Which is the largest city in Europe?

Nobody tell Marine, Geert, Donald and the lads about this, honestly, they'll go mad. Image: Julian Nitzsche

It's London, right?

It’s the big one, the leviathan, the great leader and global bastion – standing streaks ahead of its tiddly continental competitors, head and shoulders above those EU capitals and provincial cities across the Channel. Surely, undeniably, inevitably, London must the largest city in Europe.

Right?

Well, so as to avoid the imminent danger of sounding like a Brexit-sponsored advertising campaign, the answer is: yes and no.

There are two obvious variables here – how do we define Europe, and how do we define a city?

First, the likely less contentious of the two options – how do we define Europe’s cities?

Within the city walls

To start with, there’s an obvious option: how the cities define themselves. In terms of the administrative limits of each city, a hierarchy becomes clear – and yes, London is on top.

Mmmmm, London. Image: 0x010C.

To avoid getting bogged down in the detail of each individual census, national statistics office, or city population office, here’s the listing of cities by population within city limits.

1. London, UK: 8,673,713

2. Berlin, Germany: 3,670,999

3. Madrid, Spain: 3,131,991

4. Rome, Italy: 2,870,336

5. Paris, France: 2,224,000

6. Bucharest, Romania: 2,106,144

7. Vienna, Austria: 1,657,960

8. Hamburg, Germany: 1,787,408

9. Budapest, Hungary: 1,759,407

10. Warsaw, Poland: 1,748,916

But wait, what?

London realistically has a lot more than 8.6m people, and there are definitely bigger urban areas in Europe than Berlin, with a measly 3.6m.

And what's happened to Paris? Why would everyone be so obsessed with a city of just 2.2m people?

Something’s up.


If you broaden the net, and start talking about ‘urban agglomerations’ – basically, cities and the bits around them that also function as part of the city – we get a very different picture.

Near the city walls

There are all sorts of caveats and rules that go into these measurements, from the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which published its population estimates for 2015 in its World Urbanisation Prospects tome.

The core idea is that, discounting rivers, parks, roads, and industrial fields, urban agglomerations are built-up areas where houses are not more than 200 metres apart. But the definition doesn’t stretch as far as satellite cities: so London’s commuter belt, with its stretches of evil greenbelt as a dividing line, don’t count, but the Parisian suburbs, very much close to and part of Paris proper, do.

And the results on this measure are, obviously, rather different:

1. Paris, France: 10,843,285

2. London, UK: 10,313,307

3. Madrid, Spain: 6,229,254

4. Berlin, Germany: 6,000,000

5. Barcelona, Spain: 5,258,319

6. Rome, Italy: 3,717,956

7. Milan, Italy: 3,098,974

8. Athens, Greece: 3,051,899

9. Lisbon, Portugal: 2,884,297

10. Manchester, UK: 2,645,598

There’s a variant version of this definition, too: one which includes areas that are generally built-up but aren’t specifically centred on one particular city. Demographia’s figures are produced on that basis, and that comes up with a similar picture, but with a very different front-runner:

1. Ruhr Area, Germany: 11,100,000

2. Paris, France: 10,858,000

3. London, UK: 10,236,000

4. Berlin, Germany: 6,269,000

5. Madrid, Spain: 6,171,000

Düsseldorf, the heart of the Ruhr Area. Image: Cristian Bortes.

To avoid list fatigue, let’s just say that the rest of the top ten runs in roughly the same way.

Emotionally attached the city walls

But to everyone who grew up sort of near a big place but not really in the big place, and got sick of explaining to visiting Americans exactly what and where Hemel Hempstead was, there’s another handy definition that produces a picture of the metropolitan area, or functional urban region. That is to say; the area where realistically you’re part of the family of the urban centre, in terms of living, commuting, and functioning, even if you’re not technically part of it.

These figures from Eurostat, the statistics arm of the European Union, offer that view:

1. London area, UK: 14,031,830

2. Paris area, France: 12,005,077

3. Madrid area, Spain: 6,378,297

4. Barcelona area, Spain: 5,445,616

5. Ruhr area, Germany: 5,045,784

6. Berlin, Germany: 5,005,216

7. Milan area, Italy: 4,267,946

8. Athens, Greece: 3,863,763

9. Rome area, Italy: 3,700,000

10. Warsaw area, Poland: 3,304,641

So, that's sorted, right? It's London, or Paris, or possibly the Ruhr. We cool?

