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Ranking the World’s Most Populous Cities, Over 500 Years of History

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Animation: The Most Populous Cities, Over 500 Years

What do Beijing, Tokyo, Istanbul, London, and New York City all have in common?

Not only are they all world-class cities that still serve as global hubs of commerce, but these cities also share a relatively rare and important historical designation.

At specific points in history, each of these cities outranked all others on the planet in terms of population, granting them the exclusive title as the single most populated city globally.

Ranking the World’s Most Populous Cities

Today’s animation comes to us from John Burn-Murdoch with the Financial Times, and it visualizes cities ranked by population in a bar chart race over the course of a 500-year timeframe.

Beijing starts in the lead in the year 1500, with a population of 672,000:

RankCityPopulation in Year 1500
#1๐Ÿ‡จ๐Ÿ‡ณ Beijing672,000
#2๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ Vijayanagar500,000
#3๐Ÿ‡ช๐Ÿ‡ฌ Cairo400,000
#4๐Ÿ‡จ๐Ÿ‡ณ Hangzhou250,000
#5๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ท Tabriz250,000
#6๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ Gauda200,000
#7๐Ÿ‡น๐Ÿ‡ท Istanbul200,000
#8๐Ÿ‡ซ๐Ÿ‡ท Paris185,000
#9๐Ÿ‡จ๐Ÿ‡ณ Guangzhou150,000
#10๐Ÿ‡จ๐Ÿ‡ณ Nanjing147,000

In the 16th century, which is where the animation starts, cities in China and India were dominant in terms of population.

In China, the cities of Beijing, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, and Nanjing all made the top 10 list, while India itself held two of the most populous cities at the time, Vijayanagar and Gauda.

If the latter two names sound unfamiliar, that’s because they were key historical locations in the Vijayanagara and Bengal Empires respectively, but neither are the sites of modern-day cities.

The 1 Million Mark

For the first minute of animationโ€”and up until the late 18th centuryโ€”not a single city was able to eclipse the 1 million person mark.

However, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the floodgates opened up. With more efficient agricultural practices, better sanitation, and other technological improvements, cities were able to support bigger populations.

Here’s a look at the biggest cities in the year 1895:

RankCityPopulation in Year 1895
#1๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ง London5,974,000
#2๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ New York3,712,000
#3๐Ÿ‡ซ๐Ÿ‡ท Paris3,086,000
#4๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ Chicago1,420,000
#5๐Ÿ‡ฏ๐Ÿ‡ต Tokyo1,335,000
#6๐Ÿ‡ท๐Ÿ‡บ St. Petersburg1,286,000
#7๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ง Manchester1,244,000
#8๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ง Birmingham1,074,000
#9๐Ÿ‡จ๐Ÿ‡ณ Beijing1,055,000
#10๐Ÿ‡ท๐Ÿ‡บ Moscow1,002,000

In the span of roughly a century, all of the world’s biggest cities were able to pass the 1 million mark, making it no longer a particularly exclusive milestone.

Modern City Populations

Finally, let’s look at the modern list of the top 10 most populous cities, and see how it compares to rankings from previous years:

RankCityPopulation in Year 2018
#1๐Ÿ‡ฏ๐Ÿ‡ต Tokyo38,194,000
#2๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ Delhi27,890,000
#3๐Ÿ‡จ๐Ÿ‡ณ Shanghai25,779,000
#4๐Ÿ‡จ๐Ÿ‡ณ Beijing22,674,000
#5๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ Mumbai22,120,000
#6๐Ÿ‡ง๐Ÿ‡ท Sao Paulo21,698,000
#7๐Ÿ‡ฒ๐Ÿ‡ฝ Mexico City21,520,000
#8๐Ÿ‡ช๐Ÿ‡ฌ Cairo19,850,000
#9๐Ÿ‡ง๐Ÿ‡ฉ Dhaka19,633,000
#10๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ New York City18,713,000

Interestingly, the modern list appears to be a blend of both previous rankings from the years 1500 and 1895, listed above.

