Ranking the World’s Most Populous Cities, Over 500 Years of History

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by visualcapitalist

What do Beijing, Tokyo, Istanbul, London, and New York City all have in common?

Not only are they all world-class cities that still serve as global hubs of commerce, but these cities also share a relatively rare and important historical designation.

At specific points in history, each of these cities outranked all others on the planet in terms of population, granting them the exclusive title as the single most populated city globally.

Ranking the World’s Most Populous Cities

Today’s animation comes to us from John Burn-Murdoch with the Financial Times, and it visualizes cities ranked by population in a bar chart race over the course of a 500-year timeframe.

Beijing starts in the lead in the year 1500, with a population of 672,000:

Rank City Population in Year 1500
#1 🇨🇳 Beijing 672,000
#2 🇮🇳 Vijayanagar 500,000
#3 🇪🇬 Cairo 400,000
#4 🇨🇳 Hangzhou 250,000
#5 🇮🇷 Tabriz 250,000
#6 🇮🇳 Gauda 200,000
#7 🇹🇷 Istanbul 200,000
#8 🇫🇷 Paris 185,000
#9 🇨🇳 Guangzhou 150,000
#10 🇨🇳 Nanjing 147,000

In the 16th century, which is where the animation starts, cities in China and India were dominant in terms of population.

In China, the cities of Beijing, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, and Nanjing all made the top 10 list, while India itself held two of the most populous cities at the time, Vijayanagar and Gauda.

If the latter two names sound unfamiliar, that’s because they were key historical locations in the Vijayanagara and Bengal Empires respectively, but neither are the sites of modern-day cities.

The 1 Million Mark

For the first minute of animation—and up until the late 18th century—not a single city was able to eclipse the 1 million person mark.

However, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the floodgates opened up. With more efficient agricultural practices, better sanitation, and other technological improvements, cities were able to support bigger populations.

Here’s a look at the biggest cities in the year 1895:

Rank City Population in Year 1895
#1 🇬🇧 London 5,974,000
#2 🇺🇸 New York 3,712,000
#3 🇫🇷 Paris 3,086,000
#4 🇺🇸 Chicago 1,420,000
#5 🇯🇵 Tokyo 1,335,000
#6 🇷🇺 St. Petersburg 1,286,000
#7 🇬🇧 Manchester 1,244,000
#8 🇬🇧 Birmingham 1,074,000
#9 🇨🇳 Beijing 1,055,000
#10 🇷🇺 Moscow 1,002,000

In the span of roughly a century, all of the world’s top 10 most populous cities were able to pass the 1 million mark, making it no longer an exclusive milestone.

Modern City Populations

Finally, let’s look at the modern list of the top 10 most populous cities, and see how it compares to previous rankings:

Rank City Population in Year 2018
#1 🇯🇵 Tokyo 38,194,000
#2 🇮🇳 Delhi 27,890,000
#3 🇨🇳 Shanghai 25,779,000
#4 🇨🇳 Beijing 22,674,000
#5 🇮🇳 Mumbai 22,120,000
#6 🇧🇷 Sao Paulo 21,698,000
#7 🇲🇽 Mexico City 21,520,000
#8 🇪🇬 Cairo 19,850,000
#9 🇧🇩 Dhaka 19,633,000
#10 🇺🇸 New York City 18,713,000

Interestingly, the modern list appears to be a blend of both previous rankings from the years 1500 and 1895 above.

In 2018, cities from China and India feature prominently, but New York City and Tokyo are also included. Meanwhile, Latin America has entered the fold with entries from Mexico and Brazil.

The Future of Megacities

If you think the modern list of the most populous cities is impressive, check out how the world’s megacities are expected to develop as we move towards the end of the 21st century.


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