Ranked: The 20 Most Populous Cities in the World
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Ranked: The Most Populous Cities in the World

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Ranked: The Most Populous Cities in the World

More than half of the world’s population currently lives in cities—and as time goes on, it’s clear that more urban dwellers will find themselves living in megacities.

Megacities are defined as urban areas with a population of more than 10 million people. This means that the world’s top 20 most populous cities are all megacities.

This visualization, using data from Macrotrends, shows the 20 most populous cities in the world.

Rapid Urbanization

Today, more than 80% of people in higher income countries find themselves living in urban areas, and in upper-middle income countries the number lies between 50-80%.

Rural-to-urban migration is an increasingly relevant trend in the 21st century. Prospects of better job opportunities and higher wages, along with shifts from agrarian to industrial and service-based economies, are causing mass movement to cities.

How much have the world’s five most populous cities grown in just the last decade?

RankCity 2010 Population 2020 Population Percentage Change
#1🇯🇵 Tokyo36,834,00037,393,000+1.5%
#2🇮🇳 Delhi21,935,00030,291,000+38.1%
#3🇨🇳 Shanghai19,980,00027,058,000+35.4%
#4🇧🇷 São Paulo19,660,00022,043,000+12.1%
#5🇲🇽 Mexico City 20,132,00021,782,000+8.2%

While Tokyo only gained 559,000 people between 2010 and 2020, Delhi gained over 8 million people in the same time frame.

Shanghai grew by over 7 million people. Meanwhile, São Paulo grew by more than 2 million, and Mexico City gained just over 1.6 million people.

Interestingly, Mexico City placed third on the top largest cities list in 2010, but has since experienced slower growth compared to its competitors, Shanghai and São Paulo.

The Most Populous Cities Today

While Tokyo is the world’s most populous city with 37,393,000 people, this number is leveling out due to declining birth rates and an aging population.

Indian and Chinese cities, on the other hand, will continue to grow rapidly in the coming years. In fact, it’s expected that Delhi’s population could surpass Tokyo’s by 2028.

Here’s a closer look at the top 20 most populous cities.

RankCityPopulation
1🇯🇵 Tokyo37,393,000
2🇮🇳 Delhi30,291,000
3🇨🇳 Shanghai27,058,000
4🇧🇷 São Paulo22,043,000
5🇲🇽 Mexico City21,782,000
6🇧🇩 Dhaka21,006,000
7🇪🇬 Cairo20,901,000
8🇨🇳 Beijing20,463,000
9🇮🇳 Mumbai20,411,000
10🇯🇵 Osaka19,165,000
11🇺🇸 New York City18,804,000
12🇵🇰 Karachi16,094,000
13🇨🇳 Chongqing15,872,000
14🇹🇷 Istanbul15,190,000
15🇦🇷 Buenos Aires15,154,000
16🇮🇳 Kolkata14,850,000
17🇳🇬 Lagos14,368,000
18🇨🇩 Kinshasa14,342,000
19🇵🇭 Manila13,923,000
20🇨🇳 Tianjin13,580,000

By 2035, two new cities are expected to crack the top 20 list. Specifically, it’s projected that Bangalore (India) and Lahore (Pakistan) will boot out Tianjin and Buenos Aires. In addition, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Chennai are all expected to meet the megacity definition by 2035.

Urban growth will continue mainly in Asia and Africa, as some cities in regions such as Europe actually begin to shrink in population due to aging citizens and declining birth rates. Since 2012, deaths in the EU have actually been outpacing births—and in 2019, there were 4.7 million deaths compared to 4.2 million births, though net migration kept population numbers from falling.

Life in the City

While there are certainly downsides to mass urbanization, like pollution and overcrowding, the upsides clearly outweigh the negatives for most people. Convenience, better jobs, easier access to social services, and higher wages are among the many reasons people are likely to continue to move to cities, even in the post-COVID era.

With the emergence of smart and green cities, the quality of life for many urban dwellers will likely continue to improve, and more large urban areas will morph into megacities.

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Demographics

Mapped: The World’s Population Density by Latitude

How much of the Earth’s population is located near the equator? This map visualizes the world’s population density by latitude.

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A map of the world population by latitude.

Mapped: The World’s Population Density by Latitude

When you think about areas with high population densities, certain regions spring to mind. This could be a populous part of Asia or a cluster of cities in North America or Europe.

Usually density comparisons are made using cities or countries, but this map from Alasdair Rae provides another perspective. This world map depicts population density by latitude, going from the densest populated coordinates in deep red to the sparsest in light blue.

Why Certain Latitudes (and Regions) Are More Densely Populated

Numerous factors affect an area’s population density. These can range from topography, or the physical terrain characteristics of the place, to more direct factors like an area’s climate, which can impact both the survivability and agricultural potential.

Political, economic, and social factors are also at play⁠—for example, there is a natural lack of livelihood opportunities in sparse areas such as the Amazon rainforest or the Himalayas.

