The True Size

The traditional atlases of the world always have distortions, such is the nature of translating a 3 dimensional globe onto a flattened 2D plane. Thus the notorious Mercator version (used as a dartboard among geographers), that was traditionally used to increase the size of northern (read: Western) countries has been accused of long peddling the incorrect sizes of landmasses to millions in generation after generation, and we’re not just talking physical size and distances, but the map as envisaged in the political mind. Any map that say elevates Eurocentrism, or puts China in the centre, or the US (thus splitting Europe and Asia to opposite sides) can be equally accused -yet which is most correct?

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In truth, countries compared… you’ll need to be a bit of an atlas-savvy nerd to appreciate the differences in size of some of these comparison, but onwards:

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First off…

Ecuador, that tiny cut in the western side of South America is actually bigger than the UK. Fun fact, it is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries despite its small size, more so than say the US.

Also, it’s capital Quito has fantastic potential as a destination, and one of the world’s truly undiscovered next big thangs, should it ever clean up get and get the flower baskets out. It’s blessed with one of the world’s largest and most encompassing Old City’s that swamps over numerous hills and mountain vistas, like San Fran but with more grit, crime, streetkids etc. Actually exactly like San Fran:

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Quito

Quito

Laos slightly smaller. Fun fact – one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries unlike almost all other Asian territories (pop 7.2 million in comparison to the UK at 68 million). Lots of room for cows, temples and minefields -the world’s heaviest bombed country, that took more fallout than all the ammo and explosives used in both World Wars combined. Not only was this paradise so mullered, it was done secretly, that the outside world had no clue the US was bombing (as a nice little sideline in the Vietnam War). But now it’s hippy heaven, lush and laid back in every direction, just don’t stray off the paths.

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Koreans would come in at a 76 million count were they ever to reunite. The difference would be stark within the new populace – not just in culture and clothing, even in height where the Southerners would average a 3-5 inch difference thanks to the North Korean famine during the 90s. But it’s also said the Northerners are a happy, convivial bunch contrary to assumption, and the opposite holds truer for the south. The closest we’ve gotten to believing ourselves in paradise are those living in Pyongyang.

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Next off, England.

Sri Lanka. Until as late as 1480 Sri Lanka was connected to India by Adam’s Bridge, a 50 km/ 30 mile limestone shoal that is now about 1-3 metres underwater. Quite a hike, paddle and swim but bring your shark net. Where no boat ever dares:

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Tasmania, with a population of only 537,000 is very sparsely populated. Its original inhabitants were wiped out within 30 years of British conquest, and one of the few human ethnicities (distinct from Mainland Aborigines for 12,000 years) to become extinct. But yeah, let that little footnote in history hold you back. An extraordinarly beautiful island, also a little known pinnacle of fresh, inordinately organic produce from seafood to wine to bush tucker.

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Suriname, a country of half a million mostly living along the coast is South America’s smallest. It is also the first in the world to reach carbon neutrality, whose vast interior of rainforest goes far to mitigate carbon reduction for the rest of the planet. Caribbean in culture, it speaks Dutch formally and English Creole (unintelligible to the English) among the populace, who are one of the world’s most cosmopolitan, an even mix of Afro-Surinamese, Indian, Javanese, Chinese and mixed race. Basically anyone from anywhere could look Surinamese.

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Svalbard (popularised by its largest island, Spitzbergen) is Norway’s northern archipelago and a wondrous, tortured landscape of mountains, glaciers, pinnacles and ice. Only 2,700 people live across the archipelago, making it third in place from Antarctica and Greenland as the least populated land spot in the world. One of its most arresting sights are the annual waterfalls that form mile-long walls of water pouring off the melting glaciers, and the fact the inhabitants have to tote guns everywhere they walk for fear of polar bears, even if it is to take the rubbish out. Actually ESPECIALLY if you’re taking the rubbish out, such is the attraction for foraging ice monsters.

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Newfoundland floats in the world’s largest estuary, islanded also as an English speaking outpost (one of the Maritime Provinces) before French Canada takes over. Its accent is still discernibly Irish sounding as is its old sea shanty laden history -about 70% of its population claims some ancestry from the British Isles, compared to 6% from France. Small towns and fishing villages create a sleepy backwater of an island, the first part of North America (other than Greenland) discovered by Europeans, complete with a Norse settlement about a millennium ago – take that Columbus! [/snappy Geonerd speak circa 1992 school video].

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Togo, one of the smallest countries in Africa no less holds more than 40 ethnic groups, and was once known typically as to what it offered the colonials -the Slave Coast, sandwiched between the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Ivory Coast that still bears its name. Togo nowadays might be known as the Phosphate coast, having the world’s fourth largest deposits -peddler of fortune but also tying 30% of the economy to the whims of price fluctuation.

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Tunisia, the northernmost country of Africa and an even mix of Berber and Arab worlds. It is classified as the only ‘Free’ country on the continent and the only full democracy in the Arab World, in part helped by igniting the Arab Spring in 2011, and the martyrdom of lowly market trader, Mohamed Bouazizi. Thousands of years of culture, from Phoenician to Roman to Berber to Arab to Ottoman to French -and it’s more famous for the scenes shot for the Star Wars franchise. I mean, fuck the ruins.

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Japan’s northern island was once home to the Ainu people, who now number 25,000 and could be as high as 200,000 due to those who have no idea of their ancestry. They were claimed to be the world’s hairiest people, whose women would tattoo moustaches onto their faces. They were also proto Caucasoid -that doesnlt mean White, but looking similar to the Central Asians (think Afghans riding/ fighting bears and living like the native Americans).

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Louisiana comes in as the 19th smallest state in the US -which means it’s on the small size over there. Its history of Spanish, French and British colonisation, with large amounts of imported slaves and Creole culture has resulted in a heady mix of urban societies unique to the country -in 1974 English was officially unofficialised as the state language of instruction in schools, with people free to practice the tongues of their heritage. Bajan, Cajun, Creole, Caribbean, French, English and Spanish influence is redolent in cities such as New Orleans, that lends to the culinary mix. Think French food a la swamp, soul food a la spice route, Americana tropicalia.

