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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
#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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Money

The Racial Wealth Gap in America: Asset Types Held by Race

White families are more likely to hold assets of any type compared to other races. This chart highlights the substantial racial wealth gap.

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The Racial Wealth Gap

People of color have faced economic inequality for generations, and the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests has renewed discussions on these disparities.

Compared to White families, other races have lower levels of income and net worth. They are also less likely to hold assets of any type. In fact, 19% of Black families have zero or negative net worth, while only 9% of White households have no wealth.

Today’s chart uses data from the U.S. Federal Reserve’s triennial Survey of Consumer Finances to highlight the racial wealth gap, and the proportion of households that own different kinds of assets by racial group.

Asset Types Held By Race

The financial profile between racial groups varies widely. Below is the percentage of U.S. families with each type of asset, according to the most recent survey from 2016.

 WhiteBlackHispanicOther
Primary Residence73%45%46%54%
Vehicle90%73%80%80%
Retirement Accounts60%34%30%48%
Family-owned Business Equity15%7%6%13%
Publicly-traded Stocks61%31%28%47%

Vehicles are the most common asset across all racial groups, followed by a primary residence.

However, the level of equity—or home value less debts—families have in their houses differs by race. White families have equity of $215,800, whereas Black and Hispanic households have net housing wealth of $94,400 and $129,800 respectively.

In addition, White households are more likely to hold financial assets such as retirement accounts, family businesses, and stocks. These assets are instrumental in building wealth, and are prominent in the wealth composition of America’s richest families.

With fewer people of color holding these assets, they miss out on higher average returns than low-risk assets, as well as the power of compound interest. These portfolio differences are striking, but they are not the most important contributing factor in the racial wealth gap.

Demographic and Economic Variations

White households are also more likely to have demographic characteristics that are associated with wealth. According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, they are:

  • Older, with more than half of households age 55 and up
  • More highly educated, with 51% having some type of degree
  • Less likely to have a single parent
  • More likely to have received an inheritance

For example, 39% of White heads of households have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 23% and 17% for Black and Hispanic household heads, respectively. However, education doesn’t fully explain the wealth inequities.

Racial Wealth Gap by Education

Enormous wealth disparities exist between families with the same education level. Even in cases where Black and Hispanic household heads have obtained a bachelor’s degree, their families’ median wealth of $68,000 and $78,000 respectively is still lower than the $98,000 median wealth for White families where the head has no bachelor’s degree.

After accounting for demographic factors, researchers still found there were considerable inequities. What, then, could be primarily responsible for the racial wealth gap?

The Income Gap

While previous research found that the wealth gap is “too big” to be explained by a difference in income, a recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland offers a new perspective. Focusing on White and Black U.S. households only, researchers analyzed the dynamics of wealth accumulation over time, as opposed to previous studies that considered short time periods.

They found that income inequality was the primary contributor to the racial wealth gap. According to the model, if Black and White households had earned the same labor income from 1962 onwards, the Black-to-White wealth ratio would have reached 0.9 by 2007.

Moving forward, the study concludes that policy changes will likely have a positive impact if they address issues contributing to income gaps. This includes reducing racial discrimination in the labor market, and creating programs, such as mentorships, that improve environments for specific racial subgroups.

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Chart of the Week

Hunger Pandemic: The COVID-19 Effect on Global Food Insecurity

Over 135 million people face acute food insecurity worldwide—but COVID-19 could almost double these numbers. Which regions could be most affected?

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global food crisis 2020

How COVID-19 Could Worsen Global Food Insecurity

While COVID-19 is dominating headlines, another kind of emergency is threatening the lives of millions of people around the world—food insecurity.

The two are very much intertwined, however. By the end of 2020, authorities estimate that upwards of 265 million people could be on the brink of starvation globally, almost double the current rate of crisis-level food insecurity.

Today’s visualizations use data from the fourth annual Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC 2020) to demonstrate the growing scale of the current situation, as well as its intense concentration in just 55 countries around the globe.

Global Overview

The report looks at the prevalence of acute food insecurity, which has severe impacts on lives, livelihoods, or both. How does the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) classify the different phases of acute food insecurity?

  • Phase 1: Minimal/None
  • Phase 2: Stressed
  • Phase 3: Crisis
  • Phase 4: Emergency
  • Phase 5: Catastrophe/Famine

According to the IPC, urgent action must be taken to mitigate these effects from Phase 3 onwards. Already, 135 million people experience critical food insecurity (Phase 3 or higher). Here’s how that breaks down by country:

