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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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Demographics

Ranked: Countries Where Youth are the Most Unhappy, Relative to Older Generations

Conventional wisdom says that young adults (those below 30) tend to be the happiest demographicโ€”but this is not true for these countries.

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Countries with the Biggest Happiness Gaps Between Generations

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

โ€œThey say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.โ€ — Tom Bodett

Measuring happiness is tricky business, more so when taking into account how different regions, cultures, and faiths define it. Nevertheless, the World Happiness Report attempts to distill being happy into a single score out of 10, and then ranks countries by their average score.

We’ve visualized the high-level findings from the latest happiness report in this series of maps. However, the report also dives deeper into other significant trends in the data, such as a growing disparity in happiness between age groups within countries themselves.

In the chart above, we list countries by the biggest gaps in happiness ranks between young adults (<30) and older adults (60+). A higher number indicates a larger gap, and that the youth are far unhappier than their older counterparts.

Where are Youth Unhappier than Older Adults?

Mauritius ranks first on this list, with a massive 57 place gap between older adult and youth happiness. The 1.26 million-inhabited island nation briefly reached high income status in 2020, but the pandemic hit hard, hurting its key tourism sector, and affecting jobs.

The country’s youth unemployment rate spiked to close to 25% that year, but has since been on the decline. Like residents on many similarly-populated islands, the younger demographic often moves abroad in search of more opportunities.

RankCountryYouth Happiness RankOlder Adult
Happiness Rank
Happiness Gap
1๐Ÿ‡ฒ๐Ÿ‡บ Mauritius852857
2๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ U.S.621052
3๐Ÿ‡จ๐Ÿ‡ฆ Canada58850
4๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ฟ Uzbekistan712249
5๐Ÿ‡จ๐Ÿ‡ณ China793049
6๐Ÿ‡ฏ๐Ÿ‡ต Japan733637
7๐Ÿ‡ฒ๐Ÿ‡ณ Mongolia865333
8๐Ÿ‡ฉ๐Ÿ‡ฟ Algeria936231
9๐Ÿ‡ฑ๐Ÿ‡พ Libya805030
10๐Ÿ‡ธ๐Ÿ‡ฌ Singapore542628
11๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ฟ Kazakhstan694227
12๐Ÿ‡ต๐Ÿ‡ญ Philippines704327
13๐Ÿ‡ฑ๐Ÿ‡ฆ Laos1047727
14๐Ÿ‡ฉ๐Ÿ‡ช Germany472126
15๐Ÿ‡ช๐Ÿ‡ธ Spain552926
16๐Ÿ‡ฒ๐Ÿ‡น Malta573126
17๐Ÿ‡ง๐Ÿ‡ญ Bahrain775126
18๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ฌ Kyrgyzstan815526
19๐Ÿ‡ฒ๐Ÿ‡ท Mauritania1199326
20๐Ÿ‡น๐Ÿ‡ฉ Chad1209426

Conventional wisdom says, and data somewhat correlates, that young adults (those below 30) tend to be the happiest demographic. Happiness then decreases through middle age and starts increasing around 60. However, the above countries are digressing from the pattern, with older generations being much happier than young adults.

That older generations are happier, by itself, is not a bad thing. However, that younger adults are so much unhappier in the same country can point to several unique stresses that those aged below 30 are facing.

For example, in the U.S. and Canadaโ€”both near the top of this listโ€”many young adults feel like they have been priced out of owning a home: a once key metric of success.

Climate anxieties are also high, with worries about the future of the world they’ll inhabit. Finally, persistent economic inequities are also weighing on the younger generation, with many in that cohort feeling like they will never be able to afford to retire.

All of this comes alongside a rising loneliness epidemic, where those aged 18โ€“25 report much higher rates of loneliness than the general population.

Where does this data come from?

Source: The World Happiness Report which leverages data from the Gallup World Poll.

Methodology: A nationally representative group of approximately 1,000 people per country are asked to evaluate their life on a scale of 0โ€“10. Scores are averaged across generations per country over three years. Countries are ranked by their scores out of 10.

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