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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The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.