Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

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

David Satterthwaite
16 Jan 2020

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. 

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).

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