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Panama’s 80km (50 mile) canal carved out in the 19th – 20th centuries connects the Atlantic with the Pacific without the rigmarole of going round the whole of South / North America, a journey saving thousands of km and untold hazards from sea ice to stormy straits to financial lawyers. It contributes a full 40% to the economy, though that’s now diversifying into conservative banking and luxe tax haven, notably exposed by the Panama Papers . Panama City currently looks like condo heaven for the part.

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Guatemala, the most populous of the Central American states (with 17 million) and the core of the former Mayan civilisation. About 45% remain indigenous, while the rest are mixed. They happen to be one of the world’s shortest countries, where women average 4″10 (147cm) and men about 5″3 (160cm). It’s also one of the youngest countries outside Africa, whose median age is about 20 – almost half of all people are kids. Like kid kids. Like the Dino exhibit in the Natural History Museum in Half Term with Santa Claus riding the T Rex over an Easter Egg Hunt on Disney Nite. Everywhere.

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Denmark’s size is the most varying of the world’s nation, due to whether you’d include self ruling Greenland. From 130th position it can be propelled to the 12th largest territory, overtaking Mexico or Saudi Arabia, or equivalent to 6 Germany’s. Even if you were to take just that little poky nib pointing out of Germany as the be all and end all, thanks to the exactitude of how coastlines are measured it comes in as having one neverending seaside longer than Chile’s (who measures things quite laxly, doesn’t take in so many indents and doesn’t quite give a fuck unlike map nerds). Geo-porn right here.

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Iceland is so sparsely populated it stands at 3 people per sq km for its 364,000 inhabitants, mostly in the capital Reykjavik. The island is powered by geothermal energy, and almost completely renewable, plus the first on the Global Peace Index, though to be fair it’s sitting on a giant bubbling vat of energy as the one place on the planet still being formed, and there’s plenty to go round for a pool of people so small there aren’t enough wankers to get pissed off about. Even the dating apps have to run the gamut of ancestry/ DNA tools that alert you (giant flashing letters, industrial screaming, pop up of Michael Jackson’s face) if you inadvertently swipe right on your cousin.

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Greece has 6,000 islands, of which 277 are inhabited, and 80% of the country is mountainous to boot. This topography of islanded, competing city states led to the cradle of Western civilisation, and the translation of history, landscape, culture and food today has seen it become a leading destination for visitors, notably winning ‘world’s best country’ by Condé Nast. The big secret not yet overrun with 20 quacking cruise ships a day are the mountains, dramatic idylls, that command much of the mainland and that are only visited by natives. Epirus in the west, is where its at.

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Welcome to the world’s densest country (non-city state), that fits in 13% more people than Russia -a territory 115x larger. 165 million Bangladeshis call this, the world’s largest river delta, home. Its capital Dhaka, will rise from today’s 21 million to 35 million in the next decade, then slow (Bangladesh already has below replacement fertility levels). Still, by 2100 the city will have reached 54 million, many of them climate refugees as the sea level rises and the delta sinks, though the long term plan is for a giant version of the Netherlands -the sea held back, the economy with few resources, invested in people.

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One of Russia’s most beautiful spots and a major stop on the Trans Siberian, this is the world’s oldest lake and actually the largest body of freshwater in the world. Not due to its footprint (where other lakes are multiple times in size) but depth, at over a mile down. It holds nearly a whopping quarter of the world’s freshwater, and have the only freshwater seal species, more famed for the fact they look like fat cigars /fuzzy zeppelins zipping about.

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Hawaii is the planet’s most distant island, that takes multiple continent sized expanses of water in every direction to reach. Slap bang in the middle of the Pacific (half the world’s water area and about a third of the planet surface) it’s so hard to reach only a few birds made the up to 10,000 km /6,000 mile journeys about 8 million years ago, and evolved in utter isolation into 140 different species. No mammals made it other than a flying bat, and of course the genius of Polynesian explorers in 300 AD and another wave in 1100. Imagine rafting up your belongings, pigs and family, saying goodbye to your relatives (who’ll never know your fate) and striking out from the Isle of Wight, in a hope you’ll get an angle right to reach a spot of land near Tehran, if everything in between and all around and in every direction is ocean. For all their expertise with finding land (based on clouds, currents, birds etc) hundreds of flotillas likely never made it.

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The last major spot made habitable by humans on the planet NZ was recently discovered to be the mountaintops of a previously undiscovered continent that now lies beneath the seas. Separated by 1700km / 1000 miles from Australia the islands also enjoyed unique wildlife that propagated in isolation before humans hit it in 1350. They entered a wondrous land (world’s most varied in terms of topography and climate types, on par with the entirety of the US), where birds ruled the roost, filling the niches of mousey pickers (kiwis), giant grazers (11ft moas) and the predators that swooped on them (eagles that stood a metre tall and whose spine-snapping talons were the size of tiger paws). None of them, many who nested on the ground, were prepared for the human, rodential and livestock onslaught that followed.

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Japan is -typically dichotomous for its culture -one of the worlds most densely populated yet also most forested and mountainous countries. Tree cover accounts for 70% of the land, while the 125 million-strong population crams into the strip of coastal cities on the Kanto and Osaka plains, including the world’s singularly largest – Tokyo with 39 million inhabitants. But look again at the size of the islands, each massive -just so riddled with topography humans are islanded again.

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Somalia, with the longest coastline on Mainland Africa is the continent’s most homogenous country, standing out in a panoply of states in the world’s most diverse region, that will normally count hundreds of languages and ethnicities within any border. 85% are Somali, albeit divided into 8 tribal/ chieftain groups. In the north Somaliland has declared itself independent, a functioning, peaceful state, as opposed to the civil war decimating the rest.

