Six things we learned from the LSE’s interactive map of the world’s largest cities

Four continents of major cities, mapped. Image: LSE Cities.

So, here’s fun. LSE Cities, the London School of Economics’ inventively-named cities programme, has produced an interactive map of the largest urban agglomerations in the world.

Because the LSE is run by clever people, this map packs an enormous amount of information into a single graphic. You can see at a glance where the thickest clusters of major cities are, of course; but the use of bubble size to represent population means you can also see where the largest cities are, while the use of colours to represent predicated growth rates means you can see where urbanisation is happening fastest, too.

One thing you can’t see at present is where the sea is. That’s slightly odd – when we started looking at the map last week, it still showed the sea, and whether its sudden absence represents a change in policy, a technical screw up, or the disappearance of the world’s oceans in some kind of environment disaster is not exactly clear.

Click to expand. Image: LSE Cities.

But anyway, we spend enough time staring at maps to have a pretty good idea of what the world’s landmasses look like anyway, so it’s not too big a problem. Here are six things we learned from this map.

Most people live in a relatively small number of regions

Visualised like this, you can see quite how populated the world’s population is into relatively small areas of the world. So the Indian subcontinent and east Asian rim are thickly crowded with cities.

Click to expand. Image: LSE Cities.

There are less dense clusters in eastern North America, western Africa, and Europe.

But vast chunks of the world are largely uninhabited

The Sahara, for example, represents such a barrier in the urban landscape that, viewed without a map of landmasses, it’d be easy to mistake North Africa for a part of the European system (which, prior to the rise of western Christendom in the Middle Ages, it effectively was).

Click to expand. Image: LSE Cities.

There are other gaps in central Asia, central Africa, Australia and the Amazon – parts of the world dominated by mountains, jungles or deserts, rather than people.

No one wants to live near the poles either

The northernmost city on here seems to be Helsinki, which is still a good 2,700km from the North Pole. To put that figure in context, head south for the same distance and you’ll find yourself somewhere off the coast of Crete.

No one really lives in the northernmost third of Asia, either, while in Canada the cities cling to the US border for dear life. (This is why half of Canadians, counter intuitively, live south of Milan.)

Click to expand. Image: LSE Cities.

There’s much less land in the southern hemisphere, so it’s unsurprising that there are relatively few southern cities. But even where this is land, it’s generally pretty deserted: Patagonia is nearly empty.

Click to expand. Image: LSE Cities.

The southernmost major city in the world seems to be Melbourne, which is nearly 4,400km from the pole. The distance between the two poles is around 12,720km: the planet is literally half empty.

Eastern Europe is facing a demographic crisis

The map shows shrinking cities in blue bubbles, and growing ones in red. There aren’t many blue ones. That’s unsurprising – the world’s population is climbing, and a growing share of that larger population are expected to live in cities.

But a disproportionate number of those cities where pop is falling are ones that were once part of the Soviet Union. They include Riga, capital of Latvia, where pop falling by 1.35 per cent a year, and Dnepropetrovsk in the Ukraine, where it’s falling 1 per cent.

So is north east Asia

Click to expand. Image: LSE Cities.

The other concentration of shrinking cities is around the Sea of Japan. Mostly it’s cities in Japan itself – Tokyo, Sendai, Sapporo, Fukuoka – but across the bay in South Korean, Pusan is expected to see a fall in population, too. Perhaps its contagious.

The growth is regional

Most cities are growing, but they’re not all growing by the same rate. In Europe and Australia, the growth is so slow as to be almost invisible. It’s faster in the Americas and faster still in most of Asia.

Click to expand. Image: LSE Cities.

But the really big growth is happening in the cities of Africa: a thick band of boom towns running from Dakar in Senegal (predicted growth rate: 3.7 per cent a year) to Antananarivo, Madagascar (4.6 per cent a year).

There’s loads more to say about this graphic, so we’ll no doubt be coming back to it in future. But in the mean time, why not play with the interactive version on the LSE's Urban Age website?


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What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.