In 2018, cities from China and India feature prominently, but New York City and Tokyo are also included. Meanwhile, Latin America has entered the fold with entries from Mexico and Brazil.

The Future of Megacities

If you think the modern list of the most populous cities is impressive, check out how the world’s megacities are expected to develop as we move towards the end of the 21st century.

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Healthcare

Charted: Average Years Left to Live by Age

Visualizing the number of years left to live for Americans at every age, reveals the broader trends in American life expectancy.

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Chart showing the average years left to live at every age for men and women.

How Many Years Do You Have Left to Live?

At the start of the 19th century, when there fewer than 1 billion humans on the earth, global life expectancy at birth stood at roughly 29 years.

This is a startlingly low figureโ€”because life expectancy is a statistical projection of how many more years a person can expect to live, based on the mortality rates at the time. And since the infant mortality rate in particular was so high, life expectancies accurately summarized the low likelihood of many babies living to adulthood.

However, since the 1920s, life expectancy across all ages has improved leaps and bounds, thanks to rapid advancements in nutrition, healthcare, and sanitation.

We visualized the current American life expectancy by age and gender, using data from the Office of Social Security, which bases their current projections on 2020 mortality rates.

American Life Expectancy at Every Age

A key takeaway with life expectancy is that it increases as one gets older. This is easily seen in the table below, which lists the remaining years left to live at a given age for an American male and the projected life expectancy.

AgeYears Remaining (Men)Life Expectancy (Men)
074.1274.12
173.5574.55
272.5874.58
371.6074.60
470.6274.62
569.6374.63
668.6474.64
767.6574.65
866.6574.65
965.6674.66
1064.6774.67
1163.6874.68
1262.6974.69
1361.7074.70
1460.7174.71
1559.7374.73
1658.7674.76
1757.7974.79
1856.8474.84
1955.9074.90
2054.9774.97
2154.0475.04
2253.1275.12
2352.2175.21
2451.3075.30
2550.3975.39
2649.4875.48
2748.5775.57
2847.6675.66
2946.7675.76
3045.8675.86
3144.9775.97
3244.0776.07
3343.1876.18
3442.2976.29
3541.3976.39
3640.5076.50
3739.6276.62
3838.7376.73
3937.8576.85
4036.9776.97
4136.0977.09
4235.2177.21
4334.3477.34
4433.4677.46
4532.5977.59
4631.7377.73
4730.8777.87
4830.0178.01
4929.1778.17
5028.3378.33
5127.5078.50
5226.6778.67
5325.8678.86
5425.0679.06
5524.2779.27
5623.4879.48
5722.7179.71
5821.9579.95
5921.2180.21
6020.4780.47
6119.7480.74
6219.0381.03
6318.3281.32
6417.6381.63
6516.9481.94
6616.2682.26
6715.5882.58
6814.9182.91
6914.2483.24
7013.5983.59
7112.9483.94
7212.3084.30
7311.6784.67
7411.0585.05
7510.4685.46
769.8885.88
779.3286.32
788.7786.77
798.2587.25
807.7487.74
817.2588.25
826.7788.77
836.3189.31
845.8889.88
855.4790.47
865.0791.07
874.7091.70
884.3592.35
894.0293.02
903.7293.72
913.4494.44
923.1895.18
932.9695.96
942.7596.75
952.5797.57
962.4298.42
972.2899.28
982.15100.15
992.04101.04
1001.93101.93
1011.83102.83
1021.73103.73
1031.63104.63
1041.54105.54
1051.45106.45
1061.36107.36
1071.27108.27
1081.18109.18
1091.10110.10
1101.02111.02
1110.95111.95
1120.88112.88
1130.82113.82
1140.76114.76
1150.70115.70
1160.65116.65
1170.60117.60
1180.56118.56
1190.52119.52
1200.48120.48

At birth, an average American baby boy can expect to live till just past 74. But if the boy reaches adulthood, then at 21 he might live to a full year more, past 75. This trend persists even towards the end of life when the years we have left drop rapidly, influenced by the higher likelihood of death.

