What are the biggest cities in Germany?

The Brandenburg Gate, at the centre of Germany's capital, Berlin. Image: Pedelecs

Germany, very obviously, has a more complex recent history than some of its European neighbours. It started the 19th century as a collection of microstates, began the 20th as an empire, and finished it as a coherent (if smaller) nation; in the middle, it tried life as a republic, had a go at fascism, was occupied by four countries, and then became the chief battlefield in the world’s biggest ever proxy war.

It's that last bit is crucial to understanding Germany’s cities in the 21st century. When the country was split into two acronyms – the FDR, or West Germany, and DDR/GDR, East Germany – the capital of Berlin was left in a tricky spot.

Split between east and west, with a wall enveloping the western side, it was the chief battleground for the latter  20th centuries battles of rhetoric and ideology, if not of actual boots on the ground.

So while the other chief European capitals of Paris and London were booming, growing, and locking down their total dominance of their respective nations, Berlin was left behind. Half of it was the capital of the communist East Germany, but the other half was a rigorously maintained PR exercise for the West’s hopes and dreams, with the real workings of a capital shuffled off to Bonn, on the Rhine.

The Berlin wall weaving its way around the Brandenburg Gate. Image: Roger W.

But despite the setbacks that a very long wall, lots of empty no-man’s land, the odd blockade and airlift, and a few hundred miles in barbed wire might offer, Berlin is still Germany’s largest single city. With 3.6m people living in the city proper, and 6m in the wider urban area, it’s the big beast of German cities.

Berlin, Germany's biggest individual city. Image: Nordenfan.

Sticking to individual official cities – a clarification that will become very important – it stands a fair way ahead of its nearest rival. But relative to the way Paris and London absolutely dwarf out all other cities in their respective countries, Germany actually has a fairly good selection of moderately large cities. Here's the top 10, in terms of official city populations:

  • 1. Berlin – 3,275,000
  • 2. Hamburg – 1,686,100
  • 3. München (Munich) – 1,185,400
  • 4. Köln (Cologne) – 965,300
  • 5. Frankfurt – 648,000
  • 6. Essen – 588,800
  • 7. Dortmund – 587,600
  • 8. Stuttgart – 581,100
  • 9. Düsseldorf – 568,900
  • 10. Bremen – 527,900

Source: City Mayors, 2015.

Let's get physical

Of course, as any regular readers will know, official government boundaries are not the only way of defining cities. Indeed, when it comes to comparing cities, and one has boundaries that are much more expansive than another, it can be pretty misleading at times.

A more solid way of defining things is to, basically, draw a line round an urban area and call it a city. That's basically what the US consultancy Demographia does every year in its World Urban Areas report. Here's the top 10 from 2016: 

  • 1. Essen-Dusseldorf – 6,675,000
  • 2. Berlin – 4,085,000
  • 3. Cologne-Bonn – 2,115,000
  • 4. Hamburg – 2,095,000
  • 5. Munich – 2,000,000
  • 6. Frankfurt – 1,930,000
  • 7. Stuttgart – 1,385,000
  • 8. Dresde –  735,000
  • 9. Hannover – 715,000
  • 10. Nuremberg – 675,000

Source: Demographia, 2016.

Suddenly Berlin has lost the top spot to Essen-Dusseldorf, a conurbation several dozen kilometres across on the shores of the Rhine. Whether that's a single city or not is a different question.

While we're here, note, too, that the gap between the largest urban areas and those ranking 3rd to 6th is relatively narrow. Compare that to the UK, where London's 10m or so people completely dwarfs the under 3m in Birmingham and Mancheste.

For what it's worth,Bremen, which sneaks into the top 10 when considered an individual city, just misses it as an urban area, ranking 11th with 660,000 people. 

Munich, Germany's third biggest individual city. Image: Stefan Kühn.

Metro, metro man

There's one more way we can define cities: by their metropolitan area, that is, the entire economic footprint of a city including its suburbs and commuter towns. 

