The World’s Largest Cities by Population – An Urban Odyssey


Introduction: The Allure of the World’s Largest Cities

In the ever-evolving tapestry of human civilization, cities have emerged as beacons of progress, innovation, and cultural richness. From the bustling streets of Tokyo to the vibrant alleys of Delhi, these urban epicenters beckon travelers and residents alike with their unique charms and offerings. As the world continues to urbanize at an unprecedented pace, one question remains a source of endless fascination: What are the world’s largest cities by population?

The Art of Measuring Urban Greatness

Answering this captivating query, however, is no simple feat. The boundaries and metrics used to define a city’s population can vary greatly, resulting in a multitude of perspectives and rankings. Some prioritize administrative boundaries, while others consider the functional integration of urban areas, blurring the lines between cities and their surrounding metropolitan regions.

In this odyssey through the world’s largest cities, we’ll explore three commonly used metrics: city proper, urban area, and metropolitan area. Each approach offers a unique lens through which to appreciate the sprawling landscapes and teeming populations that make these urban giants so remarkable.

The Quest for Accuracy: Official Censuses and Projections

To ensure accuracy and authenticity, our exploration draws upon the latest official censuses and projections, meticulously compiled by nations and international organizations. These data sources serve as the foundation for our rankings, providing a robust and reliable framework upon which to build our understanding of the world’s largest cities.

The City Proper: Boundaries of Governance

Our first metric, the city proper, takes us on a journey through the administrative boundaries that define a city’s governance and jurisdiction. According to the United Nations, a city proper is “the single political jurisdiction which contains the historical city center.”

Chongqing: The Colossal Metropolis of China

At the pinnacle of this ranking stands the Chinese city of Chongqing, a sprawling urban landscape with an administrative boundary the size of Austria and an urban population of a staggering 32.1 million. This city’s grandeur extends beyond its sheer size, with a monorail system that holds records for being the world’s longest and busiest, boasting an impressive 70 stations.

Chongqing’s Jiangbei International Airport is among the world’s top 50 busiest airports, a testament to the city’s status as a global transportation hub. Additionally, the city ranks among the globe’s top 50 hubs for scientific research, showcasing its commitment to innovation and progress.

China’s Urban Dominance

Beyond Chongqing, Chinese cities dominate the rankings by this metric, with megacities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou flexing their urban muscles. The sheer scale of these cities is a testament to China’s rapid urbanization and economic growth, as well as the nation’s ability to plan and execute ambitious urban development projects.

Delhi: India’s Epicenter of Expansion

Breaking the Chinese dominance is the Indian capital of Delhi, which ranks fourth on the list with an urban population of 16.8 million. Delhi has been experiencing one of the fastest urban expansions in the world, a reflection of India’s rapidly growing economy and the migration of millions from rural areas in search of better opportunities.

Discover the vibrant tapestry of Delhi with AFAR’s Guide to Delhi.

The Urban Area: Functional Integration Transcends Boundaries

Our second metric, the urban area, takes a broader view of urban life, largely ignoring territorial boundaries and considering a city as a contiguous, connected built-up area. According to Demographia, urban areas function as integrated economic units, linked by commuting flows, social, and economic interactions.

Tokyo: The Megacity that Never Sleeps

By this metric, the Japanese capital of Tokyo reigns supreme, with an urban population of a staggering 37.7 million. Tokyo’s urban area encompasses not only the city proper but also surrounding cities like Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba, creating a vast metropolis that accounts for nearly 30% of Japan’s total population.

Consequently, even with one of the world’s largest railway systems, trains in Tokyo are incredibly crowded, with a boarding rate of 200% during peak times in the most overcrowded areas. The city is also famous for its Shibuya Crossing, the busiest intersection on the planet, where hordes of pedestrians navigate a choreographed dance of urban chaos.

Jakarta: The Beating Heart of Indonesia

Closely following Tokyo is the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, with an urban population of 33.8 million. Jakarta’s urban area is a melting pot of cultures, religions, and traditions, reflecting the diversity of the Indonesian archipelago. From the bustling markets of Tanah Abang to the towering skyscrapers of the central business district, Jakarta is a city that never fails to captivate and inspire.

Delhi and Mumbai: India’s Urban Giants

India’s growing urban footprint is once again evident in this ranking, with Delhi and Mumbai securing the third and fifth positions, respectively. These cities are not only economic powerhouses but also cultural epicenters, where ancient traditions seamlessly blend with modern aspirations.

