One thing that does seem to pervade insidiously in terms of ‘greatness’ is size. Whether on its merit alone or backing up any other spurious claim, a good bolstering on size – especially if it’s First World to boot (and thus filled with plenty of money, the arts and opportunistic fads) – tends to silence most hecklers. It is if you like, the vast, hinted-at base to the argument. The penis measuring contest behind the thumbpot war. For all London’s claims to fame (conveniently ignoring that Paris is richer or LA more powerful, or Seoul more highrise), the New York camp like to point out it has many aspects we enjoy, just that it’s bigger. And that does piss on our parade a bit.
-Or is it bigger?
Size as relating to city population is the most accepted measure by geographers. A city’s ‘size’ judged purely on the area it covers can easily mislead due to different densities of buildings and inhabitants. For example New York City may cover the largest area, but most of that is made up of lowrise sprawl with generous plots, at population densities lower than most rural areas. And multiple times larger than Manhattan or the 5 boroughs that people normally envision the city in scale. The reality is NYC may have a famously dense centre but the majority of it is actually lowrise and low density, where the most people live. More obvious examples see places such as San Juan, Puerto Rico (pop 2.2 million) covering areas almost 50% larger than Greater London (pop 9.2 million), yet no one would accord San Juan – great that it is – the bigger moniker over London (or Seoul, at 25 million a pop for that matter).
So back to population, and by golly, does it get complicated once more. Where does one stop counting? That is the biggest source of bickering as only nerdy online geographers can know, as multiple institutions use multiple ways to measure. By the official city boundaries (aka City Proper) places like Los Angeles shrink to 4 million, and lose a good 10 million urbanites . Almost all cities lose inhabitants that way if they go by the official – but outdated – city boundaries. Paris shrinks to 2.2 million, The City of London to, my goodness, only 14,000 rather lonely, albeit gilded, individuals due to these boundaries having been dreamt up when herding cows were the traffic jam of choice. Though not all cities. Some would actually gain. ‘Difficult’ places such as the eponymously named er, Ningbo, that we do not speak about among geographer circles, and the rumoured status of Shanghai to boot. All in all, urban legislation at its best.
Another spanner in the works is the adoption of Statistical Areas (Municipal or Consolidated depending on the fine print) in the US that takes in vast swathes of countryside, any adjacent towns, villages and entire counties, cows and all, based on commuting habits. The idea is that those who work in the city but live in ‘dormitory suburbs’ are still part of the city’s functioning contributors, never mind they equally contribute, if not more, to their hometown where they actually live, shop, school, wifeswap, pay taxes and make babies.
Also on closer inspection, the threshold for inclusion gets increasingly lax each year, with as few as 10% of people in one county (that commutes into the next rural county along- not even to the general city) still getting the rest of the 90% of their neighbours suddenly counted as citydwellers. One area of Pike County even gets included due to ‘receiving the New York TV signal’ (thank you small print).
In the end this sees central nodes like LA, NYC, Boston or Atlanta commanding mostly rural, low density areas the size of small countries, such as NYC covering more than Wales & Northern Ireland combined. It’s population density becomes so low, that much of Europe could be included just from their similar commute habits, for example 88% of England live in densities higher than 98% of the NYC metro (CSA), in other words nearly 50 million people in the size of Maine. Confusingly in the US they are dubbed ‘metropolitan areas’, despite the rest of the world considering that term merely of the city and its conjoined suburbs, and will often show their differently measured figures in the self same league.
The rest of the world is cottoning on though – China now operates a similar stratagem, with Chongqing, at 32 million, claimed as the world’s biggest city for a short time before someone pointed out it was a municipality involving several cities in an area the size of Austria, plus a few million farmers, ducks and geese. But China’s municipal boundaries also often miss out large chunks of the city in most cases. In 2015 independent OECD studies that ignored the boundaries and followed the transport infrastructure found 260 million people live in only 15 Chinese cities, and that the country had 15 megacities (cities over 10 million) not 10. Shanghai’s true count ignoring its boundaries went from 25 million to 34 million, for one of the first times acknowledging the fact it’s merged into a 2.5 million strong arm of Suzhou. Wuhan climbed most spectacularly from 10.6 million to 19 million, and Chongqing fell more realistically to 17 million, though now usurped by its long held rival, Chengdu, at 18 million, who’d spent the last two decades squealing in indignation it was no longer the de facto capital of 127 million southwesterners.
