Why is housing in European rural villages so dense?

Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, near Lucca, Italy

I can’t let the Tour de France go by without finding some way to reference this great spectacle and Cadel Evan’s singular achievement.

Something I noticed watching the Tour is how traditional French country villages have relatively high density housing compared to Australian country towns. I’ve seen the same pattern in the Italian countryside – villages of three storey (or more) apartments set within productive agricultural land.

Yet in contrast, Australian country towns are predominantly detached houses on large lots. Only the odd commercial building – like pubs – is two storeys. Why didn’t town dwellers in Australia choose to live in multi-storey buildings like Europeans?

I don’t know the answer but it’s worth thinking about and so I’m hoping someone does. There’s a host of potential explanations. It might be the car, yet parts of Australian country towns that pre-date motorisation are lower density than their European equivalents. It might have something to do with differences in the value of agriculture, yet there are some Australian towns where agriculture must’ve been of comparable or higher value than many areas of Europe e.g. wine growing regions.

Perhaps building materials were generally harder to get than in Australia – i.e. more expensive –and this encouraged smaller dwellings. Maybe the more extreme climate had an influence too, giving residents an incentive to cluster buildings for better insulation. I also wonder if there was a different tradition of village housing in England compared to the rest of Europe that was followed by early settlers in Australia.

Perhaps it was driven as much by politics as by anything else. I recently read Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, which is loosely based on the book, Democracy in America, which French aristocrat Alexis DeTocqville wrote after touring the young democracy in the early 1830s. I was struck by the enormous gulf in the world views of the aristocracy and the common people in France at this time. So perhaps it was in the interest of the local aristocrat in country areas to maximise the amount of land in agricultural use and minimise the quantity of land and resources devoted to housing the peasants. However once the “common man” settled in the New World he could make his own choice about how much space to devote to housing and how much to agriculture.

As I say, I don’t know but I’d be interested to hear other’s views.

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11 Comments on “Why is housing in European rural villages so dense?”

  1. Alexander says:

    Living in Europe I’ve thought about that too. My thoughts are entertainment and defence, combined with the very different histories we’ve had between the settlement of the respective areas and becoming modern stabilised countries. By that I mean how quickly we went from having people putting the first houses on the land, to having central government authorities telling us where and how to do it, giving no time for natural evolution to change the original style terribly much, whereas in Europe there have been centuries of evolution, changing towns according to past needs.

    As for defence, we have very little need to defend our country towns compared to medieval France. Perhaps it would be good against bushfires—even if only because a town with largely concrete/rock/ashfalt surfaces burns much less well than places with lots of grass and trees and gardens—but its going to be much harder for any town to give that a try with all our regulation and fast long-distance communication.

    And the main forms of entertainment an illiterate French villager would have had would have involved spending time with other people. The advantages might not have been so obvious to our early settlers, and they’re surely almost extinct by now.

  2. Malcolm says:

    I imagine that factors include the cost of materials for building, the relative scarcity of land and that almost everyone walked everywhere they went. Australian towns and cities are built foir cars; European towns and cities are built for people.

  3. Richard Peterson says:

    I suspect the reason, in the UK also, is invariably that in whole villages the land and the built form developed on it is owned by a single wealthy or aristocratic person or family, who naturally wish to maximize the return on their investment. This also often means that there is a visual coherence.

    I note, Alan, your image of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana has 4 and 5-storied buildings, presumably mixed-use, predominantly apartments, relating quite satisfyingly with the 5-600 years old walls and gate. Why are we so frightened of carefully considered denser development?

    • Alan Davies says:

      Those are all apartments above first floor level and they’re located outside the castle walls. While hardly McMansions, they’re nevertheless large inside compared to new apartments in Australian cities.

  4. Richard Peterson says:

    Just a further comment. In checking Wikipedia, I note that in rebellion against control by Lucca, Castelnuovo di Garfagnana put itself in 1430 under the protection of the enlightened urbanism of the Estensi family of Ferrara, with a couple of interruptions, but generally until the Unification of Italy in 1861. Ferrara itself is a model, of urban development in a rural context since the Renaissance.

    Australian urban land was generally surveyed by government and auctioned off in small allotments, many not built on for decades, setting the pattern for scattered settlement.

