Q and A: How densely populated is the planet?

Population Densities by Region, 2007

  Density (population/sq. km.)
World 49
More developed 27
Less developed 65
Less developed (excl. China) 56
Africa 31
Africa—Eastern 46
Africa—Middle 18
Africa—Northern 23
Africa—Southern 20
Africa—Sub-Saharan 32
Africa—Western 46
America—Caribbean 171
America—Central 60
America—Latin America/Caribbean 28
America—North 15
America—South 21
Asia 126
Asia (excl. China) 121
Asia—East 132
Asia—South-Central 154
Asia—Southeast 128
Asia—Western 46
Europe 32
Europe—Eastern 16
Europe—Northern 54
Europe—Southern 116
Europe—Western 169
Oceania 4

Source: PRB 2007 World Population Data Sheet.

The world's major regions not only vary in population size, they also vary in terms of population density — the number of people per square kilometer, or other unit of land area. The most densely settled region is the Caribbean, with 171 people per square kilometer. Western Europe ranks second, with 169 people per square kilometer. The least densely settled region, Oceania, has four people per square kilometer — about the same as Canada. The population density of the United States was 31 in 2007.

While population densities vary from region to region, they actually tell us little about where people live, the availability of resources, or the standard of living in a particular region. Density is not homogeneous within a country. In Australia, for example, overall population density is very low—three people per square kilometer. However, 91 percent of the population lives in urban areas where densities are much higher.

Population density, particularly in urbanized areas, does play a role in environmental degradation. Some analysts speculate that high levels of population density can trigger other socially disruptive events such as civil violence or poverty creating push or pull factors for migration.

But population density alone does not determine well-being. A densely populated Singapore with 6,785 people per square kilometer had a 2005 per capita gross national product that was nearly US$31,700, compared to sparsely populated Somalia, which continually faces severe food shortages, despite a density of 14 people per square kilometer.