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WALES

Qatar can claim the title of not just the richest country per capita whom earn nearly $100,000 each every year (and that still takes into account the legions of indentured underclass and guest workers), thanks to 14% of the worlds natural gas and plenty of petrol to boot. It can also claim the world’s most multicultural country, where only 12% are native Qatari, and its capital Doha is 92% foreign born.

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Fijians are a mix of Melanesian, a few Polynesian and later waves of Indian emigrants. Melanesians share a blonde hair gene, long assumed to be traces from European colonials, but has been found to be endemic, and long before Western contact.

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Lesotho is a mountain kingdom entirely surrounded by South Africa, a mere spot on the map that shows its real size below. With spectacular cliffs, gorges, mountains and waterfalls it remains an undiscovered gem, though now rising in the tourist ranks for its verdant landscapes, plus the novelty of snow in Africa.

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Beijing has grown from 1.6 million in 1950 (barely growing since 1700 when it was the world’s largest city for the next century) to 20 million today. The govt has since curbed the growth via urban citizenship registration, but is now building a new city on its outskirts, Xiong’An.

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The Aussie state is nearly 40x larger than it’s namesake but only 2.6x larger in population  (ergo about 15x more sparsely populated), albeit a large majority live in in the Sydney area -5 million out of 8 million.

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London

Hong Kong (7.5 million) appears similarly populated as London in density (9.2 million), though in reality the large majority of HK is open countryside and mountain. If counting only the urban areas of the territory it becomes 20x denser- in fact the world’s most heaving spot of humanity surmounting to 60 sq km -about the size of Manhattan but 3x the population and built density, also being the world’s most highrise city, including 380 skyscrapers (over 150m/ 492ft in height):

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Luxembourg, a mix of French and Germanic culture, came about in 1815 as a fiefdom of the king of the Netherlands who installed a Prussian guard to defend against another French attack, thus bringing about the crossroads that is this little nation, though one of the fastest and richest in the world. Fun fact: the worlds largest manufacturer of dentures, not just a tax haven.

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Hawaii actually has the world’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea, that is a gently sloping cone volcano (dormant) with a snow capped peak on Big Island, most of it underwater. If measured from the sea floor it comes to about a km taller than Mount Everest, at over 10,000m or 33,500 ft. Above water it 4,200m or 13,300 ft, slightly taller than Mont Blanc.

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New Caledonia, a gorgeous colony of France out in the Pacific, and one of the few places where you find tropical conifers.

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Germany.

Ghana, the rising star of West Africa this ‘small’ (well on the map it looks tiny of course), gold and petrol-rich kingdom, already diversifying into tech and biotech, is estimated to climb from a population of 30 million today to 80 million by the turn of the century:

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Uganda -another supposedly small country on the banks of Lake Victoria. However it will become the nexus of one of the world’s great population centres alongside eastern China, northern India and West Africa. A state that features little in many minds, by 2100 its nondescript capital, Kampala (present population 3.3 million) will hold 40 million, more than twice NYC. Further along the lakeshores will be Malawi, a thin thread of a country, but which will also transmogrify its sleepy towns of Lilongwe and Blantyre to similar sizes.

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Welcome to one of the world’s most mineral-rich (and suffering for it), mountainous and beautiful countries, and a former jewel of the Silk Route, whose populace is a sensual mix of the Middle Eastern, East Asian, Central Asian, Caucasoid and Indian peoples. A place remarked by invaders as an epic place to stage a war, with beauty in every direction, and crosshair.

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This ancient version of Arabia, Yemen is redolent of a medieval world where ancient mud-brick skyscrapers and exotic oases now share airspace with the current whizz of Saudi bombs and insurgent missiles.  One of the poorest, most indentured, and most beautiful nations on the planet, like Afghanistan paying the price for its isolation.

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Rights Managed

Yemen, Hadhramaut, Wadi Do’an, Khuraibah. A view of the oasis in Wadi Do’an.

From a glance at an atlas CAR looks like a small nondescript territory in the middle of the continent. It is literally the heart of darkness to many mindsets -the world’s poorest, unhealthiest nation, and worst place to be young, largely thanks to its civil war. Despite its true size shown below, only 5 million call it home, though typical of Africa they consist of 80 ethnic groups each speaking their own language. Fun fact the country is the best place in the world to view stars with the least light pollution, as well being bounded by the Bangui Magnetic Anomaly. So named after its capital that stands at the heart of this displacement in the Earth’s magnetic field, possibly caused by a meteor impact.

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The world’s newest country South Sudan broke from Sudan in 2011 after years of civil war (Sudan has been under 6 continuous conflicts since independence in the 1960s), but has recently entered its own civil wars now. In the south the country holds what may be the largest movement of large animals on Earth, in the annual migration of savannah grazers that rivals the Serengeti, only recently spotted by naturalists as a cloud on the horizon 50km (30 miles) wide and ongoing for 80km (50 miles).

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Thailand looks like an upended Germany but with a vast umbilical that stretches into the Andaman sea, haunt of tourist coves and terrorist strongholds as Islamic separatists (more affiliated with Malay culture further south) conduct their intrigue among the spectacular karst scenery. Despite its size and population (70 million), only one major city occupies the country- Bangkok, steamy denizen of the east and home to 15 million, vaults far over any other Thai city (runner up Chiang Mai only holds 200,000). One of the few cultures never to have been colonised by an Abrahamic religion or power, and thus ferw hangups about sex, and free lovin’m.

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Sulawesi, the fourth largest of Indonesia’s islands is a range of peninsulars isolated from each other by a mountainous centre. A full 60% of its species are endemic (found nowhere else), and its range of ethnic groups, tribes and religions, each with their own cultures, architecture, languages and cuisines, also owe their existence to the varying levels of geogrpahical isolation. Indonesia at large holds 388 ethnic groups, whose national motto is ‘unity through diversity’.

