I ran across a website about Megacities and their trends in the 21st Century. I am not yet certain what the site’s agenda is, so I am not recommending it yet. However, some of the data was so fascinating to me that I wanted to share it here.

The site detailed the biggest cities in the world in AD 1000, 1500, 1800, 1900, 1950 and 2005. That is the data I wanted to show you.

First a couple of tidbits:

In 1800 only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities. By 1900 150 million people lived in cities, and last year the number finally went past 50%. It is estimated that by 2050 over 2/3 of the world’s population will live in cities. (In other words, this is important stuff.) I just want you to think about these stats for a moment. 3% in 1800 to over 50% now. How much of the staggering economic and technological boom—and conversely, how many of the modern problems, have come because of the dramatic increase in urban populations?

In 1950, 83 cities—or agglomerations, which basically means the urban area—had over one million people. Today that number is 468 cities. Wow. 468 cities have at least one million people.

A couple of quick caveats:

Giving accurate population information is tricky at best, and sometimes fraught with political motivations we might not be aware of. But even setting that aside, just agreeing on what makes a city can be tough. For example, the “city” of Atlanta has around 400,000 people, but folks in Atlanta know that the Atlanta area has 4,000,000, and generally give that number to outsiders who ask how big the city is. Another example: some recent news publication tried to claim that Mexico City is now the world’s biggest city. This is just silly. By any reasonable counting, it is a solid #2, although some of the Asian cities could have already passed it and we might not know. Still, Mexico City is barely half of #1, which makes claiming it as such about a logical as claiming that Niles was a larger man than Frasier.

This is the important caveat: If trends continue, the world’s population will double every 38 years, which has a profound impact. But neither that estimation or the figures below should IN ANY WAY IMPLY OR MAKE YOU THINK THAT I AM SAYING WE HAVE OR WILL SOON HAVE TOO MANY PEOPLE. THE IDEA THAT THE WORLD IS OVER POPULATED IS ALMOST TOO STUPID FOR WORDS, yet you hear this every day, bandied about as if it were obvious fact. It isn’t. This “fact,” is in fact a canard, one of those things that gets repeated by enough people until the majority assumes it’s a fact. You can see the appeal: 6.6 billion is an almost incomprehensible number, and everywhere we go there is less parking and more traffic. (That may sound facile, but it really is the entirety of the thought process that many people put into population growth.) The world could sustain an exponentially higher number of people than it has now, which is not to say there are not and will not be problems, some of them serious or even catastrophic. But those problems are not a direct result of “over population.” If you’ve been repeating this fallacy, look into how whoever it is you’re listening to is getting his/her figures. Or bone up on your math and prove it for yourself.

All right, enough chiding, let’s look at stats, and revel in those stats with wonkish glee like the nerds we are!

The Biggest Cities in A.D. 1000

1) Cordova, Spain - 450,000

2)Kaifeng, China - 400,000

3) Istanbul, Turkey - 300,000

4) Angkor, Cambodia - 200,000

5) Kyoto, Japan - 175,000

6) Cairo, Egypt - 135,000

7) Baghdad, Iraq - 125,000

8) Neyshabur, Iran - 125,000

9) Al-Hassa, Saudi Arabia - 110,000

10) Patan, India - 100,000

11) Tikal, Guatemala - 92,000

Thoughts: Be honest. You wouldn’t have guessed more than maybe two of these, and you probably only recognized four of the names. I find it fascinating and chilling that not only are so many of these cities no longer prominent, but they no longer exist, even in the collective consciousness. Will they one day say the same for New York and L.A.? Many today mock the Arab world for its backward ways, but it pays to remember that at one time it was the epicenter of culture.

The Biggest Cities in 1500

1) Beijing, China - 672,000

2) Vijayanagar, India - 500,000

3) Cairo, Egypt - 400,000

4) Hangzhou, China - 250,000

5) Tabriz, Iran - 250,000

6) Istanbul, Turkey - 200,000

7) Gaur, Nepal - 200,000

8) Paris, France - 185,000

9) Guangzhou, China - 150,000

10) Nanjing, China - 147,000

Thoughts: Four of the ten cities are in China (five if you count Nepal), yet we know so little about the country from this time period. I think many people see China’s massive population as a recent thing: they have been packing them in for quite some time. It bothers me that so many of these cities are lost from memory.

The Biggest Cities in 1800

1) Beijing, China - 1,100,000

2) London, UK - 861,000

3) Guangzhou, China - 800,000

4) Tokyo, Japan - 685,000

5) Istanbul, Turkey - 570,000

6) Paris, France - 547,000

7) Naples, Italy - 430,000

8) Hangzhou, China - 387,000

9) Osaka, Japan - 383,000

10) Kyoto, Japan - 377,000

Thoughts: Our first city over a million people, at least in this arbitrary timeline. Fitting that it should be in China. Japan is now obviously a power, with an equal number of “Mega” cities as its neighbor, and Europe rounds out the other four. Not a surprise, really, but I’m not sure I would have guessed Naples. Actually, I’m sure I would not have.