The German government, helpfully, does all that for us: its metropolitan areas are collections of local authorities which have signed treaties to co-operate in certain areas. Many of these regions cross state boundaries: Hamburg, for instance, is a city-state in itself; but its metropolregion also includes eight districts in Lower Saxony, six in Schleswig-Holstein, and two Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Judge city size on this basis, and the top 10 looks like this:

  • Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region (includes Essen, Dusseldorf, Cologne and Bonn) 11.3m
  • Berlin/Brandenburg metropolitan region – 6m
  • Frankfurt Rhine-Main metropolitan region – 5.8m
  • Stuttgart metropolitan region – 5.3m
  • Munich metropolitan region – 5.2m
  • Hamburg metropolitan region – 5.1m
  • Central German metropolitan region (basically Leipzig and Dresden)  4.4m
  • Hannover–Braunschweig–Göttingen–Wolfsburg metropolitan region  3.9m
  • Nuremberg metropolitan region  3.5m
  • Rhine–Neckar metropolitan region (mostly Mannheim and Heidelberg)  2.4

Once again the striking thing here is how flat these figures are. Sure, the polycentric Rhine-Ruhr region is enormous, on a par with London or Paris – but beyond that there are another six cities of around half its size. 

So: now you know.

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Brexit is an opportunity for cities to take back control

Leeds Town Hall. Image: Getty.

The Labour leader of Leeds City Council on the future of Britain’s cities.

As the negotiations about the shape of the UK’s exit from the EU continue, Britain’s most economically powerful cities outside London are arguing that the UK can be made stronger for Brexit – by allowing cities to “take back control” of service provision though new powers and freedoms

Core Cites UK, the representative voice of the cities at the centre of the ten largest economic areas outside London, has just launched an updated version of our green paper, ‘Invest Reform Trust’. The document calls for radical but deliverable proposals to allow cities to prepare for Brexit by boosting their productivity, and helping to rebalance the economy by supporting inclusive economic growth across the UK.

Despite representing areas responsible for a quarter of the UK’s economy and nearly a third of exports, city leaders have played little part in the development of the government’s approach to Brexit. Cities want a dialogue with the government on their Brexit plans and a new settlement which sees power passing from central government to local communities.

To help us deliver a Brexit that works for the UK’s cities, we are opening a dialogue with the EU Commission’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier to share our views of the Brexit process and what our cities want to achieve.

Most of the changes the Core Cities want to see can already be delivered by the UK. To address the fact that the productivity of UK cities lags behind competitors, we need to think differently and begin to address the structural problems in our economy before Brexit.

International evidence shows that cities which have the most control over taxes raised in their area tend to be the most productive.  The UK is significantly out of step with international competitors in the power given to cities and we are one of the most centralised countries in the world.  


Boosting the productivity of the UK’s Core Cities to the UK national average would increase the country’s national income by £70-£90bn a year. This would be a critical boost to the UK’s post-Brexit economic success.

Our green paper is clear that one-size fits all policy solutions simply can’t deal with the complexities of 21st century Britain. We need a place-based approach that looks at challenges and solutions in a different way, focused on the particular needs of local communities and local economies.

For example, our Core Cities face levels of unemployment higher than the national average, but also face shortages of skilled workers.  We need a more localised approach to skills, education and employment support with greater involvement from local democratic and business leaderships to deliver the skills to support growth in each area.

The UK will only make a success of Brexit if we are able to increase our international trade. Evidence shows city to city networks play an important role in boosting international trade.  The green paper calls for a new partnership with the Department of International trade to develop an Urban Trade programme across the UK’s cities and give cities more of a role in international trade missions.

To deliver economic growth that includes all areas of the UK, we also need to invest in our infrastructure. Not just our physical infrastructure of roads, rail telecommunications and so forth, but also our health, education and care infrastructure, ensuring that we are able to unlock the potential of our core assets, our people.

Whether you think that Brexit is a positive or a negative thing for the UK, it is clear that the process will be a challenging one.  Cities have a key role to play in delivering a good Brexit: one that sees local communities empowered and economic prosperity across all areas of the UK.

Cllr Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council.