American women, on the other hand, have a higher life expectancy than men. At birth the gap is close to six years, narrowing steadily to around one year by 85.

AgeYears Remaining
(Women)
Life Expectancy
(Women)
079.7879.78
179.1780.17
278.1980.19
377.2180.21
476.2280.22
575.2380.23
674.2480.24
773.2580.25
872.2580.25
971.2680.26
1070.2780.27
1169.2780.27
1268.2880.28
1367.2980.29
1466.3080.30
1565.3180.31
1664.3280.32
1763.3480.34
1862.3680.36
1961.3880.38
2060.4180.41
2159.4480.44
2258.4780.47
2357.5080.50
2456.5480.54
2555.5880.58
2654.6180.61
2753.6680.66
2852.7080.70
2951.7480.74
3050.7980.79
3149.8480.84
3248.8980.89
3347.9480.94
3447.0081.00
3546.0681.06
3645.1281.12
3744.1881.18
3843.2481.24
3942.3181.31
4041.3881.38
4140.4581.45
4239.5281.52
4338.6081.60
4437.6881.68
4536.7681.76
4635.8581.85
4734.9481.94
4834.0482.04
4933.1482.14
5032.2482.24
5131.3582.35
5230.4782.47
5329.5982.59
5428.7282.72
5527.8682.86
5627.0183.01
5726.1683.16
5825.3283.32
5924.4983.49
6023.6783.67
6122.8583.85
6222.0484.04
6321.2484.24
6420.4584.45
6519.6684.66
6618.8884.88
6718.1085.10
6817.3485.34
6916.5885.58
7015.8285.82
7115.0886.08
7214.3686.36
7313.6486.64
7412.9486.94
7512.2687.26
7611.6087.60
7710.9587.95
7810.3188.31
799.7088.70
809.1089.10
818.5389.53
827.9889.98
837.4490.44
846.9390.93
856.4491.44
865.9991.99
875.5592.55
885.1593.15
894.7693.76
904.4194.41
914.0895.08
923.7895.78
933.5196.51
943.2797.27
953.0598.05
962.8598.85
972.6899.68
982.52100.52
992.37101.37
1002.23102.23
1012.09103.09
1021.96103.96
1031.84104.84
1041.72105.72
1051.61106.61
1061.51107.51
1071.41108.41
1081.32109.32
1091.24110.24
1101.16111.16
1111.09112.09
1121.02113.02
1130.96113.96
1140.90114.90
1150.85115.85
1160.80116.80
1170.75117.75
1180.70118.70
1190.66119.66
1200.62120.62

Interestingly, women outlive men in nearly every country in the world, due to a mix of sociological, behavioral, and biological reasons.

COVID-19: Reversing A Decade of Increasing American Life Expectancy

While the current American life expectancy at birth seems reasonably high, it is nearly two years lower than the 2022 figure which used the 2019 mortality rate. It is also lower than the life expectancy at birth in 2009, which used 2005 mortality rate.

YearLife Expectancy
at Birth (Men)
Life Expectancy
at Birth (Women)
200974.1279.95
201476.1080.94
201976.0480.99
202374.1279.78

American mortality rates went up 17% between 2019โ€“2020, in part because of COVID-19, in turn affecting life expectancy. The U.S. also had a higher COVID-19 mortality rate compared to its peers two years after the pandemic first struck.

Thus, American life expectancy may not improve immediately to 2019 levels, which can affect insurance premiums, pension benefits, and plans.

Where Does This Data Come From?

Source: Office of Social Security, U.S. Government.

Note: The life expectancy at a given age is the average remaining number of years expected prior to death for a person at that exact age, born on January 1, using the mortality rates for 2020 over the course of their remaining life.

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