The Metropolitan Area: Official Definitions and Statistical Purposes

Our final metric, the metropolitan area, takes a more institutionalized approach, relying on official organizations to define urban boundaries for statistical purposes or governance. In the United States, this takes the form of metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), such as Chicago-Naperville-Elgin or Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler.

Tokyo: The Undisputed Megacity

Once again, Tokyo claims the top spot, with a metropolitan population of 37.3 million. This vast urban expanse encompasses not only the city proper and its surrounding urban areas but also neighboring prefectures and cities, creating an interconnected network of economic, social, and cultural ties.

Jakarta: Asia’s Rising Star

The Indonesian capital of Jakarta follows closely behind, with a metropolitan population of 33.4 million. Despite the challenges posed by rapid urbanization, Jakarta continues to captivate visitors and residents alike with its vibrant street life, rich culinary scene, and resilient spirit.

Delhi: India’s Gateway to the Future

India’s capital, Delhi, secures the third spot with a metropolitan population of 29 million. As the heart of one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Delhi is a city in constant flux, where ancient monuments stand side by side with cutting-edge technology and


Seoul: South Korea’s Powerhouse

Rounding out the top four is the South Korean capital of Seoul, with a metropolitan population of 25.5 million. Known for its cutting-edge technology, vibrant pop culture, and rich history, Seoul is a city that seamlessly blends tradition and modernity, captivating visitors and locals alike.

The Urbanization Boom: Embracing Growth and Opportunity

As the global urban population continues to rise, new cities, especially in Africa and Asia, are expected to vie for the “largest” tag soon. The United Nations projects that by 2050, a staggering 68% of the world will live in urban areas, marking a significant shift in the way we live, work, and interact.

Overcoming Urban Challenges: Sustainable Solutions for Thriving Megacities

As the world’s largest cities continue to grow and evolve, they face a myriad of challenges that threaten their long-term sustainability and livability. From environmental concerns like air pollution and waste management to social issues such as housing affordability and income inequality, these urban giants must find innovative solutions to ensure their continued prosperity.

The Pursuit of Sustainable Urban Development

One of the key priorities for the world’s largest cities is the pursuit of sustainable urban development. This multi-faceted approach aims to balance economic growth with environmental protection, social equity, and cultural preservation. By embracing sustainable practices, cities can reduce their carbon footprint, promote the use of renewable energy sources, and create more livable communities for their residents.

Cities like Copenhagen, often lauded as one of the world’s most sustainable cities, serve as inspiring examples of how urban areas can prioritize eco-friendly initiatives while maintaining a high quality of life for their residents. From its extensive network of bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly streets to its innovative district heating and waste-to-energy systems, Copenhagen demonstrates that sustainability and urban living can coexist harmoniously.

Investing in Resilient Infrastructure

Another critical challenge facing the world’s largest cities is the need for resilient infrastructure. As urban populations swell, the strain on transportation systems, utilities, and public services becomes immense. To address this, cities must invest in robust and adaptable infrastructure that can withstand the pressures of urbanization while remaining efficient and accessible.

Cities like Singapore, renowned for its world-class infrastructure and urban planning, offer valuable lessons in this regard. By prioritizing public transportation, implementing cutting-edge waste management systems, and investing in green spaces, Singapore has created a highly livable urban environment that can accommodate its growing population while minimizing its environmental impact.

Fostering Social Inclusion and Economic Opportunity

Rapid urbanization can exacerbate social inequalities and economic disparities, threatening the cohesion and well-being of urban communities. To counter these challenges, the world’s largest cities must prioritize social inclusion and create opportunities for economic advancement for all residents, regardless of their backgrounds or socioeconomic status.

Cities like Medellín, Colombia, once plagued by violence and poverty, have undergone remarkable transformations by investing in community development, education, and public spaces. Through initiatives like the Metrocable system, which provides affordable transportation to marginalized communities, and the construction of public libraries and parks, Medellín has fostered a sense of civic pride and social inclusion, demonstrating the power of urban renewal to uplift entire communities.

The Future of Urban Living: Embracing Innovation and Resilience

As we look to the future, the world’s largest cities will undoubtedly continue to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing landscape of urbanization. One thing is certain: innovation and resilience will be key to ensuring that these urban centers remain vibrant, livable, and sustainable for generations to come.

