The world's 100 largest cities from 1800 to 2020, and beyond

In the first of a new blog series, IIED senior fellow David Satterthwaite looks at the world’s 100 largest cities, and how their changing distribution reflects social, political and economic shifts across the globe. 

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16 January 2020

David Satterthwaite is senior fellow in IIED's Human Settlements research group

Tokyo skyline

Tokyo is currently the world's largest city, with 37.4 million inhabitants (ND_instakilogram, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Most very large cities have great importance for the global economy, and all have importance for the politics and the economy of their nation and region.

Very large cities have very large economies – even if, for many, much of this is within the informal economy. Many are national capitals or – in the larger population countries – regional capitals. All are shaped by the interplay of politics and economic change, and by the quality and capacity of their governments.

These blogs reflect 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.

In this opening blog, we look at the world’s 100 largest cities and how their scale has changed over the last 220 years. The blog also looks at how their distribution across nations and regions has changed from 1800 to 2020 – with projections up to 2035. The statistics for 2020 are projections as the most recent census data for most nations are from 2009 to 2012.

The surging scale of large cities

By 2020, the world’s 100 largest cities have 974 million inhabitants; more than a fifth of the global urban population. Tokyo is the largest with 37.4 million inhabitants; to get into the top 100 list, a city would need to match the population of Ürümqi in China with 4.4 million. To make the top ten, a city would need 19.2 million.

In 1800, London topped the largest 100 list with 1.1 million inhabitants. A city with the population of Turin (at just 66,000 inhabitants) would have made the list and a city with 400,000 inhabitants would have been in the  ten largest. But by 2020, a city would need to be almost 50 times this size to make the top 10 cut.

The average population of the world’s 100 largest cities has increased dramatically: 9.7 million in 2020 compared with 2 million inhabitants in 1950 and 184,270 in 1800 (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Average size of the world's 100 largest cities (millions of inhabitants), 1800-2035

Regional distribution of the 100 largest cities

Figure 2 shows the dramatic changes in the regional distribution of the world's largest 100 cities; in 1900, Europe and Northern America had 69 of the world's 100 largest cities; by 2020 this had shrunk to 17. By 2020, Asia alone has 58 of the world's 100 largest cities, compared to 22 in 1900.

Figure 2: Distribution of the world's 100 largest cities by year and region, 1800-2035

The narratives behind the numbers: economics and politics

From these figures, different narratives emerge on what has influenced the cities and urban systems we see today. Regional shifts reflect changes in the world’s economy – for instance the concentration of the largest cities in Europe and Northern America in 1900 (more than two thirds of the 100 largest cities) driven by the industrial revolution.

The figures also reflect political change – decolonisation removing the controls on free movement to urban areas in many nations in Africa and Asia helped underpin rapid growth in many of their largest cities. Note, too, the increase in China’s share from 1980 reflecting political changes (including the loosening of government controls on migration to cities) and the very rapid and sustained economic growth since.

Regional shifts

In 1800, Africa had five of the world’s 100 largest cities. This dropped to three in 1850 and two in 1900. It rose to 12 in 2020 and is projected to reach 19 in 2035. A clear geographical pattern accompanies the figures, with the continent’s largest cities shifting from Northern Africa to sub-Saharan Africa.

Figure 2 shows Asia’s importance – or even dominance – of the largest city list. But it has seen peaks and troughs: 64 in 1800 dropping to 22 in 1900 and rising again to 58 in 2020.

The growing proportion of the 100 largest cities from 1950-2000 reflects economic success in many Asian nations. But this proportion is projected to fall to 54 by 2035, largely because some very large sub-Saharan African cities with more rapid rates of natural increase will displace very large Chinese cities.

China and India: commanding Asia’s top spots

Since 1800, China has seen its share of the world’s 100 largest cities dominate, fall dramatically, and then increase again. By 2000, it had more than a fifth of the 100 largest cities and it maintains its share in 2020 and into 2035.

India, like China, had many more of the world’s 100 largest cities in 1800 than it does today. Together, these two countries have dominated Asia’s share of the world’s 100 largest cities, accounting for half for all but one of the years presented in figure 3.

Figure 3. How the proportion of the world’s 100 largest cities that are in China, India and the USA changed between them over time

Europe: industrialisation influences

In 1900, the nations that now constitute Europe had close to half the world’s urban population and more than half its 100 largest cities. This reflects the impact of the industrial revolution on the scale and scope of large city growth in the region.

European centres of industry joined the world’s largest cities and, perhaps for the first time, reduced the dominance of national capitals. So it was economic change – especially private capital investments in industrial cities – that reshaped nations’ urban systems.

In 1900, the UK’s great industrial powerhouses – Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Liverpool – broke the pattern of capital cities dominating, all were in the world’s 20 largest cities. In the same year, European industrial cities such as Hamburg, Munich, Milan, Rotterdam, Turin and Lille were in the top 100 – a very different picture from 1800 when the industrial revolution was only just beginning and most of the world’s largest cities were national capitals.

But by 2000, only ten of Europe’s national capitals made the top 100 list and, by 2020, this has dropped to six. None of the UK’s great northern industrial cities mentioned above make the cut today.

The Americas, the Caribbean and Oceania

In 1800, Latin America and the Caribbean had three of the world’s 100 largest cities; this grew to 13 in 2000, declined to 11 in 2020 and is projected to fall to 10 by 2035. But this was the first region in the global South to industrialise and to have several megacities (10 million plus inhabitants) that were also within the world’s 100 largest cities.

Sao Paulo is projected to be the world’s fourth largest city in 2020 with Mexico City fifth, Buenos Aires 15th and Rio de Janeiro 21st. All these cities have more than 13 million inhabitants.

In 1800, Northern America had none of the world's 100 largest cities. It had six in 1850, rising to 20 in 1950 before dropping to 11 in 2020 and 10 for 2035 projections. In 1900, many US centres of industry were in the top 100, including Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and St Louis. Of these, only Chicago made the list in 2020.

Oceania had no city in the 100 largest list in 1800 or 1850 but from 1900, Melbourne and Sydney joined.

Continuity and change

One of the most dramatic changes in the geographic distribution of the world’s largest cities over the last 220 years is the appearance of Northern America and Oceania. This relates to the appropriation of the US, Canada and Australia by immigrants and the urban/industrial economies they developed.

In 1800, neither of the two largest US cities (Philadelphia and New York) were large enough to be in the top 100. As noted above, Northern America now has 11 of the hundred largest cities.

In 1900, New York City was the world’s second largest city (London was the largest). In 1950, it had moved up to first with Tokyo second and London third. By 2020, Tokyo is first, New York 11th and London 37th.

There are aspects of both continuity and rapid change in the top 100 list. In Europe, Asia, Latin America and North Africa, most of the largest cities today have long histories as successfully established cities. Eighteen of the 100 largest were founded more than 2,000 years ago (including 10 in China); 17 between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago. Only four have been founded since 1900. Twenty were founded from 1800 to 1900; 41, from 1000 to 1800.

Both Africa and Asia had a larger share of the world’s 100 largest cities in 1800 than in 1900 or 1950. In 1800, Africa’s largest cities included Cairo, Tunis and Algiers, all with long histories as important Islamic cities.

The next four blogs in this series will go deeper into analysing which cities shot up and fell down the rankings, and why. The why includes economic success or decline, political structures and systems (including the quality of governance), social and demographic drivers, changing urban configurations, conflict and climate change.

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