The 50 Highest Cities in the World
Where Are The World’s Highest Cities?
When comparing the world’s cities to one another, we often use defining characteristics—largest, greenest, most visited, highest-earning, the list goes on.
Yet elevation is often overlooked, despite the fact that thousands of cities across the globe are nestled in highlands, plateaus, and mountain ranges.
Today’s graphic looks at the top 50 highest cities worldwide, and compares their altitudes to well-known references (the differences are dizzying).
Cities in the Sky
When ranking the world’s highest cities, we specifically looked at major urban centers with a population of one million or more inhabitants, with an elevation “floor” of 1,000m.
Though you might expect less important cities to make the rankings, 22 out of the 50 highest cities are actually national capitals.
The elevation data comes from the European Commission’s database of urban centers, using Thomas Brinkhoff’s City Population dataset for updated demographics.
|Rank||Urban Center||Country||Region||Average Elevation (m)|
|#1||La Paz||Bolivia||South America||3,869|
|#6||Addis Ababa||Ethiopia||Eastern Africa||2,361|
|#7||Mexico City||Mexico||Central America||2,316|
|#12||San Luis Potosí||Mexico||Central America||1,873|
|#16||Denver||United States||Northern America||1,673|
|#18||Johannesburg||South Africa||Southern Africa||1,624|
|#26||Guatemala City||Guatemala||Central America||1,463|
|#28||Pretoria||South Africa||Southern Africa||1,365|
|#34||Lubumbashi||Democratic Republic of the Congo||Middle Africa||1,252|
|#39||Ciudad Juárez||Mexico||Central America||1,164|
|#40||Beni||Democratic Republic of the Congo||Middle Africa||1,149|
|#42||San José||Costa Rica||Central America||1,129|
At the top of the pantheon is Bolivia’s El Alto-La Paz metropolitan area, which houses more than two million people at an average elevation of 3,869m above sea level. That’s a city of two million people situated more than 100 meters higher than Mount Fuji in Japan.
The next four are more than 1,000m lower than El Alto-La Paz, with Ecuador’s capital Quito coming in at second place at 2,784m and Colombia’s capital Bogotá rounding out the top five at 2,601m. For reference, that’s more than 100 meters higher than the world-famous Inca citadel Machu Picchu in Peru, which sits at a height of 2,430m.
It’s notable just how mountainous Latin America is. Of the 10 highest cities, three are in Mexico’s many mountainous regions and four of the top five are adjacent to the Andes Mountains.
Asia and the Americas Tower Above
Though it might be expected that countries would have their population centers close to sea level, many instead have followed in the footsteps of past civilizations by building in higher regions.
In addition to many capitals in South America, that list of major cities includes Mexico City, easily the largest on the list as the world’s 8th largest metropolis, Addis Ababa, the capital and largest city in Ethiopia, Tehran, the capital of Iran and most populous city in Western Asia, and Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa.
The countries with the most high cities were China and Mexico, with eight each. China specifically had the most high metropolises in Asia, and many of the world’s highest settlements, though most of its major cities lie outside the Tibetan and Mongolian Plateaus.
|Regional Breakdown of Top 50 Highest Cities|
As the table above highlights, while wide mountainous regions are concentrated in much of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, the Western world is largely located close to the water.
The West Sits Below
The U.S. and Canada each only had one city each crack the top 50 list: the Rocky Mountain-adjacent cities of Denver and Calgary.
Meanwhile, despite the European Alps stretching across eight countries and both Australia and New Zealand having many mountains tall enough to crack the list, both Europe and Oceania had no major city situated more than 1,000m above sea level.
But though most of humanity remains concentrated near sea level, it is impressive to remember that hundreds of millions of people live in cities higher than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s highest tower.
In fact, studies have shown that living at higher altitudes has associated health benefits, including better cardiovascular health and lower incidence of stroke and cancer.
Regardless if future trends push more people thousands of meters into the sky, humanity has proven that it can prosper.
Comparing Population Pyramids Around the World
Population pyramids can show a country’s demographic advantages and challenges at a glance. See how different parts of the world stack up.
Understanding and Comparing Population Pyramids
Demographic data can reveal all kinds of insights about a population, from the country’s fertility and mortality rates to how certain events and policies have shaped the makeup of a population.
Population pyramids are one of the best ways to visualize population data, and comparing the pyramids of various countries and regions side-by-side can reveal unexpected insights and differences between groups.
This graphic uses population data from the United Nations to compare the demographics of some select nations and regions of the world, showcasing how much age distributions can vary.
Three Types of Population Pyramids
Although population pyramids can come in all shapes and sizes, most generally fall into three distinct categories:
- Expansive Pyramids: Recognized by their traditional “pyramid-like” shape with a broad base and narrow top, expansive pyramids reflect a population with a high birth rate along with a high mortality rate which is most common in developing countries.
- Constrictive Pyramids: With a narrow base and thicker middle and top sections of the pyramid, constrictive pyramids often occur in developed economies whose populations have low birth rates and long life expectancies.
- Stationary Pyramids: These pyramids showcase an evenly distributed population across age groups, often found in newly-developed countries which have stable birth and mortality rates.
Each population pyramid is essentially a visual snapshot of a nation’s current demographic breakdown, shaped by fluctuating birth and mortality rates as well as changes to immigration and social policies.
Understanding the inherent risks associated with different pyramid types can help give insight into the challenges these populations face.
The Risks of Different Population Pyramid Types
Each type of population pyramid structure has unique challenges and advantages often characterized by the country or region’s current stage of economic development.
Populations with expansive pyramids, such as the one representing the continent of Africa, have the advantage of a larger youth and working-aged population, however this advantage can be rendered null if job growth, education, and health care aren’t prioritized.
Countries with constrictive pyramids like Japan face the challenge of supporting their outsized aging population with a diminishing working-aged population. While immigration and increasing birth rates can help in both the short and long term, due to the working population being outnumbered, countries with constrictive pyramids must find ways to increase their productivity to avoid potential declines in economic growth.
China and India’s Demographics Compared
After the world’s population reached eight billion people last year, 2023 brought a new population milestone as India overtook China as the world’s most populous country.
When you compare the two nations’ population pyramids, you can see how India’s population has a strong base of young and working-aged people compared to China’s more constrictive population pyramid that also features a higher median age.
This demographic difference is largely shaped by China’s one-child policy which since 2021 was loosened to be a three-child policy. As a result, China’s total fertility rate is around 1.2 today, in contrast to India’s total fertility rate of 2.0.
While India is set to ride the productivity boom of its large working-age population, the country will have to ensure it can keep its population pyramid stable as the majority of the population ages and total fertility rates continue to decline.
|Interested in learning more about the various factors that affect demographics?
VC+ Members get an exclusive look comparing the G7 and BRICS nations, how war shapes population pyramids, and immigration’s role in demographics.
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