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



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
#1🇨🇳 Beijing672,000
#2🇮🇳 Vijayanagar500,000
#3🇪🇬 Cairo400,000
#4🇨🇳 Hangzhou250,000
#5🇮🇷 Tabriz250,000
#6🇮🇳 Gauda200,000
#7🇹🇷 Istanbul200,000
#8🇫🇷 Paris185,000
#9🇨🇳 Guangzhou150,000
#10🇨🇳 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 animation—and up until the late 18th century—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
#1🇬🇧 London5,974,000
#2🇺🇸 New York3,712,000
#3🇫🇷 Paris3,086,000
#4🇺🇸 Chicago1,420,000
#5🇯🇵 Tokyo1,335,000
#6🇷🇺 St. Petersburg1,286,000
#7🇬🇧 Manchester1,244,000
#8🇬🇧 Birmingham1,074,000
#9🇨🇳 Beijing1,055,000
#10🇷🇺 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
#1🇯🇵 Tokyo38,194,000
#2🇮🇳 Delhi27,890,000
#3🇨🇳 Shanghai25,779,000
#4🇨🇳 Beijing22,674,000
#5🇮🇳 Mumbai22,120,000
#6🇧🇷 Sao Paulo21,698,000
#7🇲🇽 Mexico City21,520,000
#8🇪🇬 Cairo19,850,000
#9🇧🇩 Dhaka19,633,000
#10🇺🇸 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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The World Population Pyramid (1950-2100)

The world is in the midst of a notable demographic transition. Here’s how the world population pyramid will change as we close in on the year 2100.



The world is in the midst of a notable period of demographic transition.

Back in the 1960s, global population growth peaked at a 2.1% annual rate, but since then it has been on a historic downtrend.

In fact, according to the most commonly cited United Nations projection, which is based on a medium fertility rate scenario, it’s expected that annual population growth could drop all the way to 0.1% by the end of the 21st century.

Visualizing a Demographic Transition

Today’s powerful charts come from Our World in Data by economist Max Roser, and they show how global demographics will shift over the next 80 years.

Below you can see one major catalyst of this change, which is the peaking (and then falling) population growth rate:

Growth in world population from 1950 to 2100

Why has population growth been dropping since the 1960s?

A variety of explanations factor into this, including:

  • Falling fertility rates:
    Birth rates tend to fall as nations get richer. First, this happened in the developed world, but as the century progresses this phenomenon will impact more and more developing nations.
  • Government policy:
    China’s “One Child Policy” in particular had an effect on global population growth, and the aftermath of the policy is still contributing to a shrinking Chinese population over the long term.
  • Rural flight
    Urban dwellers tend to have fewer babies—and by 2050, there will be an additional 2.5 billion people living in cities globally.

Fewer births combined with improving healthcare—especially in developing nations—will dramatically alter the composition of the world population pyramid, creating both economic opportunities and challenges in the process.

The Changing World Population Pyramid

The following graphic charts how these changes affect the makeup of the world’s population.

World Population Pyramid transition

Over time, the shape of the world population pyramid is expected to shift from Stage 1 (high birth rates, high death rates) to something closer to Stage 4 (low birth rates, low death rates).

As the population distribution skews older, here is how population size and global median age will change:

YearGlobal Population SizeMedian Age
19502.6 billion23.6 years
20187.6 billion30.0 years
2050p9.7 billion36.1 years
2075p10.7 billion39.0 years
2100p11.2 billion41.6 years

Global median age is projected to surpass 40 years by the end of the century, and it will be considerably higher in many Western nations, especially in Japan and Europe.

With the future demographic composition looking very different than today, it will be fascinating to see how the economy responds to these potential tailwinds. Further, it will be even more interesting to see what role automation will play as the old-age dependency ratio hits historic highs.

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Population Boom: Charting How We Got to Nearly 8 Billion People

In the next year or so, humanity is expected to pass the 8 billion person milestone. These charts and maps put global population growth into context.



Today, the global population is estimated to sit at 7.91 billion people.

By the end of 2022 or within the first months of 2023, that number is expected to officially cross the 8 billion mark. Incredibly, each new billion people has come faster than the previous—it was roughly only a decade ago that we crossed the 7 billion threshold.

How did we get here, and what has global population growth looked like historically?

In this series of six charts from Our World in Data, we’ll break down how the global population got to its current point, as well as some big picture trends behind the data.

#1: Mapping the Population Over 5,000 Years

New York, São Paulo, and Jakarta were not always bustling metropolises. In fact, for long parts of the history of civilization, it was unusual to find humans congregating in many of the present-day city locations we now think of as population centers.

The human population has always moved around, seeking out new opportunity and freedoms.

5,000 years of population movement

As of 3,000 BC, humans could be mainly found in Central America, the Mediterranean, the Fertile Crescent, and parts of India, Japan, and China. It’s no coincidence that that agriculture was independently discovered in many of these same places during the Neolithic Revolution.

#2: The Hockey Stick Curve

For even more context, let’s zoom way out by using a timeline that goes back to when woolly mammoths still roamed the Earth:

Annual World Population since 10,000 BC

From this 10,000-foot view, it’s clear that human population growth started going exponential around the time of the Second Agricultural Revolution, which started in the 17th century in Britain. This is when new technologies and farming conventions took root, making it possible to grow the food supply at an unprecedented pace.

Soon these discoveries spread around the world, enabling population booms everywhere.

#3: The Time to Add 1 Billion

The data and projections in this chart are a few years old, but the concept remains the same:

Time to Add 1 Billion in Population

It took all of human history until 1803 to reach the first billion in population. The next billion took 124 years, and the next 33 years. More recent billions have come every dozen or so.

So why then, are future billion people additions projected to take longer and longer to achieve?

#4: The Growth Rate is Shrinking

Because of demographics and falling fertility rates, the growth rate of the global population has actually been on a downward trend for some time.

Falling Population Growth Rate

As this growth rate gets closer to zero, the population curve has become less exponential like we saw in the first graphs. Population growth is leveling out, and it may even go negative at some point in the future.

#5: The Regional Breakdown

Although the rate of population growth is expected to slow down, there are still parts of the world that are adding new people fast, as you can see on this interactive regional breakdown:

Since 1973, Asia has doubled its population from 2.3 billion to 4.6 billion people.

Comparatively, over the same time frame, Europe has gone from 670 million to 748 million, equal to just an 11% increase.

#6: The Present and Future of Population Growth

Population projections by groups like the United Nations see the global population peaking at around 10.9 billion people in 2100.

World Population 1700 to 2100

That said, there isn’t a consensus around this peak.

Organizations like the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) have a different perspective, and they have recently modeled that the global population will top out at 9.7 billion people by the year 2064.

As we climb to surpass the 8 billion mark in the coming months, it will be interesting to see what path humanity ends up following.

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