In honor of World Environment Day 2023 and the launch of The Environment and Health Research and Policy Initiative at the Taub Center, we have chosen to discuss several common perceptions regarding population density in Israel
In a lecture a few months ago at one of Israel’s government ministries, Taub Center President Prof. Avi Weiss was asked whether Israel is the country with the highest population density in the world, or whether it is at least the most densely populated high-income country.
It is neither. Out of 215 UN-recognized countries and territories, Israel is not even ranked in the top-20 most crowded countries (it is ranked 24th). In fact, even if we discount Macao and Monaco, whose population density is each more than 40 times as high as Israel’s, the level of density in Singapore (which boasts large open spaces in the heart of the island) is 18 times higher, and density is 4 times as high in Malta and the Maldives, favorite holiday destinations for many Israelis. Even South Korea and the Netherlands – which Israelis also admire – have population densities that are more than 20% higher than in Israel, and at the current rate of population growth in these countries, Israel will only converge to their levels in the mid-2030s.
Note: The countries that appear in the graph are (from highest to lowest): Macao (SAR, China), Monaco, Singapore, Hong Kong (SAR, China), Gibraltar, Bahrain, Maldives, Malta, Bangladesh, Bermuda, West Bank and Gaza, Barbados, Mauritius, Nauru, Aruba, San Marino, Lebanon, Rwanda, South Korea, Netherlands, Burundi, India, Comoros, Israel. Data do not include San Martin (Fr) and Sint Martin (Neth.).
High density only in the center? Not necessarily, and not only in Israel
Some will probably say that the comparison is unfair, because most of Israel’s population is crammed into the center of the country. This claim is only partially true – only in southern Israel are there large unpopulated areas. More importantly, it ignores differences in population density in different areas in other countries. Illustration 1 maps settlement patterns in Israel and parts of its close neighbors using data from the Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL). The red areas indicate high population density, the yellow areas indicate lower population density, and the remainder are sparsely populated. In Israel there are indeed quite a few red areas, with the largest around Tel Aviv. But with the exception of Cyprus, there seem to be similar concentrations in neighboring countries, too.
The concentrations in Cairo appear particularly large, even though the population density in Egypt as a whole is much lower than in Israel.
In fact, focusing on city-level data and urban sprawl reveals that Israel’s cities are both less densely populated and smaller than many others that we admire and enjoy visiting. Figure 2, which compares population density and urban area size in the three largest urban regions in Israel, several major cities in neighboring countries, and other high-income countries illustrates this. Israel’s major urban areas are much less densely populated than most of those of our neighbors (Cairo, Beirut, Amman), or than New York or Seoul—in 2020, there were 11,243 people in New York City per km2, 2.3 times as many as in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area (4,952 people per km2). In Manhattan, there were 28,900 people per km2.
Israeli cities are also less densely populated than Paris, Madrid and Athens. Even when Israel’s cities have similar density profiles—Tel-Aviv metro area has a similar density to Greater
London, and Jerusalem to Paris—those two European “global cities” sprawl over much larger areas. Metropolitan Seoul is even larger, with 14 times the size of Jerusalem’s population in 9 times the area of Jerusalem. All this implies that it’s more difficult for people living toward the center of those cities to completely escape the density. If they want something other than an urban park, they will need to travel through built-up areas for a lot longer before they reach it.
The high population density, which is increasing, is felt in traffic congestion
The bottom line on population density in Israel is that Israel is more densely populated than almost 90% of countries, and it’s becoming more densely populated. That means that in 30 years our larger urban areas will have a less European level of density than they have today. They will be more like New York, Seoul, and Istanbul than like Rome or Berlin. We will also have many smaller densely populated cities.
There are known advantages to this process. Density is a good thing when it’s managed well: urban residents tend to have better access to healthcare and to a variety of food types
including healthy foods, to a larger range of jobs allowing for a better match to their skillsets, to more cost-effective public transport, and to many other amenities including protected open areas and parks. The challenge is to make sure those services and amenities are supplied, and to avoid some of the potential disadvantages of high density, especially in the context of a rapidly growing population, rising heat indices, urban heat islands, and increasing wealth and consumption.
In terms of public policy, here is one thing we do need to worry about and that affects us all: traffic congestion. On the one hand, Israel has a relatively low (but constantly growing) number of vehicles per capita relative to other OECD countries—in 2017, there were more than twice as many vehicles per capita in Finland, Greece, Italy, and the US. On the other hand, the use of public transport is relatively low and the traffic density of passenger cars in Israel is three times higher than the OECD average – 2.5 times higher than in the Netherlands, which has a higher population density. The cost of traffic congestion to the economy is about 2% of GDP, double the average cost in OECD countries, and it also has an external cost of another 2% of GDP, mainly related to the damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions to health and the ecosystem.
The combination of ongoing population growth and rising wealth has led some researchers to claim that the length of roads in Israel will increase by 30% by 2050. Yet even those additions will not solve the problem of congestion, assuming continued intensive use of private vehicles. It is also important to note that the increasing popularity of electric vehicles, as welcome as it is in terms of pollution, will also do nothing about congestion. In fact, electric vehicles may even increase because they are cheaper to operate, which further reduces people’s incentive to use public transportation.
In conclusion, Israel’s high population density may actually not be something to fear. By investing appropriately in public transportation and parks and protecting the open spaces around our cities, it is possible to overcome the negative effects associated with population density. We can follow the lead of cities such as Singapore, Seoul, Manhattan, and Paris – large and densely populated cities that still provide their residents with an excellent quality of life.
 The Global Human Settlement Layer, which is linked to the European Commission, is one of the main global organizations that provides high-resolution satellite imagery, census data and open geographic information.