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100 million people, 175 ethnolinguistic groups, nearly 8,000 islands, of which 5,000 haven’t even been officially named yet, spanning the equivalent distance from Norway to the Sahara. That’s a lot of ferries and a lot of timetables. Sitting on the Pacific Ring of Fire it is perhaps the world’s most disaster prone country (including the bi-annual typhoons and flooding), but also benefits from the vast natural resources that location endows, alongside one of the world’s greatest hotspots for biodiversity.

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The world’s sparsest populated country, or territory outside the poles Mongolia counts 2 people per sq km. Imagine a rolling grassland from London to Russia and you’ll get the idea of the empty expanses that have made it even hard to invade, though helped the other way round. In the past nomads would keep track by building cairns just before the last one went out of sight in the distance.

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Extra:

Australia is a continent

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Precolonial

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This is not Argentina – it is the southernmost tip of Argentina. Once populated by the world’s tallest people, many of whom were taken into human zoos and circuses round the world -now extinct. The men were said to average 6.5ft -7ft.

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As mentioned above, Russia population 145 million, Bangladesh 165 million:

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Chile is not a thin country, just a neverending one.

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The Moon displayed below is actually just splayed out. As a three dimensional ball it would look about the size of Australia.

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Mawr:

Peru

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Japan

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Colombia

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Saudi Arabia:

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South Africa

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Algeria

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Indonesia

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Chile

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FIN

The World’s Most Built Up City

So we’ve dallied enough in terms of scale and size, in hard numbers. That was all based on population. So what of the built environment? Which city is most impressive in terms of the size you actually see and experience? For example, let’s forego the fact Karachi has 25 million people and Chicago only 9 million – which city feels and looks bigger? And let’s conveniently  forget every street in Karachi looks like a stadium just emptied next to Camden Market. With cars. -Well otherwise Chicago would be more impressive from it’s dense stacks of skyscrapers as you wander round it’s centre (and not its unending lowrise suburbs). The city has 125 skyscrapers – defined as a building 150m or over in height – whilst Karachi only has one. 341 highrises over 100m, while Karachi has 12 (though watch this space – Karachi has 7 skyscrapers, and 7 highrises under construction). Karachi  may actually feel more built up only if you travel interminably across it’s horizons, but Chicago far outweighs in its centre, which would be the more common experience for the average visitor without a bi-plane.

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Globally there’s an obvious contender for the top spot here. New York, New York. Built on a narrow granite island it’s natural line of development was upward, spiking ever highward on a sturdy piece of rock that could take the weight and foundations of a ballooning population and economy. Its sheer density of building is almost unimaginable, famously creating ‘canyon’ streets sided by overarching walls of concrete and glass. The city is astoundingly built up, feels astoundingly huge, and has done for a century. It is the city of the mind when people think of cities.

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NYC has a whopping 804 highrises, of which 282 are skyscrapers. It’s also going through a building boom as developers rush to get a portfolio of tall buildings into plan before a new zoning law gets called in. The island is so packed already a new phenomenon is rising – small plots but exorbitantly high and profitable buildings rising like slivers, some so tall and thin they look liable to totter the next time a periodic Hollywood tsunami/ meteor strike/ giant monster revisits. By 2030 the city will resemble a glittering porcupine:

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Once again it may be dwarfed by other cities populations (it’s barely if at all in the top 10), but off paper its skyscrapers look and count more impressively. NYC has such a density of tall buildings, little seen elsewhere, it’s streets resemble canyons. Even Dubai with its greater catchment of supertalls had to artificially create it’s one concrete gorge on the Sheikh Zayed Road, whilst all around is lowrise and desert.

 

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New York on the other hand had to build up due to its islanded constraints – and more interestingly – it could. There are of course other islanded city centres (Montreal, pre-Columbian Mexico City, Vancouver, Malé), but they didn’t build upward to the same extent due to the lower population or business demand, and notably, greater difficulty.

Malé, Maldives

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New York is lucky enough to sit on granite, strong enough for all that weight and without the need for hundred foot foundations, as in clay-based, alluvial London or Shanghai, the latter of which began sinking from all the concrete, and a highrise moratorium declared in 2003. Ever wondered why European metropolises aren’t especially highrise-savvy, especially after the wartime clearances? Well they’re further lumped with restrictive zoning laws in the form of historic protection, and ‘viewing corridors’ that forbid any impinging structures on celebrated views.

London has no less than 14 of these hallowed visions stretching across vast swathes of the capital to its 5 UNESCO World Heritage sites, plus one cathedral, so that you can see the small bump of St Paul’s dome on the horizon from a bush 16km away, whose existence controls the world’s premier business district. When one surly pensioner (the kind with a lot of time on his hands) hacked a hole in said bush to restore the 18th Century viewing point, he single-handedly laid waste to 4 planned skyscrapers in the 1980s.

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Only two other major cities share New York’s perfect storm of constraints, freedoms, demand and bedrock. The granite island of Hong Kong, and the granite peninsular of Yujiapu in Chongqing, both of which require high rises stacked closely, and the canyons they create.

Chongqing:

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Hong Kong

A bird's eye view of residential and com

MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images

Singapore is another contender in the making, especially as its population balloons, but the presence of its nearby airport keeps the height limit at 280m or lower – pretty much a Hong Kong highrise-fest but with fewer really tall buildings. On the horizon though is Mumbai, a 233 sq mile peninsular of 12.5 million (metro 21 million) that gets smaller the busier it gets, until it dwindles uncharitably into the sea:

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The city now has over 70 skyscrapers topped out, with another 33 over 250m to come, and about 800 more highrises (buildings 12 storeys/ 115ft)  than NYC, at 7,068.  And a helluva lot of profitable land reclamation for the future.