  5. wizofaus says:

    “It might be the car, yet parts of Australian country towns that pre-date motorisation are lower density than their European equivalents”

    Even if that were true to any substantial degree, it still doesn’t rule out the possibility that it largely comes down to the fact that during the early period of growth for most Australian towns/cities there was a much wider availability of transport options than there was for most Europe villages, which were probably initially established when even a horse and cart was a luxury for most.

    What I am pretty sure of is that the general pattern of found in most European countries of having populations mostly living in reasonably dense medium-size towns and cities is preferable on many levels to having almost everyone live in vast sprawing cities, and anything we can do in Australia to help swing the balance back is worth pursuing.

  6. heritagepoliceman says:

    The answer is history and culture. 19th century Australians were (mostly) English. European towns are dense apartments because they originally huddled together for defensive purposes, and so as to maximise land for agriculture and as Richard Petersen pointed out most did not own the land the houses / apartments were built on. English towns were historically different, developed as attached houses rather than apartments, and the farmers lived in the town, perhaps in a house actually owned by the aristocracy, who had their own house on their own land in the middle of their own farm, so the notion of owning a house on one’s own plot of land became aspirational. In England even big cities developed as separate houses, ie. terraces in the 18th-19th centuries, whereas European cities developed as apartment buildings. So here, where land was plentiful and cheap, as in the US, we followed the English model, building terraced houses, and detached houses from the beginning. Indeed, there was the notion that settlers that owned their land would be more strongly attached to it, and was understood as part of the colonising process of this ‘uninhabited’ land.

  7. Tim says:

    My understanding is that at least ‘dark’ ages settlement was dispersed when there wasn’t security issues.

    Once the security was not a concern sizable village/town communities did not develop until about the 11th or 12th century when large draft horses were first breed. Apparently they allowed farmers a congregate into hamlets and villages. If you read Cider with Rosie Laurie Lee makes the point that rural life before the war was governed the speed of horse travel with villages as rural islands. Going to a major town was uncommon or rare occurrence.

    Having spent a little time in rural France the pattern was single farmhouses/barns were rare but once one was built others would be generally built around it. They would share supporting walls and I suspect the inhabitants were somewhat related.

    In the modern know that at least in some parts of France it is illegal to build a free standing house way from a village. Any new dwelling has to be created within a existing village. They also have be of the same colour scheme. Not that the there is much building, the struggle seems to be keeping them standing as the young folk move the the larger towns and the old folks die off.

  8. I’d also argue that Australia’s suburban housing stock was consciously designed in ‘rebellion’ against the densely packed (breeding disease and vermin) towns and cities of the Old World – both their mediaeval and industrial age versions. So much of the first and second waves of suburbanisation in the mid-19th Century and early 20th Century were developed on the benefits of cleanliness, light and health derived from detached housing on large blocks. There was also an overlay of an internal migration of the wealthier working class and middle class from the crowded ‘slums’ of early Australian cities (the Carltons, Collingwoods, Surry Hills and Newtowns) to the suburbs.

  9. krammer56 says:

    Maybe they didn’t have building unions that double the cost of building above 3 stories??

    Seriously, in times when crop yields were poor and long term storage options were lousy, a poor season could have seriously affected a community’s viability. In these circumstances maximising the output from every scrap of nearby arable land would have been paramount, so you wouldn’t waste it on sprawling housing.

    In the Austrlian context, I am sure settlers thought “what is another 1/4 acre house lot in hundreds of miles of uninhabited country”.

  10. Peter says:

    I was riding a bike in Amsterdam and its surrounds recently and the question arose of its own accord along with the answer.
    Putting it simply, there is an emphasis on other forms of transport other than cars, with particular emphasis on the bicycle. You can fit so many more people into a given area if you dont have to accomodate their cars. Every evening the downtown areas were packed with people. Bicycles are parked everywhere and appear to take up little space and cause little annoyance. Their owners ride them in their street gear and very best gear at times in all weather conditions. In six days of riding every day there I saw not a single accident or any incident that warranted anyone needing a helmet.
    No one wore a helmet at all even riding amidst the traffic with the exception of racing cyclists training on the roads.
    I left quite sure that we can never have the benefit of the bicycle in our city living as long as we make the adults who are not involved in sport training wear these helmets.


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