Continuity and change in the world’s 20 largest cities

David Satterthwaite looks at changes in the rankings for the world's largest cities, revealing which cities have surged up the top 20, and which have fallen.  

David Satterthwaite's picture
David Satterthwaite is senior fellow in IIED's Human Settlements research group
31 January 2020
The transition to a predominantly urban world
A series of insights and interviews designed to share the experiences of community leaders, professionals, researchers and government from the global South
Crowds of pedestrians in Tokyo

Tokyo is the world's largest city. Its iconic Shibuya crossing combines 10 lanes of traffic and five pedestrian crossings (Michael Vesia, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Having already looked at how the list of the world’s 100 largest cities changed from 1800 to today, including projections to 2035, in this second blog of the series, I want to look at the changes in rank of the 20 largest cities over the last 70 years.

As with the 100 largest cities list discussed in the previous blog, there are aspects of both continuity and rapid change. We see little change between the cities listed in 2000 and 2020, but we do see a notable change in the ranking.


Figure 1: Changes in rank of the 20 largest cities for 1950 to 2020 and projected up to 2035. Hover over a city to see its standing and chart its progress over the years.

Fifteen of the 20 largest cities in 2000 remain on the 2020 list. Going further back to 1950, nine of the 20 largest cities listed are still there in 2020. The eleven that are not are mostly from high-income nations: the European cities include Berlin, London, Moscow and Paris; US cities include Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

This blog series reflects a planned new edition of David Satterthwaite's landmark 2007 working paper, 'The Transition to a Predominantly Urban World and its Underpinnings'. The updated edition will be published later this year. Almost all the population data in this blog is from the UN Population Division's World Urbanization Prospects 2018.


Tokyo was top in both 2020 and 2000, and second in 1950; United Nations projections suggest it will be overtaken by Delhi by 2035.

Shanghai moved from 10th in 1950 to eighth in 2000 and in 2020 sits in third – and remains third in the 2035 projection. Sao Paulo and Mexico City are currently fourth and fifth.

With the exception of Tokyo, we see significant difference with 1950 when New York was first, London third, Osaka fourth and Paris fifth. Cairo has moved steadily up the ranking – from 20th in 1950 to a projected fifth place in 2035.

Shooting up the rankings 

Delhi, Dhaka, Kinshasa and Lagos have shot up the rankings. In 1950, Delhi was 51st but by 2020 had climbed to second and by 2035 is projected to hit the top spot.

None of the other three three cities were anywhere close to the top 100 list in 1950. Dhaka was 276th, but by 2020 has leapfrogged to sixth and projected to be fourth in 2035.

Kinshasa had not even been founded in 1800; by 1900 it was a small city named Léopoldville but no population figures have been found. In 1950 it appeared in 444th place but today in 2020 it has bounced into 18th. By 2035 it is projected to be seventh.

Lagos also surged up the rankings. For Dhaka and Kinshasa, this is in part explained by being national capitals. Dhaka was much smaller when Bangladesh won its independence in 1971; with just 1.5 million people. Lagos was also the capital of Nigeria until 1991.

But shooting up the rankings in this way must also relate to very large (if poorly documented) informal economies in each of these cities. The scale and speed of the growth in Lagos, Dhaka and Kinshasa is astonishing, given the vast deficiencies in housing conditions and basic services. For Kinshasa, perhaps very large numbers of internally displaced persons and refugees?


Cities shooting up the rankings.

Latin America developed very large cities before Africa and Asia (except for Japan). Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo and Mexico City have long figured in the world’s 20 largest cities – and still do in 2020.

But projections do not predict continued growth across the board: by 2035 Buenos Aires is expected to have fallen off this list and Mexico City – which during the 1970s and 80s was expected to become the world’s largest city by 2000, with 31 million inhabitants – today has only 18.5 million. In the rankings, it was 12th in 1950, third in 2000, has slid to fifth in 2020 and projected to be eighth in 2035.

For India, three of its cities have long been among the world’s largest (Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata) and remain so in 2020 and 2035 projections. As noted above, Delhi is second in 2020 and projected to be first in 2035. Mumbai was 15th in 1950, sixth in 2000 and ninth in 2020 – and projected to be sixth in 2035.

For centuries, Kolkata was India’s largest city, reflecting its role as a key trading centre and, up to 1911, the colonial capital (when it moved to Delhi). Mumbai overtook Delhi to become India’s largest city around 1980 and Delhi resumed the top spot around 1994.

European cities have fallen out of the rankings: only two (London and Paris) were in the top 20 in 1950, dropping to one in 2000 (Paris). But by 2020, and for 2035 projections, no city remains in the 20 largest city list. New York was in the 20 largest city list for all the years shown in Figure 1 – although falling from first in 1950 to 13th in the 2035 projections.

The next blog in this series will examine which cities rose up the rankings, and which fell down or off the top 100 list completely – and why. It will also explore which cities made the ‘next 20’ (rankings 21-40) and those towards the bottom of the list.