The Antiplanner blogsite recently ran an interesting and controversial post arguing that South Korea’s extraordinarily low fertility rate is linked to its prevalence of high-rise housing. As the author put it:
South Korea’s high-rise housing and low birthrates are closely related. People don’t have children if they don’t have room for them. High rises are expensive to build so living space is at a premium. Birth rates are declining throughout the developed world, but they have declined the most in countries like South Korea, Russia, and China that have tried to house most of their people in high rises.
The post elicited pushback, with one commenter stating that she saw “not a shred of evidence other than his bald assertion that people in Korea have no room for kids.” Evidence is indeed necessary to support such a claim, but is it available? It is true that some other countries noted for their high-rise housing, most notably Brazil, have also experienced plummeting fertility. But in both Brazil and South Korea, low fertility is also characteristic of rural areas and small towns that are not dominated by high-rise housing, albeit not to the same degree as in large cities covered with apartment towers.
My immediate reaction to this article was to try to devise a geographical test, one that would allow direct comparisons of housing types and fertility rates. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a relevant data source in the time that I allotted myself for the task. The best information that I could find is a list of European countries by people living in detached and semi-detached housing. People not living in such dwellings can generally be assumed to live in apartment (or condominium) blocks, which can be low-rise, mid-rise, or high-rise. Although this would therefore be a poor test of the Antiplanner’s thesis, it nevertheless seemed worth pursuing.
As can be seen in the paired maps below, the correlation between multifamily housing and fertility levels in Europe is weak. It is true that most countries with extremely low fertility have little detached or semi-detached housing, including Greece, Italy, and Spain. By the same token, some countries that have abundant detached or semi-detached housing have relatively high fertility, such as Ireland. But note the exceptions. North Macedonia, for example, has extremely low fertility but a high percentage of people living in detached or semi-detached housing, whereas Estonia shows the opposite pattern.
Since the Antiplanner claims that high-rise housing generates low fertility primarily because of inadequate room for child rearing, a better measurement would be to compare TFR with average living-space per household. I have not, however, been able to find an adequate data set to assess this assertion. A Eurostat graph showing “average number of rooms per person 2021” (size unspecified), however, does not indicate a significant correlation. According to this graph, Malta has the most capacious housing in Europe, with 2.3 rooms per person, yet its TFR, 1.13, is one of the lowest in the world. The same source also indicates that ultra-low fertility Spain has much more spacious housing (2 rooms per person) than relatively high-fertility Romania (1.1 rooms per person).
Culturally informed views about the amount of room necessary to rear a child vary significantly from country to country. In general, the wealthier the society, the more space is considered necessary. Such calculations also vary with employment conditions. I have been told by several young couples that more room is necessary for child rearing than before COVID, as one bedroom must now be reserved for an office that can be devoted to at-home work through Zoom. That belief could be dismissed, however, as a mere rationalization for not having children.
The most interesting finding from the data on detached and semi-detached housing in Europe concerns the geographical differences between these two categories. As the second set of paired maps shows, a few countries that have relatively little detached housing have an abundance of semi-detached housing, particularly the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.