Country/ TerritoryTotal Population Analyzed (Millions)Population in Crisis (Phase 3+, Millions)Share of Analyzed Population in Crisis
Afghanistan¹30.711.337%
Angola¹
(24 communes in 3 provinces)
0.90.662%
Bangladesh
(Cox's Bazar and host populations)
3.51.337%
Burkina Faso¹21.41.26%
Burundi11.50.22%
Cabo Verde0.50.012%
Cameroon¹
(7 regions)
16.11.48%
Central African Republic¹
(excluding Lobaye)
4.41.841%
Chad¹14.30.64%
Colombia¹
(Venezuelan migrants)
1.60.955%
Côte d'Ivoire19.80.060%
Democratic Republic of the Congo¹
(109 territories)
59.915.626%
Ecuador¹
(Venezuelan migrants)
0.40.376%
El Salvador¹
(Eastern region)
1.40.322%
Eswatini¹
(rural population)
0.90.225%
Ethiopia¹
(selected areas in 6 regions)
28.7827%
Gambia20.210%
Guatemala¹16.63.118%
Guinea10.10.33%
Guinea-Bissau¹1.30.110%
Haiti¹10.53.735%
Honduras¹
(13 departments)
5.1118%
Iraq39.31.85%
Kenya¹
(Arid and Semi-Arid Lands)
13.93.122%
Lebanon¹
(Syrian refugees)
0.90.329%
Lesotho¹
(rural population)
1.50.430%
Liberia4.30.041%
Libya6.70.35%
Madagascar¹
(Southern, south-eastern and eastern areas)
4.61.328%
Malawi¹15.33.322%
Mali¹20.50.63%
Mauritania¹4.10.615%
Mozambique¹
(39 districts)
51.734%
Myanmar540.71%
Namibia2.40.418%
Nicaragua60.081%
Niger¹21.81.47%
Nigeria¹
(16 states and Federal Capital Territory)
103.555%
Pakistan¹
(Balochistan and Sindh drought-affected areas)
63.151%
Palestine51.733%
Rwanda12.60.11%
Senegal¹13.20.43%
Sierra Leone¹8.10.34%
Somalia¹12.32.117%
South Sudan²11.4761%
Sudan¹
(excluding West Darfur)
41.95.914%
Syrian Arab Republic18.36.636%
Turkey¹
(Syrian refugees)
2.70.517%
Uganda401.54%
Ukraine
(Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, and IDP)
6.10.59%
United Republic of Tanzania¹
(16 districts)
4.8120%
Venezuela¹28.59.332%
Yemen²29.915.953%
Zambia¹
(86 districts)
9.52.324%
Zimbabwe¹
(Rural population)
9.43.638%
Total populations825.1 million134.99 million

Source: GRFC 2020, Table 5 – Peak numbers of acutely food-insecure people in countries with food crises, 2019
¹ Include populations classified in Emergency (IPC/CH Phase 4)
² Include populations classified in Emergency (IPC/CH Phase 4) and in Catastrophe (IPC/CH Phase 5)

While starvation is a pressing global issue even at the best of times, the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is projected to almost double these numbers by an additional 130 million people—a total of 265 million by the end of 2020.

To put that into perspective, that’s roughly equal to the population of every city and town in the United States combined.

A Continent in Crisis

Food insecurity impacts populations around the world, but Africa faces bigger hurdles than any other continent. The below map provides a deeper dive:

global food crisis 2020 africa

Over half of populations analyzed by the report – 73 million people – are found in Sub-Saharan Africa. Main drivers of acute food insecurity found all over the continent include:

  • Conflict/Insecurity
    Examples: Interstate conflicts, internal violence, regional/global instability, or political crises.
    In many instances, these result in people being displaced as refugees.
  • Weather extremes
    Examples: Droughts and floods
  • Economic shocks
    Macroeconomic examples: Hyperinflation and currency depreciation
    Microeconomic examples: Rising food prices, reduced purchasing power
  • Pests
    Examples: Desert locusts, armyworms
  • Health shocks
    Examples: Disease outbreaks, which can be worsened by poor quality of water, sanitation, or air
  • Displacement
    A major side-effect of conflict, food insecurity, and weather shocks.

One severely impacted country is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where over 15 million people are experiencing acute food insecurity. DRC’s eastern region is experiencing intense armed conflict, and as of March 2020, the country is also at high risk of Ebola re-emergence.

Meanwhile, in Eastern Africa, a new generation of locusts has descended on croplands, wiping out vital food supplies for millions of people. Weather conditions have pushed this growing swarm of trillions of locusts into countries that aren’t normally accustomed to dealing with the pest. Swarms have the potential to grow exponentially in just a few months, so this could continue to cause big problems in the region in 2020.

Insecurity in Middle East and Asia

In the Middle East, 43 million more people are dealing with similar challenges. Yemen is the most food-insecure country in the world, with 15.9 million (53% of its analyzed population) in crisis. It’s also the only area where food insecurity is at a Catastrophe (IPC/CH Phase 5) level, a result of almost three years of civil war.

global food crisis 2020 middle east

Another troubled spot in the Middle East is Afghanistan, where 11.3 million people find themselves in a critical state of acute food insecurity. Over 138,000 refugees returned to the country from Iran and Pakistan between January-March 2020, putting a strain on food resources.

Over half (51%) of the analyzed population of Pakistan also faces acute food insecurity, the highest in all of Asia. These numbers have been worsened by extreme weather conditions such as below-average monsoon rains.

An Incomplete Analysis

As COVID-19 deteriorates economic conditions, it could also result in funding cuts to major humanitarian organizations. Upwards of 300,000 people could die every day if this happens, according to the World Food Program’s executive director.

The GRFC report also warns that these projections are still inadequate, due to major data gaps and ongoing challenges. 16 countries, such as Iran or the Philippines have not been included in the analysis due to insufficient data available.

More work needs to be done to understand the true severity of global food insecurity, but what is clear is that an ongoing pandemic will not do these regions any favors. By the time the dust settles, the food insecurity problem could be compounded significantly.

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