Breaking down the population by latitude, we see the population becomes more concentrated near the equator. In particular, the 25th and 26th parallel north are the most densely populated latitude circles. Around 279 million people reside in these latitude lines, which run through large countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, the United States, Mexico, and others.

Despite their large landmasses, many of these countries do not themselves have very high population densities. Since density measures the ratio of people to physical space, countries with vast but sparse regions like China and India are less dense than imagined.

Out of the top 10 most densely populated countries in the world, only a couple can be found on the 25th and 26th parallel north⁠—Bangladesh and Bahrain. For a size comparison, Bangladesh is 1.55% the size of China, and Bahrain is only 0.01%.

The Future of Population Density Near the Equator

Looking ahead to 2100, the UN projects that the global population will rise to almost 11 billion. This would increase global population density from 59.11 people per square kilometer in 2022 to 80.82 per square kilometer in 2100.

However, the projections show that Asia will not be the biggest contributor to this growth. Instead, the most considerable jump in population is predicted for Africa, set to grow by almost 200% from almost 1.5 billion people today to 4.3 billion in 2100.

The equator runs right through the middle of Africa and crisscrosses countries like the Congo (both the Republic and DRC), Kenya, Gabon, Uganda, and Somalia.

As Africa’s population expands, this means that at latitudes near the equator, there could be even higher population densities coming. Or course, this largely depends on how the world’s fastest growing cities⁠—most of which are in Africa⁠—shape up over the coming decades.

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Demographics

The Yuxi Circle: The World’s Most Densely Populated Area

Population density varies across the globe. These maps use geographical circles to show the most densely populated areas on multiple continents.

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The Yuxi Circle: The World’s Most Densely Populated Area

The Yuxi Circle: The World’s Most Densely Populated Area

If you wanted to capture over 55% of the global population inside a circle with a 4,000km radius, which city would you place at its epicenter?

In 2013, a post appeared on Reddit marking a circular area of the globe with “more people living inside this circle than outside of it.” The circle had a radius of 4,000 km (just under 2,500 miles) and was named the Valeriepieris circle after author Ken Myers’ username.

Acknowledging that the Valeriepieris circle is not actually a circle (it was drawn on a two-dimensional map rather than a globe) and is based on data that has become outdated, mapmaker Alasdair Rae went digging and discovered what he calls The Yuxi Circle, the world’s most densely populated area.

Introducing the Yuxi Circle

Rae traced circles around 1,500 cities worldwide to find out how many people lived within a 4,000 km radius, just like the original Valeriepieris circle. He based his calculations on WorldPop data from 2020, based on a global population of 7.8 billion people.

Of the 1,500 circles that Rae made calculations for, 148 contained populations of 4 billion or more. He found many examples in Asia including in China, Myanmar (Mandalay), Laos (Vientiane), Bangladesh (Chattogram), India (Agartala), Bhutan (Thimpu), and Vietnam (Hanoi) to name a few.

But of them all, Yuxi, a city in the Yunnan province of China, has the largest population living within a 4,000 km radius: 4.32 billion.

Put another way? The circle encompasses over 55% of the world’s population, despite including desolate areas like the Taklamakan Desert, the Tibetan Plateau, Mongolia, and Southern Siberia.

Densely Populated Areas Around the Globe

Rae’s search for densely populated clusters also turned up notable circles beyond Asia. They surrounded cities like Cairo, Paris, and Mexico City.

Note: Keep in mind that the white lines on the flat maps are equidistant circles but will only look like circles when plotted on a globe.

The World’s Most Densely Populated Areas - Hanoi

Circling Hanoi yields a population of 4.27 billion (54% of the global population). It was the runner up city circle in Rae’s original search.

Populated Area Circles - Cairo

Circling Cairo yields a population of 2.29 billion. This circle reaches most of Europe while still containing populated areas of India, Pakistan, and Africa.

Populated Area Circles - Paris

Comparatively, circling Paris yields a population of 1.19 billion. This Euro-centric circle contains large tracts of water and scarcely populated islands such as Iceland and Greenland.

Populated Area Circles - Mexico City

Across the Atlantic, circling Mexico City yields a population of 0.73 billion. It’s significantly smaller than the other circles, as the total population in the Americas is concentrated in just three countries, the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil (not included in this circle).

It’s worth noting that the Valeriepieris circle also inspired other people to look at population density in different ways. In 2015, Danny Quah of the London School of Economics looked more closely at the Valeriepieris circle and was inspired to find the smallest circle with more people living inside of it than outside. He determined that a circle with a radius of 3,300 km centered near Mong Khet, Myanmar was “the world’s tightest cluster of people.”

While the Yuxi Circle contains the largest population using Rae’s approach as of early 2022, global populations are constantly changing. Who knows where the next Yuxi Circle will be?

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