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For decades many Tokyoites believed their rival city in the States to be bigger due to the famed skyscraper thicket there, when in truth Tokyo was the world’s largest just before WWII destruction, and again by the 1960’s, a title it held till 2015. Tokyo’s skyline is still impressive but dampened considerably by being in a notorious earthquake zone, with strict height limits enforced. It’s still deceptively big in terms of highrises (coming in at 157 skyscrapers and 562 highrises), but they form disparate nodes or lone towers (and one REALLY big one), compared to Manhattan’s forest of centrality.

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Tokyo still has multiple winding lanes, midrises and even one storey townhouses throughout it’s centre, interspersed with the usual roaring pedestrian streets and skyscraper districts. It’s not for nothing that Monocle awarded it ‘the World’s Best City’ title in its 2015 and 2017 rankings, for its dichotomous ability for peaceful ambience combined with jaw-dropping size; how very Japanese.

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But look again at Tokyo’s highrises. The modus operandi of many Japanese based multinationals favour large trading floors. Add on the height limits of say 150m-250m (or 500ft-750ft) and you create a market for titanic sized buildings. Huge floors and sheer walls, squat and overbearing in bulk. In any other city – for example NYC, Shanghai or Hong Kong – they would be twice as narrow and twice as tall.

Tokyo’s monsters:

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Many are unapologetically wide and overbearing, creating a certain monolithic grandeur to the city that could almost be described as beautiful; thoroughly in keeping with age old Japanese functionalism, while others more diplomatically disguise their bulk by splitting into (or pretending to be) multiple towers and setbacks. They are the fat ambassadors wives gracing the charity ball circuit:

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Look at the Mori tower, a snippet of modesty at 238m (780ft), yet holding almost the same floorspace as the Willis Tower in Chicago – the world’s tallest building for nearly 25 years, at 442m (1,450ft), nearly double the height and imposition.

Mori:

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Willis:

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Likewise the even bigger Tokyo Midtown tower, with twice the floorspace of One World Trade Center (formerly the Freedom Tower) in NYC though half the height. This is one deceptive power dresser. Note the backing for her – the thin enshadowed strip at left, glimpsed from street level:

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In reality the ‘thin’ strip, made of green glass almost doubles the floorspace, though hidden from street angle. From the air one can see better the bulk of the place; a perfect expression of Japanese culture where the public face of tatamae hides – even compliments – the personal truth of honne.  The gargantuan building debuts with the ultimate socially acceptable accolade: that from whichever angle you see her, she looks half her weight :

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In short Tokyo has the biggest buildings of any city, not measured in terms of height, but on average floorspace. Not just that they’re lower or deceptive in format, but the city itself is so large (with a centre that’s arguably the world’s largest) that its massive buildings don’t need to pack it in to create a Manhattanesque thicket. Rather they are interspersed with lowrises and midrises that form the majority of the urban landscape of the region. However, travel the city seeing in the vastness of its infrastructure, its verdant crowds or taking a flight above it all, and the seething vastness reveals itself.

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Tokyo was of course the biggest city that ever was (multiple times over), for a good 50 years. Its breakneck growth saw in one of the biggest construction booms in history, best measured by population growth. Before the war it had just usurped NYC as the world’s largest city with 12.6 million, but of course plummeted during the war (the bit where it became the world’s most destroyed piece of urbanity ever). It then climbed spectacularly again as a phoenix – between 1960 and 1970 it went from 17.5 million to 24 million, or 650,000 newcomers a year.

Only a few other cities compare. Between 2000 and 2010 Beijing grew by 605,000 a year, Shanghai by 626,000. However… we have a winner: Seoul between 1970 and 1980 added 700,000 a year.

Visitors mention that Tokyo may not feel immediately larger than New York due to its greater preponderance of smaller buildings, but Seoul delivers in spades. A city of 24.5 million Seoul has traditionally been the world’s second largest city, yet one of it’s most obscure, with a surprisingly low global profile for much of the 20th Century – though things have now changed due to the Korean Wave of music, movies, tech and trends (and a certain catchy dance video about a certain highrise district).

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Seoul is the densest of the highrise megacities if you’re just counting the urban areas, with over 33,000 highrises (defined as a building 12 storeys/ 115ft or more) – that’s over 5x NYC. The country has the densest urbanity in general (not taking into account the countryside, or the 70% forest cover of the nation). Much more so than its rival across the sea, it houses the majority of its population in dense tracts of highrise housing, coursing over or around the local topography like a studded sea.

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It does however have far fewer skyscrapers (at ‘only’ 85), deemed a handicap if they were used as landmarks for bombers flying in from the North. Only recently has it thrown heed to the wind and built a swanky new supertall that’s over half a km high and as subtle as the burning eye of Sauron.

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To rival Seoul, there’s The Pearl River  Metropolis made up of the conjoined cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen as mentioned previously (not to be confused with the much wider Pearl River Megalopolis). Like Tokyo it combines massively built scale and population, but is much more high rise. It has 383 skyscrapers (buildings 150m or over) built and 75 under construction – less than Hong Kong’s 390 but more than New York’s 282, or Tokyo’s 157, plus an almost incalculable amount of highrises to compliment.

Guangzhou’s centre…

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…is a mind-numbing 140 km from Shenzhen’s centre, though both are part of a single contiguous urban area. This definitely takes on the northern twins of Seoul and Tokyo for built size:

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It does however, like Seoul, swirl around the many hills or are broken by remaining patches of farmland here and there, so not as blanketing as Tokyo. Best appreciated hovering from the air or a fine green hilltop which the city has many, but not flying for miles across an unbroken sea of buildings.

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Final answer, the most built up city is of course the one with most built living space. I would take that as New York with its skyscraper centre and vast tracts of large single/double storeyed suburbs, covering the biggest land area, but bear in mind the majority of that would resemble a green, sparsely populated forest. Like Milton Keynes, that forgot to stop.

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If you’re talking building up, well that would be the Pearl River Delta (or Shanghai/ Sao Paulo, but that’s on the next post). If you’re flying a plane, that would be Tokyo’s vast picnic sea of urbanity from horizon to horizon.