Except, no. Because Europe itself isn’t that simple, as we’re about to find out.

Whose Europe is it anyway?

There’s the EU, the Schengen Area, the Customs Union, the EEA, the Continent, and then the sticky issue of Europe itself.

Does it stop at the Bulgarian and Greek border with Turkey? The rickety border Russia shares with Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland?

Does Europe end at the Bosporus, the ancient meeting point of East and West at Constantinople and Byzantium at the entrance to the Black Sea? Is Istanbul in Europe, or only the part of it on the right side of the water?

So, let's include European Turkey, give Istanbul the benefit of the doubt, and stretch Europe as far as the Ural mountains in Russia. And then, the size rankings change again:

By city limits (the first definition), here’s how things look:

1. Istanbul, Turkey: 14,804,116

2. Moscow, Russia: 12,330,126

3. London, UK: 8,673,713

4. St. Petersburg, Russia: 5,225,690

5. Berlin, Germany: 3,562,166

But as before, that definition of the city isn’t particularly useful – as it shunts the Continental giant of Paris to the relegation zone purely because the administrative area of the arrondissements is tiny.

With so many fluctuating figures based on so many different definitions, it’s probably more useful to conclude by dividing European cities into three broad classes. Let's call them megacities, very big cities, and quite big cities.

In the megacity category, we get roughly:

1. Moscow, Russia: 17.9m

2. Istanbul, Turkey: 14.8m

3. London, UK: 14m

4. Paris, France: 12m

5. Ruhr Area, Germany: 11.1m

Moscow, much bigger and shinier than you thought. Image: Dmitry Mottl.

The very big cities follow:

6. Madrid, Spain: 6.4m

7. Barcelona, Spain: 5.5m

8. Berlin, Germany: 5m

9. St Petersburg, Russia: 4.8m  

10. Milan, Italy: 4.2m

And then the rest. Rome, Athens, Warsaw, Lisbon, Manchester, Bucharest, Vienna, and so on, happily muddling along somewhere between 2m and 4m people.

The more you know.

Bonus point

If your city obsession is beyond entry level, a brief lesson in megalopolises (megalopoles?). Popularised in the early 20th century, the term applies to a chain of cities that are sort of near each other and can be thought of as working in a roughly coherent whole – the typical example being the north-eastern seaboard of the US, with its smudge of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.

In Europe, for some reason, this has become a battle of the bananas.

The ‘Green Banana’ comes in third place, with roughly 40m people spread between the cities of Gdansk, Warsaw, and Katowice in Poland; Ostrava, Prague, Olomouc, and Brno in the Czech Republic; Vienna in Austria; Bratislava and Zilina in Slovakia; Budapest and Gyor in Hungary; Ljubljana in Slovenia; Zagreb in Croatia; and Trieste in Italy.

In second place we have the Golden Banana, with 45m or so. The colour comes, in theory, from the luscious sands of the Western Mediterranean, with the megalopolis defined as including Turin and Genoa in Italy; Lyon, Nice, Toulon, Marseille, Nîmes, Montpellier, Narbonne, Perpignan, and Toulouse in France; Monaco in Monaco (obviously); Andorra la Vella in Andorra; and Manresa, Girona, Vic, Barcelona, Tarragona, Catellón de la Plana, Sagunt, Valencia, Alicante, Murcia, and Cartagena in Spain.

But supreme among European transnational megalopolises comes the mighty Blue Banana. This mythological elision of cities harbours 130m people and includes (deep breath in) Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, and London in the UK; Brussels and Antwerp in Belgium; Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht in the Netherlands; Luxembourg in Luxembourg; Cologne, Düsseldorf, Dortmund, Essen, Duisburg, Wuppertal, Frankfurt, Munich, Stuttgart, and Nuremberg in Germany; Strasbourg and Lille in France; Zürich and Basel in Switzerland; and Turin, Milan, and Genoa in Italy.

So yeah. There’s that. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.