Where are the world's largest cities?

An astronaut's eye view of urbanisation. Image: Getty.

Every year or so, Demographia, the St. Louis-based consultancy, publishes the World Urban Areas Report – a sort of bumper book of city population stats.

The report is a veritable treasure trove of demographic stats for city nerds. If you want to know whether, say, Edinburgh is one of the 1,000 biggest cities in the world, then Demographia will tell you. (It's not, it's just outside at joint 1017th). And if you want to know whether Paris covers a bigger land area than London, it'll tell you that, too. (It does: 2,845km2, as opposed to 1,738 km2.)

It even includes estimates for the size and density of hundreds of towns so tiny that you're slightly surprised to find that anyone on the other side of the Atlantic has even noticed they exist. (Favourite example: Kidderminster*.)

But the most fun is to be found in the first half of the report. Table 1 includes the 1,022 built-up areas in the world that house 500,000 people or more, ranked in order of population; Table 2 ranks the same cities in order of land area.

I don’t know about you guys, but we are stoked.

via GIPHY

(*55,000 people in 16 km2, giving a population density of 3,400 per km2, since you ask.)

Understanding the numbers

Explanations first. The report defines urban areas as

...a continuously built up land mass of urban development that is within a labour market (metropolitan area or metropolitan region)... [and] contains no rural land.

We should probably also note the reports caveat, about the limits of its own methodology:

Revisions are made as more accurate satellite photographs and population estimates become available. As a result, Demographia World Urban Areas is not intended for trend analysis.

Year-to-year changes indicated in population and land area may merely reflect better data that was not used before and may not, therefore indicate a trend.

In other words, if this year's report has a larger estimate for a city's population than last year's report, that might mean the city has grown. Then again, it might just mean that new, more accurate data has appeared.

Moreover, nearly all of the data is estimated. Appropriate caution is therefore advised.

Spoilsports.

The biggest cities, by counting people

Anyway, let’s get to the fun bit. Here are the 10 largest cities in the world by population:

It’s pretty familiar stuff. The top 10 is dominated by Asian cities, with a strong showing from New York City. Tokyo is far in the lead, with Jakarta and Delhi coming up behind. For anyone who pays any attention to this stuff, there aren't at first glance any massive surprises.

We're not supposed to compare with last year's figures for all the reasons laid out above, but what the hell, here's the 2015 top 10:

There are two big differences worth noting. One is that only one Chinese city is now in the top 10, down from three last year. (Beijing and Guangzhou are now ranked 11th and 13th.) All three have seen their populations revised downwards: this seems to the result of previous over-estimates, rather than mass evacuations.

The other noteworthy trend is the sudden appearance in the top 10 of Mumbai, with nearly 23m people. Last year, it ranked 13th with 17.7m. In a section headed "Revised data: highlights", the report notes:

The Mumbai built-up urban area has been expanded to incorporate the Bhiwandi, Kalyan and Vasai-Virar urban areas.

In other words, it isn't that a population the size of Madrid has moved to Mumbai over the last year. Rather, it's become clearer that the megacity has expanded to swallow surrounding areas.

You can see why ranking cities is a complicated business.

The biggest cities, by measuring land

As noted, most of the biggest cities in the world by population are in Asia. Most of the biggest cities in the world by physical size are, well, somewhere else.

Suddenly, with the single exception of Tokyo, Asia doesn’t even feature. Eight out of 10 are in the US. Atlanta has an estimated 5.1m residents, so measured by population it’s the 79th largest city in the world. Measured by land area, though, it ranks fourth.


I guess this is what happens when you build your cities around the car.

Incidentally, the report estimates Atlanta's population density to be 700 people per km2. The comparable figure for Dhaka in Bangladesh – 16.2m people, the 16th largest city in the world - is 44,100.

Dhaka is 63 times more crowded than Atlanta.

All the megacities

One more chart: this is the top 36 by population.

The reason we've stopped at that arbitrary point is not to get London into the rankings (well, not only for that reason). It's because the common definition of megacity is that with a population over 10m.

This is all of them. We've colour coded them by continent:

That's three each in North America, South America, Europe and Africa.

But the remaining 24 – two thirds of all the world's megacities – are in Asia. Five of them are in China alone.

Here, because we love you, is the data used in that graph. Enjoy.



Rank City Population
1 Tokyo-Yokohama 37,750,000
2 Jakarta 31,320,000
3 Delhi 25,735,000
4 Seoul-Incheon 23,575,000
5 Manila 22,930,000
6 Mumbai 22,885,000
7 Karachi 22,825,000
8 Shanghai 22,685,000
9 New York City 20,685,000
10 Sao Paulo 20,605,000
11 Beijing 20,390,000
12 MexicoCity 20,230,000
13 Guangzhou-Foshan 18,760,000
14 Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto 16,985,000
15 Moscow 16,570,000
16 Dhaka 16,235,000
17 Cairo 15,910,000
18 Bangkok 15,315,000
19 Los Angeles 15,135,000
20 Kolkata 14,810,000
21 Buenos Aires 14,280,000
22 Tehran 13,670,000
23 Istanbul 13,520,000
24 Lagos 12,830,000
25 Shenzhen 12,240,000
26 Rio de Janeiro 11,815,000
27 Kinshasa 11,380,000
28 Tianjin 11,260,000
29 Lima 10,950,000
30 Paris 10,870,000
31 Chengdu 10,680,000
32 Lahore 10,355,000
33 London 10,350,000
34 Bangalore 10,165,000
35 Ho Chi Minh City 10,075,000
36 Nagoya 10,035,000

 

And if you want more of this stuff, here’s our report on the 2015 edition of the Demographia World Urban Areas Atlas.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.