If you’re talking feel – 24 hr, highrise happy, neon drenched, slightly totalitarian Seoul. The future – Mumbai? Dubai? Chongqing?

And if you’re talking city centre, imo that’s back to the Big Apple baby.

NYCC

No, wait…

-isn’t Tokyo twice the size of NYC?

More? The World’s Most Highrise City

The World’s Biggest City

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.

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-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 majority 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).

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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.

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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.

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nyc2www.fhwa.dot.gov

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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http://www.landsd.gov.hk

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.

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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.

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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:

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Shenzhen the other, at 140 km distant. You can even fly commercially from one end to another:

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深南向上

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.

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shanghai

shngbreathe 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:

chhWayne Cheng Photography

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-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.

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Up next: SCALE. The World’s Most Built Up City

 

The world’s most diverse city

And what about those who choose to stay rather than just visit? Not just tourists or business travelers, but those who uproot themselves to new shores and new lives? Is not the plurality and mix a wonderful measure of a city? Old and new, native and non native, an array of food, languages, art, faiths, dress, and cultures to choose from, to fall in love with, to intermarry or not. The cross cultural pollination, the exchange of ideas and fumbling body fluids – is not why people move to cities in the first place?

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The title of world’s most cosmopolitan place can go by sheer numbers, or by percentage – in multiple categories. New Yorkers claim the most languages in the world (over 800), and most people period with foreign or non-White ancestry at 10 million in the metro, of which 5.65 million are foreign born. Then LA city region pipes up with its 4 million-strong Latino majority, and whopping NYC with a 75-78% foreign or non-White ancestry, plus a 4.4 million (24%) strong foreign born contingent. Then the two cities have a pissing contest over the fact it’s rightly or wrongly skewed by the sizeable Mexican contingent.

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Meanwhile Londoners like to point out in terms of any city (not metro) they have the highest count, pipping NYC’s 3.2  million with 3.35 million foreign born, and at more evenly spread and higher diversity – they have more communities (71 – 132 depending on the size), 500 languages in a single school let alone bothering to count the rest, and that they don’t/ cannot count ancestry in the same way as the States anyhoo, especially as being Black American or Latino American, hell even Native American for the past 300 years does not make you foreign in ancestry, or cosmopolitan in culture, well according to more European terms. If you’ve been there that long you are from there indubitably.

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Furthermore White Britons tend to identify within a generation as White British despite foreign extraction whether they be Irish, Lithuanian, Egyptian or Azeri, in contrast to the US where for example Irish, German, Israeli (read: Jewish) and Polish Americans will still identify as such after several generations. 55% of Londoners are nevertheless ‘non-British non-White’, 40% foreign born (counting 4.2 million in the metro), 35% non-White and the remainder 45% ‘native’ White Londoners – if one were to go by American style rules – share one third Irish ancestry, and an overlapping half have French. So there. London’s practically of 108% foreign ancestry na na na naa.

Confused yet?

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Then the Torontonians weigh in with even more communities albeit on smaller numbers – but with ever higher percentages. Sod London’s ‘hidden’ ancestries, 89% fully do not identify as being of Canadian extraction (though tellingly 23.4% claim British extraction, similar to US style counting). Despite this, in terms of foreign born it still has 2.8 million foreigners in the metro – leaving the others behind, with 46% foreign born. NYC, London and LA metros suddenly look weedy at their respective 23-40% foreign born marks. Numbers, numbers, more numbers.

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Cue the smaller arrivistes with similar stats – Stockholm (23%), Amsterdam (27%), Oslo (31%),  Zurich (31%), Melbourne (35%), Auckland (39%), Sydney (40%),  Singapore (43%), Rotterdam (45%), The Hague (48%), to the upper stratospheres of Brussels (at 62%) – all of whom have ‘hidden’ ancestries from afield to add on top.

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But then two words: the Middle East. Cities like Amman and Beirut are now made up of majority diaspora populations – the biggest hosts for both Palestinians and more recently Syrian refugees, transposed on an already multicultural population made up of successive waves of Twentieth Century migrants, in turn transposed  on cities built on millennia of passing trade and conquest. More controversially there are the Israeli controlled cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – does one consider Israeli Jews from across the 20th Century world – or Palestinians – for that matter, non-native?

Another two words: Gulf States. Cities like Riyadh and Meccah already up there with the likes of London and New York with 35-40% foreign born, but the next level up is… wow, just wow.

Kuwait City  counts about 75% foreign born. Similarly 80% for Abu Dhabi, and higher still – 85% for Dubai, with a quarter of the remainder being of Iranian extraction. The main communities are Indian (51%), Pakistani(16%), Bangladeshi(9%), Filipino (3%), and Somali (1.7%), so a bit skewed to one country, yet still these 2013 figures are even higher nowadays (as the emirate’s population has grown a whopping  52% in only these 7 years, mostly through undocumented immigration).

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Meanwhile Doha gets pretty up there- coming in at a screeching 92% foreign born, with hundreds of thousands each from a wider range across Asia and Africa – India 25%, Nepalis 18%, Filipino 9%, Egyptian 8.1%, Bangladeshi 6.8%, Sri Lanka 4.6%, Pakistani 4.1%, with an equally large smattering of Western ‘ex-pats’ (heaven forbid, not to be confused with economic migrants or ‘immigrants’ in this data no, of course not, NO).

So we may have found a winner. Doha, Qatar:

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Or have we? Just what makes a city cosmopolitan or multicultural?

What if a city is staunchly multicultural but is strictly segregated? The Israeli – Palestinian wall, and checkpoints. The workers dormitories of the Gulf being forever ‘guest workers’. The segregation index that puts much of the US at levels approaching Apartheid era South Africa – and worsening. The divided ghettos of Brussels, Britain’s northern cities and banlieues of Paris. Do we see this as ‘cosmopolitan’? Do we celebrate its ‘diversity’?

