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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“Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis”

You BET! Oh GOD. Image: Getty.

Today, the mayor of London called for new powers to introduce rent controls in London. With ever increasing rents swallowing more of people’s income and driving poverty, the free market has clearly failed to provide affordable homes for Londoners. 

Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed primarily to attract investment, with the balance of power weighted almost entirely in landlords’ favour. As social housing stock has been eroded, with more than 1 million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped private renting. In 1990 just 11 per cent of households in London rented privately, but by 2017 this figure had grown to 27 per cent; it is also home to an increasing number of families and older people. 

When I first moved to London, I spent years spending well over 50 per cent of my income on rent. Even without any dependent to support, after essentials my disposable income was vanishingly small. London has the highest rent to income ratio of any region, and the highest proportion of households spending over a third of their income on rent. High rents limit people’s lives, and in London this has become a major driver of poverty and inequality. In the three years leading up to 2015-16, 960,000 private renters were living in poverty, and over half of children growing up in private rented housing are living in poverty.

So carefully designed rent controls therefore have the potential to reduce poverty and may also contribute over time to the reduction of the housing benefit bill (although any housing bill reductions have to come after an expansion of the system, which has been subject to brutal cuts over the last decade). Rent controls may also support London’s employers, two-thirds of whom are struggling to recruit entry-level staff because of the shortage of affordable homes. 

It’s obvious that London rents are far too high, and now an increasing number of voices are calling for rent controls as part of the solution: 68 per cent of Londoners are in favour, and a growing renters’ movement has emerged. Groups like the London Renters Union have already secured a massive victory in the outlawing of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. But without rent control, landlords can still unfairly get rid of tenants by jacking up rents.


At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to research what kind of rent control would work in London. Rent controls are often polarising in the UK but are commonplace elsewhere. New York controls rents on many properties, and Berlin has just introduced a five year “rental lid”, with the mayor citing a desire to not become “like London” as a motivation for the policy. 

A rent control that helps to solve London’s housing crisis would need to meet several criteria. Since rents have risen three times faster than average wages since 2010, rent control should initially brings rents down. Our research found that a 1 per cent reduction in rents for four years could lead to 20 per cent cheaper rents compared to where they would be otherwise. London also needs a rent control both within and between tenancies because otherwise landlords can just reset rents when tenancies end.

Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis – but it’s not without risk. Decreases in landlord profits could encourage current landlords to exit the sector and discourage new ones from entering it. And a sharp reduction in the supply of privately rented homes would severely reduce housing options for Londoners, whilst reducing incentives for landlords to maintain and improve their properties.

Rent controls should be introduced in a stepped way to minimise risks for tenants. And we need more information on landlords, rents, and their business models in order to design a rent control which avoids unintended consequences.

Rent controls are also not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a package of solutions to London’s housing affordability crisis, including a large scale increase in social housebuilding and an improvement in housing benefit. However, private renting will be part of London’s housing system for some time to come, and the scale of the affordability crisis in London means that the question of rent controls is no longer “if”, but increasingly “how”. 

Joe Beswick is head of housing & land at the New Economics Foundation.