square kilometers. Known for its large glaciers and active volcanoes, it is the least densely populated country in Europe at 3.5 people per square kilometer.
Norway is a country located in Northern Europe with a total area of 385,207 square kilometers. It largely borders Sweden, but it also runs along Finland and Russia to the north-east. It is the least densely populated country in Europe after Iceland at 14 people per square kilometer.
Finland is a country that is also located in the north. Even though it is slightly smaller than Norway, it is still the eighth-largest country in Europe. Nonetheless, it is the third least densely populated at 16 people per square kilometer. It also has the lowest population density in the entire European Union.
Again, analysing the bottom three, it becomes apparent what they share in common: all three are Nordic countries—places that exist geographically in Northern Europe and the North Atlantic. There are several factors that influence their low population densities, which have all remained more or less unchanged over the past twenty years.
All three countries exist in relative isolation compared to the rest of Europe—Iceland’s remoteness is especially apparent. Furthermore, parts of each country are uninhabitable due to the natural environment, consequently lowering the population density merely based on the fact that there are areas where people simply cannot live. Taking into consideration the bigger size of each country, particularly in comparison to the top three, it is perhaps unsurprising why they rank so low on this list.
The Baltic States
It is also worthy to note that Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have very low population densities, ranking in the bottom eight. Located along the western border of Russia, all three Baltic states have followed the same population trends throughout the 20th century. Each experienced tremendous loses during World War II, particularly Lithuania which lost fourteen percent of its entire population. All three rebounded after merging with the Soviet Union, but began to dwindle once again after Mikhail Gorbachev announced Baltic independence in September 1991.
Estonia’s population has since plateaued, but Lithuania and Latvia’s are expected to continue shrinking. One of the main factors causing this gradual decline is the rise in emigration among those of working age. As a result, both countries are expected to decrease by fifteen percent as early as 2050, ultimately contributing to lower population densities.
The Future Of Europe’s Population
This decrease in population is not unique to the Baltic states, but is also projected to hit numerous other countries. According to recent findings, Europe will lose roughly thirty million people of working age by 2050. Also taking into consideration the aging population gradually passing on, these countries could find themselves with significantly lower population densities come the next thirty years. Some countries, however, are reportedly growing in population, such as Iceland, Norway, and San Marino. Unfortunately, there are no overarching patterns to determine which European countries can expect to follow similar trends.