The Biggest Cities in 1900

1) London, UK - 6,480,000

2) New York City, US - 4,242,000

3) Paris, France - 3,330,000

4) Berlin, Germany - 2,707,000

5) Chicago, US - 1,717,000

6) Vienna, Austria - 1,698,000

7) Tokyo, Japan - 1,497,000

8) St. Petersburg, Russia - 1,439,000

9) Manchester, UK - 1,435,000

10) Philadelphia, US - 1,418,000

Thoughts: the idea that London was at one point the largest city in the world—easily—makes sense historically; at least from the books I have read of the time period. On the other hand, it also has a “quaint” feel, as if something from an age that will never come again. (Not that London is a small city now…I guess I’m not sure how to explain how I feel.) But I waste time on trifles. The most dramatic thing about this list is not that Europe dominates with six entries, the US with three and Asia only one (and none for China!), but how massive the cities now are. It took eight hundred years to go from 450,000 people to just over 1,000,000, and in only a hundred more years we have sextupled the population of the largest city, and all 10 now cross the million mark. Hmm. I wonder if something happened, especially in Europe and America, between 1800 and 1900 that would have explained such a seismic population shift.1 By the way, in case the China thing baffles you, whatever happened in Europe and the US did not happen in China, in this century. Obviously.

The Biggest Cities in 1950

1) New York City, US - 12,463,000

2) London, UK - 8,860,000

3) Tokyo, Japan - 7,000,000

4) Paris, France - 5,900,000

5) Shanghai, China - 5,406,000

6) Moscow, Russia - 5,100,000

7) Buenos Aires, Argentina - 5,000,000

8) Chicago, US - 4,906,000

9) Rhine-Ruhr, Germany - 4,900,000

10) Calcutta, India - 4,800,000

Thoughts: fifty more years, and the world continues to change at breakneck speed. The ten cities are now bigger than all but #1 from 1900, and the distribution has changed dramatically, too. Europe still has four of the ten, but with Germany and Moscow gaining entry. Asia has three again, and South America shows up with an invitation.

The Biggest Cities as of 2005

1) Tokyo, Japan - 35,197,000

2) Mexico City, Mexico - 19,411,000

3) New York, City, US - 18,718,000

4) Sao, Paulo, Brazil - 18,333,000

5) Mumbai, India - 18,196,000

6) Delhi, India - 15,048,000

7) Shanghai, China - 14,503,000

8) Jakarta, Indonesia - 13,215,000

9) Buenos Aires, Argentina - 12,550,000

10) Los Angeles, US - 12,298,000

11) Karachi, Pakistan - 11,608,000

12) Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 11,469,000

13) Osaka-Kobe, Japan - 11,268,000

14) Cairo, Egypt - 11,128,000

15) Lagos, Nigeria - 10,886,000

16) Beijing, China - 10,717,000

17) Manila, Philippines - 10,686,000

18) Moscow, Russia - 10,654,000

19) Paris, France - 9,820,000

20) Istanbul, Turkey - 9,712,000

21) Seoul, South Korea - 9,645,000

22) London, UK - 8,505,000

23) Tehran, Iran - 7,314,000

24) Shenzhen, China - 7,233,000

Thoughts: The next time someone tells you that Mexico City is now the largest in the world, you hit them with a rolled up newspaper. Tokyo (which well may be considerably larger than even this figure), is a force unto itself. It is so large that people take flights to get from one part of the city to the other, if travel time is an issue. I have a larger sample size this time, and the results are fascinating. Europe now only gets three out of twenty-four (although if we had extended to 26 they would have picked up Berlin). North America pulls in three, including two of the top three. The Middle East manages four, which I do not think many people realize Africa only places one, but look for that number to increase dramatically in the next 40 years, as will South America’s three. The winner—by a wide margin, is again Asia, with 10 cities. I hadn’t heard Asia had many people; had you? Realistically, your top 6 cities are probably already over twenty million, and if we are looking at the agglomerate urban area, maybe the top 10. This raises the question of how large a city could actually get, and how large we’d want it to get. The world may be able to support quite a bit more people, but getting water to all of those people in one spot would prove a challenge.2

I hope these sets of statistics have been illuminating for you, and given you something to think about, or at least quiz your office mates about at work this afternoon. Mega Cities could potentially be the biggest force of the 21st Century, well, second biggest,3 and it would pay to know as much as we can.

November 15, 2007


1 Extra Credit if you knew it was Elves driving farmers out of the country back to the city.
2 What? Hyperion admitted that population density could provide challenges? Of course he did. He’s not an idiot. He just doesn’t swallow the “sky is falling” mendacity that the earth cannot sustain many more people. Of course this does not mean he wants many more people. He’d like to get rid of quite a few. No, really. He made a list.
3 I got your first biggest force of the century…..right here. (That’s what she said!)


GW Bush said...

This is the reason I support more use of the Nucular Warhead.

Lady Jane Scarlett said...

All this talk about number is making me very nerd-anxious. I think I need a cold shower.

Bogart said...

Now that you have analyzed the history of the Earth's population, what is your plan of attack for taking control of it all?

Sparky Duck said...

Philadelphia fell off the list because we keep shooting each other.