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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There isn’t a single national housing market – so we need multiple models of local regeneration, too

Rochdale. Image: Getty.

This week’s budget comes ten years after the 2007 financial crisis. The trigger for that crisis was a loss in confidence in mortgages for homes, with banks suddenly recognising the vulnerability of loans on their books.

In the last ten years, the UK’s cities and regions have followed very different paths. This week’s focus on housing affordability is welcome, but it will be a challenge for any chancellor in the coming decade to use national policy to help towns up and down the country. Local housing markets differ drastically. The new crop of city-region mayors are recognising this, as rents in parts of south Greater Manchester are on average double the rents in parts of the north of the city-region.

When it comes to buying a home, politicians are increasingly articulate about the consequences of inequity in our housing system. But we must recognise that, for 9m citizens who live in social rented homes, the prospects of improvements to properties, common areas and grounds are usually tied to wider projects to create new housing within existing estates – sometimes involving complete demolition and rebuilding.

While the Conservative governments of the 1980s shrank the scale of direct investment in building homes for social rent, the Labour governments from the late 1990s used a sustained period of growth in property prices to champion a new model: affordable housing was to be paid for by policies which required contributions to go to housing associations. Effectively, the funding for new affordable housing and refurbished social homes was part of the profit from market housing built next door, on the same turf; a large programme of government investment also brought millions of social rented homes up to a decent standard.

This cross-subsidy model was always flawed. Most fundamentally, it relies on rising property prices – which it is neither desirable nor realistic to expect. Building more social homes became dependent on ratcheting up prices and securing more private profit. In London, we are starting to see that model come apart at the seams.

The inevitable result has been that with long social housing waiting lists and rocketing market prices, new developments have too often ended up as segregated local communities, home to both the richest and the poorest. They may live side by side, but as the RSA concluded earlier this year, investment in the social infrastructure and community development to help neighbours integrate has too often been lacking. Several regeneration schemes that soldiered on through the downturn did so by building more private homes and fewer social rented homes than existed before, or by taking advantage of more generous legal definitions of what counts as ‘affordable housing’ – or both.

A rough guide to how house prices have changed since 2007: each hexagon is a constituency. You can explore the full version at ODI Leeds.

In most of England’s cities, the story does not appear to be heading for the dramatic crescendo high court showdowns that now haunt both developers and communities in the capital. In fact, for most social housing estates in most places outside London, national government should recognise that the whole story looks very different. As austerity measures have tightened budgets for providers of social housing, budgets to refurbish ageing homes are under pressure to do more with less. With an uncertain outlook for property prices, as well as ample brownfield and greenfield housing sites, estates in many northern towns are not a priority for private investors in property development.

In many towns and cities – across the North and the Midlands – the challenges of a poor quality built environment, a poor choice of homes in the local are, and entrenched deprivation remain serious. The recent reclassification of housing associations into the private sector doesn’t make investing in repairs and renewal more profitable. The bespoke ‘housing deals’ announced show that the government is willing to invest directly – but there is anxiety that devolution to combined authorities simply creates another organisation that needs to prioritise building new homes over the renewal of existing neighbourhoods.


In Rochdale, the RSA is working with local mutual housing society RBH to plan for physical, social and economic regeneration at the same time. Importantly, we are making the case – with input from the community of residents themselves – that significant investment in improving employment for residents might itself save the public purse enough money to pay for itself in the long-run.

Lots of services are already effective at helping people find work and start a job. But for those for whom job searching feels out of reach, we are learning from Rochdale Borough Council’s pioneering work that the journey to work can only come from trusting, personal relationships. We hear time and again about the demoralising effect of benefits sanctions and penalties. We are considering an alternative provision of welfare payments, as are other authorities in the UK. Importantly, residents are identifying clearly the particular new challenges created by new forms of modern employment and the type of work available locally: this is a town where JD Sports is hiring 1000 additional workers to fulfil Black Friday orders at its warehouse.

In neighbourhoods like Rochdale’s town centre, both national government and the new devolved city-region administration are considering an approach to neighbourhood change that works for both people and place together. Redevelopment of the built environment is recognised as just one aspect of improving people’s quality of life. Residents themselves will tell you quality jobs and community facilities are their priority. But without a wider range of housing choices and neighbourhood investment locally, success in supporting residents to achieve rising incomes will mean many residents are likely to leave places like Rochdale town centre altogether.

Meaningful change happen won’t happen without patience and trust: between agencies in the public sector, between tenants and landlords, and between citizens and the leaders of cities. This applies as much to our planning system as it does to our complex skills and employment system.

Trust builds slowly and erodes quickly. As with our other projects at the RSA, we are convinced that listening and engaging citizens will improve policy-making. Most of those involved in regeneration know this better than anyone. But at the national level we need to recognise that, just as the labour market and the housing market vary dramatically from place to place, there isn’t a single national story which represents how communities feel about local regeneration.

Jonathan Schifferes is interim Director, Public Services and Communities, at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).