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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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Growth and Decline: Visualizing U.S. Population Change by County

Rural counties across the U.S. are losing residents as large cities and the coasts are growing. This map shows U.S. population change by county.

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Visualizing U.S. Population Change by County (2010-2018)

The American Heartland continues to feed the growth of urban centers โ€” not only with its agricultural products and natural resources, but with its people as well.

Across the nation, coastal urban centers are adding new citizens, while rural counties are seeing their populations decline. Outside of this general trend, fracking has created some rare pockets of growth in rural areas, while coal mine closures have had the opposite effect.

Todayโ€™s map comes to us from Reddit user jinkinson, and it maps U.S. population change by county from 2010 to 2018, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Uneven Growth

From 2010 to 2018, the total United States population increased by 6% from 308,745,538 to 327,167,434. However, it’s clear that not all counties participated in this uptrend.

There are 3,142 counties counted as part of this map (Puerto Rico and U.S. territories excluded). Of these, 1,489 experienced positive growth, while 1,653 saw a decline.

Which Counties are Growing the Fastest?

Americaโ€™s economy has grown for over a decade, but that growth increasingly concentrates in 1% of the nation’s counties.

In fact, just 31 counties were responsible for 32.3% of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Although economic concentration tells part of the story, a view of changing population patterns can help us see where physical growth is happening across the country.

Top 20 Counties for U.S. Population Growth

RankStateCounty Name2010 Population2018 Population% Change
#1North DakotaMcKenzie County6,36013,632114%
#2TexasLoving County8215285%
#3North DakotaWilliams County22,39835,35058%
#4TexasHays County157,107222,63142%
#5UtahWasatch County23,53033,24041%
#6TennesseeTrousdale County7,87011,01240%
#7TexasHudspeth County3,4764,79538%
#8FloridaSumter County93,420128,75438%
#9FloridaOsceola County268,685367,99037%
#10TexasComal County108,472148,37337%
#11TexasKendall County33,41045,64137%
#12IowaDallas County66,13590,18036%
#13GeorgiaForsyth County175,511236,61235%
#14TexasFort Bend County585,375787,85834%
#15TexasWilliamson County422,679566,71934%
#16FloridaSt. Johns County190,039254,26134%
#17North DakotaMountrail County7,67310,21833%
#18GeorgiaLong County14,46418,99831%
#19South DakotaLincoln County44,82858,80731%
#2VirginiaLoudoun County312,311406,85030%

At the top of the list is McKenzie County, North Dakota, which experienced a growth of 114% in its population from 2010 to 2018. This is due to the shale gas industry that flourished in the area. Interestingly, all of North Dakota’s active oil and gas rigs are in just four counties: McKenzie, Dunn, Williams, and Mountrail, three of which make the top 20 list above.

The fracking boom also fueled growth in Texas, where six counties made the list.

However, immediate economic success built on fracking sands and sensitive commodity prices may not be sustainable over the longer term. In fact, counties from a previous energy era are already seeing what happens when demand dries up.

Which Counties are Declining the Fastest?

If you look at a map of coal operations in the U.S. and compare it to the list of declining counties below, a stark pattern appears.

Half of country’s coal miners work in just 25 counties, and as mines close there are fewer economic opportunities available in those areas.

Top 20 Counties for U.S. Population Decline

RankStateCounty Name2010 Population2018 Population% Change
#1IllinoisAlexander County8,2386,060-26%
#2OklahomaBlaine County11,9439,485-21%
#3West VirginiaMcDowell County22,11318,223-18%
#4KansasMorton County3,2332,667-18%
#5ArkansasPhillips County21,75718,029-17%
#6TexasTerrell County984823-16%
#7TexasSchleicher County3,4612,895-16%
#8AlaskaPetersburg Borough3,8153,221-16%
#9ArkansasMonroe County8,1496,900-15%
#10LouisianaTensas Parish5,2524,462-15%
#11South CarolinaAllendale County10,4198,903-15%
#12MichiganOntonagon County6,780,5,795-15%
#13MississippiQuitman County8,2237,051-14%
#14AlabamaMacon County21,45218,439-14%
#15ArkansasLee County10,4248,985-14%
#16AlabamaPerry County10,5919,140-14%
#17VirginiaEmporia city5,9275,121-14%
#18MississippiCoahoma County26,15122,628-13%
#19ColoradoKit Carson County8,2707,163-13%
#20TexasMitchell County9,4038,145-13%

While coal counties have grim figures due to the changing domestic energy story, it’s Alexander County in Illinois that tops the list with a 26% decline in population over the time period.

In fact, the harsh reality is that 93% of Illinois’ counties have seen a decrease in population between 2010-2018.

State by State: Winners and Losers

The number of declining counties within a state reveals a larger picture. Visual Capitalist aggregated county level data to reveal the patterns of U.S. states.

