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Largest cities in the world — revisited

Following my recent post about the largest cities in the world (from 100 to 2015 CE), a number of you rightly pointed out that the data looked questionable. Where, for example, is Shanghai in this latest list of largest cities? So I think it’s important that I do a follow-up post.

There are a number of nuances to consider when trying to measure urban populations. Perhaps the two most obvious are the geographic extent of each city (i.e. what urban boundary do you use) and the number of people living in informal settlements.

The UN recently estimated that there are some 1 billion people living in slums or informal settlements. That represents nearly a quarter of the world’s urban population, which is a staggering number and a pressing global need. We desperately need more housing.

When it comes to measuring the size of an urban agglomeration, most of the studies that I have seen tend not to focus on municipal boundaries (“city propers”) or metropolitan areas. The former is often based on arbitrary political boundaries and the latter often contains undeveloped rural land.

So for the purposes of this post, I’m going to go with Demographia’s definition of “built-up urban area.” They define this as being a continuously built-up area with one labor market and with no rural land. In their view, the world is either urban/built-up or rural. The built-up part is the lighted area that you would see on a nighttime satellite photo.

Given this definition, there are a number of interesting fringe cases. For example, contiguous/adjacent urban areas with more than one labor market get split up into multiple ones. This is the case in the US with the northeastern “megalopolis” that runs from Boston to Washington.

Conversely, if adjacent urban areas share a labor market and are linked together by similar commuting flows, then they get grouped into one urban area. This might be the case even if the area(s) straddle a national border. In this particular case, the free movement of people and goods would be another prerequisite.

With these definitions out of the way, below is another stab at sharing an accurate list of the world’s largest megacities or built-up urban areas. This is one is by Demographia and there are a number of key changes compared to the last one I shared. Shanghai now features in the top 10. But Lagos drops down to number 20, which remains a bit of a question mark for me.

For a copy of Demographia’s full report, click here. It looks at all urban areas with a population greater than 500,000 people (total is 985). Of course, if any of you have any other data sources that you think I should take a look at, feel free to share them in the comment section below.

1 Comment so far

  1. Greg S

    Urban population, as you point out, is incredibly difficult to dimension. The Wikipedia article on the subject is actually excellent, with explanations of the different methodologies and a list that is sortable by different categories: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_cities

    The issue that may have lead to the wonky data in the U. Mich. maps referenced in your original post is that no cities in China list any figures for “Metropolitan Area.”

    Liked by 1 person

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