Where are largest cities in the world? 2015 edition

The world's biggest cities from above. Image: Getty.

The number of people who live in a city, as we may have mentioned before, is surprisingly hard to work out. That's partly because populations shift and change, unnoticed by demographers.


Mostly, though, it's because you quickly run into the fact that different authorities define their cities in entirely incompatible ways, rendering any attempt to compare them a bit like comparing apples with trucks. What you really need is a single source that follows a single set of rules: the results may not be perfect, but at least they'll be consistent.

That’s where Demographia comes in. The St. Louis-based consultancy was founded by the urban planner Wendell Cox (who, unusually for someone in that line of work, likes to write articles for conservative publications about the benefits of private car ownership). It also has a website that is, with the best will in the world, not massively easy on the eye.

But every year Demographia publishes something rather good: the World Urban Areas Report, a sort of bumper book of city population stats. You can check out the 11th edition here.

Here’s how it defines a city:

An urban area ("built-up urban area," urbanized area or urban agglomeration) is a continuously built up land mass of urban development that is within a labor market (metropolitan area or metropolitan region). An urban area contains no rural land... [It] is best thought of as the “urban footprint” – the lighted area that can be observed from an airplane (or satellite) on a clear night.

This year's edition of the World Urban Areas Report covers more than a thousand of the largest cities in the world, from Tokyo (pop. 37,000,000), right down to tiddlers like 850th-ranked Leicester (Pop. 534,000): all 1,009 cities, in fact, with a population of half a million of more.

Here are the top 10. See if you can spot any pattern.

 

Seeing it yet? Need a clue?

Okay, here's the same chart again. This time, we’ve coloured the cities by continent.

 

Yep.

Asia's dominance continues as you move down the league tables, too. Here's the top 20:

 

The world's largest continent, in fact, is home to 33 of the world's 50 largest cities, and 50 of the top 100. After that we got bored and stopped counting.

This isn't quite as extreme a result as it may appear: Asia, after all, is home to just shy of 60 per cent of the world's population. So the way in which the 2.1bn people who live in cities of half a million souls or more are distributed around the globe is largely a function of where people actually live. Look:

Comparing those two graphs, you can see that the Americas and Australia are unusually urbanised, Africa unusually under-urbanised, and Europe and Asia are pretty close to what you'd expect.

There are two other striking things about these league tables.

China rules

The first is the dominance of China, which takes 12 places in the top 50, and 22 of the top 100.

Again, this shouldn't be surprising – it's the world's most populous country, home to nearly a fifth of humanity – but nonetheless, it's striking how many of these megacities you almost certainly haven't heard of.

Where power lies

The other striking thing here is how far down the league tables many of the world's most powerful cities fall. Here's where some of the places that commonly make the “world city” league tables fall:

 

Size, it seems, isn't everything.

The data

Here, for completism's sake, is a chart showing the figures for all the city population charts above. You can find the full data set on Demographia's website, here.

Rank City Population
1 Tokyo-Yokohama 37,843,000
2 Jakarta 30,539,000
3 Delhi 24,998,000
4 Maniilla 24,123,000
5 Seoul-Incheon 23,480,000
6 Shanghai 23,416,000
7 Karachi 22,123,000
8 Beijing 21,009,000
9 New York 20,630,000
10 Guangzhou-Foshan 20,597,000
11 Sao Paulo 20,365,000
12 Mexico City 20,063,000
13 Mumbai 17,712,000
14 Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto 17,444,000
15 Moscow 16,170,000
16 Dhaka 15,669,000
17 Cairo 15,600,000
18 Los Angeles 15,058,000
19 Bangkok 14,998,000
20 Kolkata 14,667,000
25 Shenzhen 12,084,000
28 Tianjin 10,920,000
29 Paris 10,858,000
31 Chengdu 10,376,000
32 London 10,236,000
37 Chicago 9,156,000
41 Dongguan 8,442,000
43 Wuhan 7,509,000
45 Hangzhou 7,275,000
46 Hong Kong 7,246,000
47 Chongqing 7,217,000
50 Quanzhou 6,710,000
57 Nanjing 6,155,000
58 Shenyang 6,078,000
59 Xi'an 5,977,000
62 Qingdao 5,816,000
68 Singapore 5,624,000
72 Suzhou 5,246,000
76 Zhengzhou 4,942,000
77 Washington DC 4,889,000
79 Harbin 4,815,000
89 Boston 4,478,000
90 Xiamen 4,420,000
94 Dalian 4,183,000
97 Berlin 4,069,000
99 Fuzhou 3,962,000
101 Dubai 3,933,000
299 Amsterdam 1,624,000
832 Geneva 599,000
 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.