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Take New York City for example. It started when National Geographic published a wonderfully detailed ethnic map of the city in one publication in 1993, but despite all its demographic thrills revealing to all the levels of self and imposed segregation. It’s not like New Yorkers universally hate each other or don’t hang out (though a century’s worth of racially biased zoning laws and income prohibitions didn’t help), but they have the choice to live in their ethnic enclaves should they wish, where they can speak, eat, shop, dress, build a community and have their kids attend the schooling relevant to their background.

But what the graphic revealed as so shocking was the extent people unilaterally opted for this, where every neighbourhood was 85-98% of one ethnic group, so strictly delineated one could cross from say an 89% Hispanic neighbourhood to a 95% White  (read: non-Latino White that is) neighbourhood just by crossing the street. Paris and its rings of notorious banlieues too comes close. Like New York it suffers that ethnicity also correlates with race, with the broad  rule being the darker you are the lower your position in society. More recent maps show how the 2010 Census stated that segregation was at pre-Civil Rights levels, and getting worse:

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Racial tensions in the city have markedly improved since those dark days but the self segregation is still there.  London has a much better track record, despite its community High Streets the ethnic map reveals no single minority predominates despite the city nearing 60% non native.

-And bear in mind the greenish glow below is made up of White British (English, Scotch, Irish, Welsh), and White Other (this can include Arabs, Middle Easterners, Hispanics, North Americans, North Africans, West Europeans, East Europeans, Australasians), with Mixed in Purple and Other in Blue. Likewise the other colours will also hold multiple communities and races within them, notably ‘Asians’ in yellow covering the spectrum from Japan to India to Turkey to Russia to Indonesia, and ‘Black’ in red covering Jamaica through to Nigeria to Ethiopia to Brazil to Canada to South Africa.

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Close up of some of London’s most ethnic hoods show that they are in fact strongly mixed:

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The largest minority-majority is in fact Central Slough ward in the metro, that’s 80% Pakistani. That’s still a far cry from New York where that’s below the norm for much of the city, or for that matter other British cities that have seen segregation and economic lines drawn, resulting in race riots as recent as 2001.

Don’t always believe the hype, London is no racial nirvana as yet (averaging 44 hate crimes a day, rising to 72 post-Brexit, which is a norm for many Western cities), and its wonderful mixing is a result of both native and foreign waves of communities bucking the media-driven or institutionalised racism, rather than any government policy.

In fact local councils were staunchly divisive to begin, following a ‘multicultural’ format rather than enforcing the ‘melting pot’ theory of assimilation, as was common in other parts of Europe and the US. When the postwar waves arrived from the Caribbean and South Asia after a call to fill job shortages, they were housed in separate communities cheek by jowl with the traditional working class, and given complete freedom of religion, language, schooling, dress and culture. All in a hope they’d develop separately, making smelly food and piercings and bat voodoo in enclosed communities while still propping up the NHS, post office, army and transport. They did not have to swear to a flag or even speak English.

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The result a generation later was the complete opposite to that intended effect: intermarrying at the highest levels in the West, and drawing equal to or surpassing native performance in schools, higher education and jobs, and identifying as ‘feeling British’ -at least 85%- at double the rates in neighbouring France, where French language, dress and customs were enforced. The result was clearly that people are much more likely to identify with a culture if they’re not forced to do so.

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The UK is one of the few countries where for once the darker your skin the more you earn (South Asian men and Black women forming the highest tiers of society), bucking decades of the opposite trend. There are however still racial tensions, pushed glaringly to the fore by a decade of tabloid xenophobia that culminated in Brexit, and institutionlisation, alongside the usual subconscious prejudice (anglicised name on a CV anyone?). But the main thing that seems to be propelling London’s inordinate success is rather anticlimactically, the housing market, or to be more specific the notorious UK/London property bubbles – no one can totally afford to choose where they live, or who their neighbours are. To conclude, given half the chance I’m sure Londoners would willingly segregate like other areas of the country; just they don’t have the luxury of choice, on deciding whom they deem familiar enough to share a garden wall, a cigarette and a chat with.

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Which brings us to another question: do they have to be foreign born or of foreign extraction to emit these ions of exotic cosmopolitanism?

The world’s diversity index measures sub Saharan Africa, SE Asia and India as by far the most culturally diverse places in the world, even putting immigrant nations such as USA, Brazil or Australia into shade.

FT_Diversity_Map

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Places like Sudan speak 200 languages, Nigeria 520. Indonesia, with its national motto – Unity Through Diversity – has 388 ethnic groups over 13,000 islands (by comparison Europe’s 750 million people and multitude of nations hosts 87 ethnicities). Ethnic maps across these regions look as multi-coloured and complex as psychedelic splatter art, coursing from Africa, through the Middle East, to Central, South and SE Asia in intricate whirls, splashes and eddies that would make Pollock blush.

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iran

indochina

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India, land of 1.3 billion, speaking for three millennia no less than 122 main languages and 1600 minor ones (not to be confused with dialects that would count into the thousands), with a few thousand tribes and ethnic groups – plus 3000 castes, and 25,000 sub-caste groups, is a black hole on the map. It’s just too complex and impossible to record onto paper. And any one of its main cities would hold a few thousand of these groups.

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Make a nod to China too. When the call for National Minorities came to register in 1953 no less than 180 tried  – though only 56 had made the cut by 1979. The rest got lumped into one and the same as the ‘Han’ ethnicity, which overnight became the world’s largest, despite their differing DNA, 300 languages, distinct cultures, dress, religions, histories and looks. The main cities may hold a majority of Han (and representatives from each of the 56 officialised groups), but they speak disparate languages and live in distinct communities, from the tanned Sea Gipsies of the South China seas to the semi-nomadic, fort building Hakka, to the Polynesian sourcing Hainanese. Even without the unrecognised ethnicities its diversity index is on par with or higher than the US.

