Lost in the Crowd

After the (relative, material rather than spiritual) poverty, almost the first thing that anyone (that is, anyone from the States) who travels to India mentions is the mind-boggling numbers of people.  Certainly, that is what seems to have most impressed one of my roommates from college when she went there for a year back in the 1980s to study Sanskrit and Urdu.  "People!," she told me on her return, still in shock.  "More people that you can imagine.  Everywhere, all the time, filling the streets, people, people, people."  Other friends who have been there have made similar comments; likewise, medieval European travelers like Marco Polo and John Mandeville (or their informants).  Asia contains more people than you can possibly imagine.  "Where's Waldo?" has nothing on India. 

Or does it?  My brother is there now, experiencing (in his words) the unimaginable assault of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of India (I assume he will get to touch), and he, too, has commented on the great press of humanity's contribution to this sensory onslaught.  And yet, in the photos that he has posted, there are whole scenes (apparently) empty of people, if not of cows.  Could it be, I wondered, really as densely populated as all that?  (And, yes, I've seen the photos of the crowds in India, but I've also seen photos of crowds elsewhere, which is what made me curious).

Well, apparently, yes and no.  A quick Google search on "Why are there so many people in India?" brought me to this discussion and the intriguing tidbit, thanks to cymry3jones, that India ranks 31st in the world in population density, at 358.152 per square km, while the Netherlands, not typically considered a seething cauldron of humanity, ranks somewhat higher, at 399.548 per square km, at least, that is, two years ago when cymry3jones posted her reply.  So I double-checked on Wikipedia and found this list, where India ranks only (okay, I'm talking relative terms here) 33rd, at 368 per square km, just after Israel, with 371 per square km.  (The list also gives numbers per square mile, if you're more comfortable thinking in those terms.)  The Netherlands ranks 30th, with 402 per square km, while Belgium, where my brother has been living for the past three years, ranks 36th, with 355 per square km.  And yet, he has never posted anything about how many people live there (just how crazy they are).  Just for the sake of comparison, the United States of America (not to be confused with those other united states) has an overall population density of 32 per square km, putting it down at no. 179.

But, you will say, India (pop. 1,210,193,422) has many, many, many more people than Israel (pop. 7,697,600), the Netherlands (pop. 16,690,000) or Belgium (pop. 10,827,519). Okay, I thought, so maybe they're just spread out differently. I'll check the population density of the cities. Ah. Yes, that would make a difference.  Mumbai, to take just one example, has a population of 13,830,884 and a density of 22,937 per square km--and it isn't even the most densely populated city in India. That would be Titagarh, with 124,213 people squeezed into an area of only 3.24 square km, for a density of 38,337 per square km. Who on earth could bear living like that? Well, apparently, quite a few people in the Belgium city of Saint-Josse-ten-Noode/Sint-Joost-ten-Node, where 26,338 people inhabit an area of 1.14 square km, packing themselves in at 23,104 per square km, i.e. greater than the density of Mumbai.  Why don't we hear more about this?  Okay, so maybe it's just that more tourists go to Mumbai or Madurai (where my brother is now, pop. 928,869 as of 2001, area 51.82 square km, density 17,925 per square km) than Saint-Josse/Sint-Joost; maybe most Americans simply never experience this level of density without going to India.

Ah.  Well, you see, I live in Chicago, and this made me wonder.  Some of our neighborhoods seem quite densely populated, at least by American standards.  Certainly, it makes it difficult for my relatives from Texas to feel comfortable when they get caught in our traffic. So, what do we find?  Well, unsurprisingly, the city as a whole is spacious indeed: 606.1 square km (no wonder it takes so long to drive across) with a population of 2,695,598 and a density of 4,447.4 per square km, nothing, to be sure, on those little cities in Belgium, never mind those big ones in India, but greater than that of the countries as a whole.  And within the city itself?  While the suburbs may be fairly spacious, I know that we are living much more on top of each other here in Hyde Park. Some 29,920 of us in 4.143 square km in 2000, giving us a density of 7,221 per square km, or thereabouts.

Okay, so it's not Mumbai, but it is certainly many times the density of the U.S. on average.  There are others in the city living even more on top of each other--literally on top of each other, in the high rises that line the lake.  And in those neighborhoods (Cabrini-Green, Dearborn Parkway, Gold Coast, Goose Island, Old Town, River North, River West, State Parkway, Streeterville)? Well, you might as well be living in Madurai.  The population in these--some of the most luxurious neighborhoods in the city and by the by the ones the tourists are almost guaranteed to visit since they line the Magnificent Mile--is around 72,800 (not counting the tourists) in an area of some 3.884 square km, giving a density of 18,746 per square km.  So why is it, do you think, that we don't hear continual comments about how unimaginably many people there are here?*

*Actually, I have a theory about this, I just want to see what you say first.  Hint: I don't think it is a response to absolute numbers, thus my focus on population density.  Only statisticians and astronauts think in terms of the whole population of the world, the rest of us (I would argue) are more influenced by our immediate surroundings.


  1. Is it about personal space, perhaps?

    Also, the most crowded neighborhoods of Mumbai might be many more times more dense than the Magnificent Mile. You didn't break down the neighborhoods of Mumbai or that city in Belgium, after all.

    I went to an exhibit on cities at the Tate Modern a few years ago and there were these marvelous wooden, sculpted, three-dimension representations of the population density of the "mega cities" the exhibit concentrated. Represented like that, London (a city I think of as dense by western standards, but perhaps not as dense as NYC) was softly undulating hills, while cities like Mumbai (or maybe it was Delhi in the exhibit) looked like collections of spiky skyscrapers. Maybe that has something to do with people's perceptions -- *some* parts of Indian cities are more densely populated than *most* parts of western cities?

    And for what it's worth, when I think of midtown Manhattan or Oxford Street in London, I think "People! So many people!"

  2. Good point, I could have used those three dimensional maps! But the city in Belgium is fairly small, not even as big as the neighborhood encompassing the Magnificent Mile. My initial surprise was in finding that the countrywide densities were so similar, which makes me think now that if so many people in India are in the cities, how densely populated would the countryside feel?

  3. Was it this exhibit that you saw? These are fascinating representations of cities! Going on with the theme of my question, I think the most interesting stastical tidbit appears at the bottom of the post, where Barcelona and Mumbai appear side by side. Mumbai's average density is much higher than Barcelona's, but Barcelona's maximum density is nearly that of Mumbai's (I don't see what the units of measurement are).

  4. Oops, misspelled statistical there. Too many statistics for this bear!

  5. Yes! That's it! OK, London isn't quite as undulating as I remember, but look at the spike Cairo makes! I remember being astonished by it in person, too.

  6. Btw, from the close up of the numbers, it looks like the units are persons per square kilometer.

    Oh, and I swear the versions I saw were wooden, not polystyrene. So maybe there's more than one version of the exhibit.


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