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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How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.