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Video: The 5 Largest Cities Throughout the Course of History

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The world’s most influential cities have certain attributes that make them appear timeless.

Metropolises like New York City, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and London have unprecedented size, opportunities, economic might, and cultural significance, that it’s easy to imagine them as permanent and unparalleled fixtures on the world stage.

However, any glance at world history shows us immediately that these places are not as exceptional or as timeless as we would like to think. Over time, it seems that even the most important cities eventually fall or slip in status.

That’s why a glance at the record books can be humbling, as we come across the names of many ancient cities that were the most important during their time – places like Luoyang, Ctesiphon, Pataliputra, and Constantinople – that today, the majority of people are much less familiar with.

The 5 Largest Cities Over Time

Today we present to you two videos from the Ollie Bye Youtube channel that show the rapidly changing history of the world’s top cities by population.

It’s incredible to watch the rise and fall of these cities, especially when we’re talking about the centers that were the undisputed heavyweight champions of their day.

The 5 Largest Cities (Years: 3000 BC to 1600 AD)

Over this massive span of time, the designation of the world’s most populous city shifts 16 times.

Rome keeps the title for an impressive period – over 400 years – while Baghdad and Chinese cities also have impressive runs as well. However, what’s most provoking about the video is the list of lesser-known cities that have held the title, such as Chang’an, Merv (Marv), and Pi-Ramesses.

The 5 Largest Cities (Years: 1600 to 2100)

During this much shorter stretch of time of more modern history, the rate of urbanization is skyrocketing and cities are now growing at exponential rates.

The most populous city shifts nine times – and by the year 2100, it’s projected that the five most populous cities could have 370 million people living between them.

This would be higher than the total population of the entire world in the 12th century.

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Demographics

Mapped: The Dramatic Global Rise of Urbanization (1950–2020)

Few global trends have matched the profound impact of urbanization. Today’s map looks back at 70 years of movement in over 1,800 cities.

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The Dramatic Global Rise of Urbanization (1950–2020)

In the 21st century, few trends have matched the economic, environmental, and societal impact of rapid urbanization.

A steady stream of human migration out of the countryside, and into swelling metropolitan centers, has shaken up the world’s power dynamic in just decades.

Today’s eye-catching map via Cristina Poiata from Z Creative Labs looks at 70 years of movement and urban population growth in over 1,800 cities worldwide. Where is the action?

Out of the Farms and Into the Cities

The United Nations cites two intertwined reasons for urbanization: an overall population increase that’s unevenly distributed by region, and an upward trend in people flocking to cities.

Since 1950, the world’s urban population has risen almost six-fold, from 751 million to 4.2 billion in 2018. In North America alone, significant urban growth can be observed in the video for Mexico and the East Coast of the United States as this shift takes place.

Global Urban Population vs. Rural

Over the next few decades, the rural population is expected to plateau and eventually decline, while urban growth will continue to shoot up to six billion people and beyond.

The Biggest Urban Hot-Spots

Urban growth is going to happen all across the board.

Rapidly rising populations in megacities and major cities will be significant contributors, but it’s also worth noting that the number of regional to mid-sized cities (500k to 5 million inhabitants) will swell drastically by 2030, becoming more influential economic hubs in the process.

global cities by size 1990 to 2030

Interestingly, it’s mainly cities across Asia and Africa — some of which Westerners are largely unfamiliar with — that may soon wield enormous influence on the global stage.

It’s expected that over a third of the projected urban growth between now and 2050 will occur in just three countries: India, China, and Nigeria. By 2050, it is projected that India could add 416 million urban dwellers, China 255 million, and Nigeria 189 million.

Urbanization and its Complications

Rapid urbanization isn’t only linked to an inevitable rise in city populations.

Some megacities are actually experiencing population contractions, in part due to the effects of low fertility rates in Asia and Europe. For example, while the Greater Tokyo area contains almost 38 million people today, it’s expected to shrink starting in 2020.

As rapid urbanization continues to shape the global economy, finding ways to provide the right infrastructure and services in cities will be a crucial problem to solve for communities and organizations around the world. How we deal with these issues — or how we don’t — will set the stage for the next act in the modern economic era.

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Demographics

Visualizing Over A Century of Global Fertility

Global fertility has almost halved in the past century. Which countries are most resilient, and which have experienced the most dramatic changes over time?

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Visualizing Over A Century of World Fertility

In just 50 years, world fertility rates have been cut in half.

This sea change can be attributed to multiple factors, ranging from medical advances to greater gender equity. But generally speaking, as more women gain an education and enter the workforce, they’re delaying motherhood and often having fewer children in the process.

Today’s interactive data visualization was put together by Bo McCready, the Director of Analytics at KIPP Texas. Using numbers from Our World in Data, it depicts the changes in the world’s fertility rate—the average number of children per woman—spanning from the beginning of the 20th century to present day.

A Demographic Decline

The global fertility rate fell from 5.25 children per woman in 1900, to 2.44 children per woman in 2018. The steepest drop in this shift happened in a single decade, from 1970 to 1980.

In the interactive graphic, you’ll see graphs for 200 different countries and political entities showing their total fertility rate (FTR) over time. Here’s a quick summary of the countries with the highest and lowest FTRs, as of 2017:

Top 10 CountriesFertility rateBottom 10 CountriesFertility Rate
🇳🇪 Niger7.13🇹🇼 Taiwan1.22
🇸🇴 Somalia6.08🇲🇩 Moldova1.23
🇨🇩 Democratic Republic of Congo5.92🇵🇹 Portugal1.24
🇲🇱 Mali5.88🇸🇬 Singapore1.26
🇹🇩 Chad5.75🇵🇱 Poland1.29
🇦🇴 Angola5.55🇬🇷 Greece1.3
🇧🇮 Burundi5.53🇰🇷 South Korea1.33
🇺🇬 Uganda5.41🇭🇰 Hong Kong1.34
🇳🇬 Nigeria5.39🇨🇾 Cyprus1.34
🇬🇲 Gambia5.29🇲🇴 Macao1.36

At a glance, the countries with the highest fertility are all located in Africa, while several Asian countries end up in the lowest fertility list.

The notable decade of decline in average global fertility can be partially traced back to the actions of the demographic giants China and India. In the 1970s, China’s controversial “one child only” policy and India’s state-led sterilization campaigns caused sharp declines in births for both countries. Though they hold over a quarter of the world’s population today, the effects of these government decisions are still being felt.

Population Plateau, or Cliff?

The overall decline in fertility rates isn’t expected to end anytime soon, and it’s even expected to fall past 2.1 children per woman, which is known as the “replacement rate”. Any fertility below this rate signals fewer new babies than parents, leading to an eventual population decline.

Experts predict that world fertility will further drop from 2.5 to 1.9 children per woman by 2100. This means that global population growth will slow down or possibly even go negative.

Africa will continue to be the only region with significant growth—consistent with the generous fertility rates of Nigeria, the DRC, and Angola. In fact, the continent is expected to house 13 of the world’s largest megacities, as its population expands from 1.3 billion to 4.3 billion by 2100.

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