Okay, so far so complicated. Let’s just try and count the number of people in the continuous urban sprawl without large breaks of countryside. But given the differing ways governments have urbanised this is also contentious. London – thanks to its protected Green Belt – sees its natural old growth suburbia confined into myriad high density dormitories surrounded by countryside, rather than the usual blanketing sprawl. In other words its suburbs are broken up into thousands, by law. It’s a surprise to learn from satellite views that there is no real ‘belt’ or expanse of greenery, merely a dense peppering of thousands of commuter towns and new villages, connected by a dense web of roads and train tracks. The jury’s out on whether they created a protected environment, or merely upped the scale on a monstrous semi-urban, semi-rural monster.
The Alps is a similar contender, both urban regions being part of Western Europe known as the ‘Blue Banana’ megalopolis, the world’s largest – scientifically named as that’s the shape and hue it takes on satellite imagery. This form of forcibly disparate -yet unified- urbanity stretches in a vast swathe of highly peppered development from Leeds to Milan.
Thus London ultimately weighs in at slightly larger than the NYC ‘metro’ if these artifices are taken into account, but significantly less if not – 14 to 23.6 million ‘Londoners’ and 17 – 20.5 million ‘New Yorkers’ depending on where you stop. Still, the latest inflation from over the pond sees the NYC area nearly doubled to take in another 3 million in a strongly rural, little-commuting landscape.
But let’s forge ahead and do it anyway; sorry London. Let’s count the city contiguous, and omit large stretches of pasture, cows and forest. For years Tokyo was head and shoulders above the rest, a city with a vast, dense centre, as well as blanketing sprawl – but in such significant densities they could easily be included without fuss. Even with all the differing ways of counting, Tokyo was conveniently well ahead – at a whopping 29-39 million. Second spot (Seoul –Incheon at 24.5 million) was still a good 5-10 million off, and at any projection Tokyo looked to hold on for two decades or more, before finally losing ground to Delhi in maybe 2030.
But then along came Jakarta, a vastly under-measured region of cities and suburbs that had begun melding together, not as neatly as Tokyo, but putting on the heat nevertheless. ‘Jabotabek’ was made up of Jakarta, Bogor, Tangerrang and Bekasi, a term used since the late 1980s, but soon became the even snazzier ‘Jabodetabek’ to include Depok. When faced with more lyrically challenging towns such as Karawang, Sukabuni, and Puwakarta about to join they decided suddenly on ‘Greater Jakarta’ rather than breaking into scat rap each time. It currently counts over 30 million, and is slowly knitting together townships and suburbs towards Bandung, a city of 2.4 million, with another 6 million urbanites in its environs.
Then suddenly the jump. It was announced this year there was a new biggest city in the world, contiguously linked, appearing seemingly out of nowhere in China, and leapfrogging both Tokyo and Greater Jakarta in one fell swoop. Something that had been glowering in the background, growing deceptively.
The new kid on the block was Guangzhou, an ancient city of 14 million, whose breakneck growth as China’s manufacturing backbone had coursed west into adjacent cities, and more notably downriver into two huge cities doing the same. One was Dongguan, a manufacturing city of 8 million most famous for having the world’s largest shopping mall, and having it empty also. In turn Dongguan had merged in eddies and swirls around the local hilly topography to connect up with a wandering finger of Shenzhen, the golden child of the China Rise. Once a village of 30,000 Shenzhen had grown to be the richest city in the country, with 12 million inhabitants, within 30 years. All in all 42 million call the ‘Pearl River Metropolis’ home, with 55 million in its ‘metro’ region. It lies on the doorstep of Hong Kong, glimpsed across a border that stands ground on a no-man’s-land of rice paddies right below the skyscrapers of Shenzhen’s CBD.