State# Counties with Negative Growth# Counties with Positive Growth% of Counties with Negative Growth
Illinois93991%
Connecticut7188%
Kansas901586%
West Virginia46984%
Mississippi622076%
New York461674%
Nebraska662771%
Pennsylvania472070%
New Mexico231070%
Missouri793669%
Iowa683169%
Ohio583066%
Alabama432464%
Indiana593364%
Arkansas482764%
Michigan533064%
Louisiana392561%
Oklahoma443357%
Vermont8657%
Maine7654%
Kentucky635753%
Wyoming121152%
North Dakota272651%
Minnesota444351%
Rhode Island4450%
New Jersey101148%
Wisconsin343847%
Georgia738646%
South Carolina212546%
Virginia607345%
North Carolina435743%
South Dakota264039%
Alaska111838%
Texas9615838%
Nevada61135%
Tennessee326334%
Montana183832%
New Hampshire3730%
Maryland71729%
California154326%
Colorado164825%
Utah72224%
Florida155222%
Massachusetts31121%
Idaho93520%
Hawaii1420%
Oregon72919%
Arizona21313%
Washington2375%
Delaware030%
District of Columbia010%

Illinois tops the list with the most people leaving its counties, while areas such as the District of Columbia and Delaware experienced no declines.

What happens to a state where the majority of its counties are losing residents?

The Big Picture

Americans are seeking out opportunity where it resides: in the cities. The pursuit of fracking oil and gas created opportunities in regions beyond the coast or traditional urban centers.

However, the long term trend of concentration of people on coasts and in major urban centers will continue to impact infrastructure spending, labor mobility, and economic activity. America no longer derives the majority of its economic success from rural counties and industries.

It is unclear how rural counties will fare as their denizens continue to dwindle. What is clear is that the few that rely on natural resources for success will continue to experience the ups and downs of volatile commodity markets.

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Invisible Stars: Mapping America’s Rural Light Pollution

This unique map subtracts population from nighttime light output, giving us a unique perspective into America’s rural light pollution hot spots.

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light pollution population adjusted

Invisible Stars: Mapping America’s Rural Light Pollution

From the bright lights of Times Square to the high-powered flood lights of a suburban Walmart, we expect our cities to give off a certain amount of light pollution. Even though our view of the universe is largely blotted out around city centers, there’s a measure of comfort in knowing an inspiring view of a starry night is only a short drive away.

Increasingly though, economic activity in America’s rural spaces is casting a glow into the sky, and now four out of five people in North America cannot see the Milky Way at night.

Today’s map, from geographer and journalist, Tim Wallace, is a different perspective on light pollution in the United States. The map was created by subtracting population from light output, which highlights areas that throw off more light than predicted given their population density.

On this style of map, it isn’t the glowing metropolitan centers of New York and Los Angeles that stand out, but regions like the oil-rich corner of South Dakota or the final leg of the Mississippi River. Let’s zoom in and investigate what’s happening in these unexpected illumination zones.

Oil & Gas

Some of the most prominent patterns on the map appear in regions where shale oil is being extracted.

texas north dakota gas flares

In a relatively short amount of time, America became the largest oil producer on the planet. One of the major factors that fueled record production for shale oil producers was the proliferation of multi-well pad drilling โ€” when multiple wells are drilled from a single drill site. From the air, it’s easy to spot these well formations spreading across the landscape, but the effect is even more pronounced at night.

At times, oil production is so strong that drillers flare the excess natural gas. In North Dakota alone, there are nearly 14,000 producing wells, and the resulting flares are what create the distinctive grid patterns on the map.

One of the brightest areas per capita in the country is Loving County, Texas. The county has around 100 residents, but more than 6,000 drilled wells.

Industrial Activities

Another point of interest on the map is Louisiana’s “petrochemical corridor”, running between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. An overhead view of Southern Louisiana in the daytime will be punctuated by the “ribbon farms” flanking the Mississippi River โ€” a nod to the region’s history of French settlement.

petrochemical corridor louisiana

At night though, a different scene emerges. Over 100 sprawling petrochemical facilities run by companies like Dow Chemical and Union Carbide dot the landscape, a patchwork of highly-illuminated plots.

Commercial Sprawl

Some types of infrastructure are typically located away from the city center. Airports, power stations, and racetracks, for example, need a lot of space and aren’t the most popular neighbors.

Another type of facility has been replacing farmland in recent years โ€” logistics hubs. Many of the bright spots on the map outside cities show the warehouses and sortation centers that feed our growing demand for e-commerce.

economic logistics sprawl

In the example above, companies like Amazon, Home Depot, Dollar Tree, and Ikea have all clustered their facilities in the sparsely populated farmland south of Joliet, Illinois. This trend is repeated around the country, resulting in the “halos” of light that ring most cities on the map.

Flipping the Switch on Light Pollution

Though light isn’t toxic or overtly damaging to the natural landscape, it can still have a serious impact on wildlife, as well as blunting the beauty of the night sky.

The good news is that light is one of the easiest forms of pollution to prevent. New technologies and lighting techniques aren’t just good for our night skies, they’re generally more energy efficient as well.

Just as economic incentive lured buildings and infrastructure to America’s natural spaces, it may be energy efficiency that helps us return more of the night sky to its natural state.

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