Smart Cities: Harnessing Technology for Efficiency and Connectivity

The concept of “smart cities” has gained significant traction in recent years, as urban planners and policymakers recognize the potential of technology to enhance the efficiency, connectivity, and sustainability of urban environments. By integrating advanced technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), big data analytics, and artificial intelligence, smart cities can optimize resource management, improve public services, and enhance urban mobility.

Cities like Barcelona, often hailed as a pioneer in the smart city movement, have implemented cutting-edge initiatives like citywide sensor networks, smart parking systems, and energy-efficient street lighting. These innovations not only improve the quality of life for residents but also contribute to the city’s overall sustainability and resilience.

Embracing Resilient Urban Design

In the face of global challenges such as climate change and natural disasters, the world’s largest cities must prioritize resilient urban design. This approach involves incorporating principles of adaptability, redundancy, and risk mitigation into the planning and construction of urban environments, ensuring that cities can withstand and recover from shocks and stresses.

Cities like Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, have taken proactive measures to address the risks of sea-level rise and flooding by implementing innovative urban design solutions such as floating pavilions, water plazas, and elevated landscapes. By embracing a paradigm of “living with water,” Rotterdam has positioned itself as a leader in climate-resilient urban planning, showcasing the importance of proactive and innovative approaches to urban resilience.

Fostering Civic Engagement and Community Empowerment

Ultimately, the success of the world’s largest cities hinges on the active involvement and empowerment of their residents. By fostering civic engagement and encouraging community-driven initiatives, cities can tap into the collective wisdom, creativity, and passion of their citizens, ensuring that urban development is inclusive, responsive, and aligned with the needs and aspirations of the people.

Cities like Bogotá, Colombia, have demonstrated the transformative power of community empowerment through initiatives like the “Ciclovia” program, where streets are closed to vehicular traffic on Sundays to encourage cycling, walking, and community gatherings. By prioritizing public spaces and promoting active lifestyles, Bogotá has fostered a sense of civic pride and community ownership, proving that urban excellence is not just about infrastructure but also about cultivating a vibrant and engaged citizenry.

The Human Experience: Celebrating the Richness of Urban Life

Beyond the statistics, metrics, and urban planning strategies, the world’s largest cities are, at their core, vibrant tapestries of human experience. These urban centers are not merely collections of buildings, roads, and infrastructure; they are living, breathing entities that pulse with the hopes, dreams, and stories of their residents.

Cultural Diversity and Inclusivity

One of the greatest strengths of the world’s largest cities lies in their cultural diversity and inclusivity. These urban melting pots bring together people from various backgrounds, ethnicities, and walks of life, creating rich tapestries of traditions, cuisines, and artistic expressions. By embracing this diversity and fostering an environment of mutual understanding and respect, cities can unlock their full potential as catalysts for innovation, creativity, and social progress.

Cities like Toronto, often lauded for its multiculturalism and welcoming spirit, serve as shining examples of how diversity can be a source of strength and vibrancy. From its bustling neighborhoods like Chinatown, Little India, and Greektown, to its vibrant arts scene and culinary offerings, Toronto celebrates the richness of its diverse communities, creating a city that is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

The Arts and Cultural Renaissance

In addition to their cultural diversity, the world’s largest cities are often epicenters of artistic expression and cultural renaissance. From world-renowned museums and theaters to cutting-edge galleries and performance spaces, these urban centers provide fertile ground for creativity to flourish and inspire.

Cities like Berlin, long celebrated for its avant-garde art scene and counter-culture movements, continue to push the boundaries of artistic expression. From the iconic East Side Gallery, a remnant of the Berlin Wall transformed into an open-air gallery, to the multitude of independent art spaces and experimental venues, Berlin exemplifies how cities can foster artistic exploration and cultural exchange.

Culinary Journeys and Gastronomic Delights

No exploration of the world’s largest cities would be complete without acknowledging their role as culinary destinations. From street food stalls to Michelin-starred restaurants, these urban centers offer a tantalizing array of flavors and culinary traditions, reflecting the diversity of their residents and the rich tapestry of global cuisines.

Cities like Mexico City, renowned for its vibrant food scene and UNESCO-recognized culinary heritage, have elevated the art of gastronomy to new heights. From the bustling markets where vendors hawk their wares with infectious enthusiasm to the cutting-edge eateries reinterpreting traditional dishes, Mexico City is a true paradise for food lovers, offering a sensory journey through the flavors and traditions of Mexico.

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