But Hong Kong is not counted – the border, however porous, is not enough to justify its inclusion into the greater fold, and moreover there are a good few miles before one reaches the cityscapes of Kowloon. In other words, just behind the mountainous curtain of one of the most popular and famous cities in the world, lies an unseen giant, of glittering skyscrapers, dingy alleys, vast avenues, cutting edge galleries, manicured parkland, teeming markets, dirty tenements, and hidden history rich in street life, wealth and endless highrises, all connected by the world’s largest infrastructure and state of the art transportation systems. (Don’t get too excited though, it’s no longer as pedestrian friendly, and despite being millennia old, 95% of its built history is under 30). Go despite (Zhujiang New City, the latest CBD) if you like Bladerunner, myriad districts distinct in character, nightlife, modern art, fantastic dim sum, or the sheer vastness of the place.
In terms of scale this little known metropolis is indeed the world’s ‘greatest’ city. It is large in area (though not the largest), but in such high densities of population and highrise building it even beats Tokyo in sheer unending scale. It takes a high speed train hours to reach between the city’s multiple central nodes, and all you see are concrete highrises.
Guangzhou anchors one end:
Shenzhen the other, at 140 km distant. You can even fly commercially from one end to another:
In a similar vein is Shanghai (25 million), already connected to Suzhou (4.5 million) and Wuxi (3.5 million) via Kunshan (1.7 million), and about to thread along (if not already at the rate Chinese cities terraform) to Changzhou (3.5 million), to bring a total of 38.3 million urbanites busily being busy. Close, but not the biggest, and still behind Tokyo too.
breathe city by Black station, on Flickr
But what is interesting about Shanghai’s metropolis is the immediate area – the potential to knit up even more in a metro that is the worlds biggest collection of adjacent cities, that form the Yangtze River Delta, 120 million strong, many of whom live in thousands of sq km of highrises and midrises whether urban or rural (farmer’s apartments that look like a vast city for hundreds of km). This will likely be the new title holder in the years to come.
The ‘countryside’ for over 200km, classed as rural. It takes a bullet train, with stops only for the city centres, 3 hrs to cross it:
-So is this it?
A sea of middle class highrises that is the be all and end all of the world’s ‘greatest’ city? Surely people are individual enough, can decide for themselves, or well, don’t really care and can happily live their lives regardless of monikers? People who are loving Kettering or Venice, so be it, and not being upstaged by a mass of glorified tower blocks?
The short answer is yes, of course it is. Don’t be silly thinking otherwise. This is a penis measuring contest and begad someone’s got to win it.
For all the talk about size – and what a wormhole that was – surely there is a city that ticks off the size bracket, but holds much more than the PRD can offer? -In short yes, the all-rounders. Size: yes, yes and yes again. But also economy (tick), business (tick), culture (tick), creativity (tick), beauty (tick), history (tick, tick, tick), the arts (tick), food (er, tick), nightlife (tick), cosmopolitanism (tick, tick, tick), social mix (tick), global influence (tick), an army of visitors (tick), digital opportunity (tick), and an ever-changing contemporary society (tick).
So yes, London has it.
But I might be biased there. By living in the world’s greatest city. There’s nothing to argue about at all. The prices are completely fine, the weather’s brilliant, and I love living in a shoe box. Brexit won’t change a thing, no.
Up next: SCALE. The World’s Most Built Up City
6 thoughts on “The World’s Biggest City”
Great article! Couple of additions. Chongqing municipality is easily 2.5 times Belgium, not merely the size of one Belgium 😉 and Guangzhou to Shenzhen is 110 km center to center (and less from outskirts to outskirts) not 140 km. Airport to airport is also less than 100 km.
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The contiguous Los Angeles-Orange County-Inland Empire area is an interesting example. With around 18 million people, it stretches from the fields of oxnard to the newly-built subdivisions in Temecula – roughly 130 miles as the crow flies.
What really separates this region (and a few other sunbelt cities) from other American cities, is that it’s built up area is fairly dense. Its not unusual for “suburban” areas of Los Angeles to feature blocks upon blocks of apartment complexes, averaging densities well over 20,000psm.
There are also quite a few economic push/pull factors further fueling interregional exchange. One example: gradual relocation of blue collar industries and their supporting services to cities like Fontana, Morno Valley, and Ontario.
Things could go on and on, but overall, I find Los Angeles to be a notable contender. It may not have the old world charm of London or the glistening skyscrapers of New York.. but its got creative flow, awesome weather, abundant diversity, and not to mention some of the best food in the world!
I’ve heard Los Angeles, for all its famous sprawl is actually the densest city in the US, and some parts used to have some of the densest tracts in the world.