Official Minorities:

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Unrecognised ethnicities:

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Finally. Three words: PNG. Papua New Guinea, now we’re talking. 840 distinct languages (half of which are completely unrelated to each other), and thousands of dialects. Each unique thanks to 600 isolated islands and countless mountain- valley systems that have bred 37 major ethnic groups, hundreds of smaller ones and several thousand tribal ones, each isolated from their neighbours in dress, language, religion and culture. It’s mind bogglingly complex for only 7 million people. Gargantuan even.

So there it is. Port Moresby. Capital of the World.

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Continued: The World’s Greatest Food City

What is the World’s Greatest City?

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Dubious question, and one that is contentious to say the least. In the past entire Thucydidean wars were declared over economic competition, trade, hegemony, religion, and culture for that title; today they are argued over endlessly  in annual criteria-based league tables, internet fora and in everything from Trip Advisor to The New Statesman. So why all the fuss? The title breeds geopolitical influence, soft power, tourist bucks and social media tags. Cities are that great coral reef of experience, impervious yet every growing and changing. They stand testament to our lives and livelihoods, our myriad cultures and collective consciousness– with the idea of a single pre-eminent city imbedding itself as a bedrock to contemporary society. A city is, if you like, a crystallisation of culture; the greatest city is the greatest place in humanity.

bjjjwww.johnlake.co.nz

Urban agglomerations are that great marker of history – touchstones of experience where entire eras become marked by their reign, from ancient Rome to Victorian London, Angkor to Edo – with surprising ‘entries’ that stand testament to time (if not in physicality), such as former world’s largest – the million+ boat city of Ayutthaya, Thailand to the present day hamlet of Gurganj, Turkmenistan, a glorious Silk Route nexus before it succumbed to history’s single bloodiest massacre under the Mongols.

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There are many criteria, or handfuls of monikers that can lay claim to the single greatest hit. Richest city? That would be Tokyo, followed by NYC, LA and Seoul by total city economy, to er, Oslo or Zurich per capita.  Most influential city? well that could be anyone’s guess – NYC, London, Seoul get bandied about a lot with the youthful limelight, whilst Beijing, Brussels and Washington DC have the largest bureaucratic sectors. And LA might have something to say about global entertainment.

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Most beautiful city? Once again, the arguments range on everyone’s tastes as collectively supportive for Rome or as individualised to Brasilia. Sydney, Sana’a, Venice, Havana, Fez… the list would be endless. Many would agree the most beautiful megacity would be the complex elegance of Paris, but that would discount the myriad voices calling up the canyonscapes of NYC, the natural wonders of Rio, the futurism of Shanghai or the glorious, pluralist mix that is Istanbul/ London /Beijing/ Singapore. Moreover, how many actually visited, and how many base their opinions from received sources?

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Well the proof is in those voting with their feet some say – the most visited city, a rotation between Hong Kong, Bangkok, London, Paris and Singapore for international visitors, might be good indicators. But even with this seemingly narrowly defined criteria – based on numbers of overnighting foreign visitors – doubt still creeps through. Paris only counts its centre in the league (take that EuroDisney!), while Hong Kong is heavily skewed by the large amount of travelers coming in from over-the-border China, essentially the same country.

-And what about those domestic travelers? Are their views not as valid? Places like Kyoto and Orlando see in over 50 million visitors each year, double the top spot of the international-only league, while Shanghai, the freak, welcomed a whopping 70 million during 2010’s Expo year.

rioowww.telegraph.co.uk

Ratings? Well Kyoto, Charleston, Florence, Siem Reap, and Rome are all up there (Leisure and Travel Awards), as are London, Marrakesh, Istanbul, Paris, and Hanoi (Trip Advisor). Sun kissed, party mad Beirut makes sporadic appearances near the top depending on its security situation, whilst several places are as much loathed as glorified (ahem, Dubai, Macau, Seoul we’re looking at you). It’s pretty obvious there are too many cooks – whether they be trumpeting the Michelin stars of Tokyo or the street food of Tbilisi.

Beirut Residents Continue to Flock to Southern Neighborhoods

Beirut, http://www.worldpressphoto.org/collection/photo/2007/daily-life/spencer-platt

Plus there’s Quality of Life. The Nordic, Canadian, Oceanian cities doing swimmingly, but the perennial winners being a rostrum between Vienna, Munich, Auckland and Vancouver according to Mercer (39 scoring factors including political, economic, environmental, personal safety, health, education, transportation and other public services) with nods toward Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore, Toronto for the larger cities, and a whole 37 places before the first megacity over 10 million (Paris) shows her pretty head.

vienna

Vienna, travelaway.me

Meanwhile, Monocle magazine puts a megacity right up there, climbing from 5th to 1st was Tokyo (due to its ‘defining paradox of heart-stopping size and concurrent feeling of peace and quiet’), but recently usurped by Copenhagen, with Vienna, Melbourne, Munich and Berlin (a rise of 11 places since ‘after dark’ living was taken into account) worthy of mention. It’s 22 metrics include several that look at housing and the cost of living, from the price of a three-bed pad to the cost of a glass of wine and decent lunch, plus access to the outdoors, with notable upsets when seasonal changes and ambience were taken into account in 2010 (Copenhagen, maelstrom of wintry existentialism, still managed to buck the trend).

copenCopenhagen, exithamster.wordpress.com

But then there are those places with the x factor, the je ne sais quoi regardless of manicured lawns and the price of middle class, middle aged lattes. We must bear in mind cities function in the mind as well as body, that they are a cumulative, inclusive experience. The good, the bad and the ugly. It’s not just how pretty or rich or even popular you are.

Some pics to finish off with:

indJodhpur, www.theatlantic.com

issTel Aviv, www.allphotobangkok.com

lonnn.jpgLondon dalstonsuperstore.com

hanoiHanoi www.gettingstamped.com

ind

05 People Second Place Photo and caption by Yasmin Mund / National Geographic Travel

Jaipur, India

Continued next post…. The World’s Most Diverse City