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November 23, 2022

Forget metropolitan: What is the most populous ‘city proper’ in the world?

If you scale down from 'metropolitan', past 'urban area' and into 'city proper', which boasts the highest population?

By Silvia Pellegrino

The crown has passed from city to city, country to country and indeed continent to continent. Capitals and megacities have grown at an incredible rate and boundaries have been blurred. What once was an urban centre has now become a sprawl as cities became metropoles and engulfed surrounding areas. Search for the largest cities in the world and you will likely be presented with a list of those cities, with a vast metropolitan area, such as Tokyo, which encompasses close to 40 million people.

largest cities
Shanghai is no stranger to crowded streets. (Photo by Maridav/Shutterstock)

But what if we get back to basics? What if we crunch the numbers, dig into the latest census from each country (well, not every country) and set some city limits? With that agenda set, we can look at what is the largest ‘city proper’ in the world?

The biggest cities proper in the world

1. Chongqing – 32 million

The city of Chongqing, which is situated in south-west China at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers, has seen a sharp increase in population during the past ten years. The population of the municipality increased by 3.208 million from 2010 to 2020, according to the 2020 census.

The 2020 Chinese census showed that there are almost 32 million people living in Chongqing’s urban area. According to the government, the ongoing urbanisation process that this city has been going through for the past ten years is to credit.

The Go West plan, which was launched in 2000 and intends to increase investment in west China through manufacturing, is one of several milestones in the urbanisation process. Due to its advantageous location, Chongqing is also a “major strategic node” of the Belt and Road initiative, which seeks to connect 65 nations across three continents via China.

The city, along with its 21 districts and 17 counties, has grown to be west China’s major economic hub in part because of its well-developed transportation infrastructure and inland port.

2. Shanghai – 24.8 million

In addition to being one of the largest seaports in the world and being a significant industrial and economic hub of China, Shanghai is also the most second-most populous city in the world by city area.

Its municipality, which encompasses both the city and its surroundings, is one of the most populous urban region in all of China.

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Han Chinese people make up a hefty proportion of the population, and the majority are internal migrants rather than long-term inhabitants.

Shanghai’s port was the first to open to Western trade initially, but since the communist takeover in 1949, it has been primarily focused on meeting China’s internal industrial requirements.

Pudong, in the east, and Puxi, in the west, make up the two distinct sections of the city. The former is the most populous area in the city and is seen to represent Shanghai’s modern side. On the other hand, the latter is more conventional and represents Shanghai’s history.

3. Beijing – 21.8 million

For decades, Beijing, the capital of China, has played a significant part in the advancement and expansion of the nation. The region that would later be known as Beijing developed over 2,000 years ago and became an important commerce and military hub for China’s north side. 

The population increased dramatically between 1912 and 1949 as a result of the founding of the People’s Republic: from roughly 725,000 to more than two million people. Beijing’s population increased even further after it was reinstated as the nation’s capital in 1949.

Due to excellent rail connections for transporting grain and Beijing’s ability to be completely self-sufficient, agriculture and industry continue to be the key economic sectors. The latter includes textiles and Shodou Iron and Steel Works, a sizable industrial complex outside of the old city.

Since 1949, a variety of housing projects have been built for office and factory workers to accommodate the city’s rapid population increase. 

4. Guangzhou – 18.6 million

Guangzhou is the regional capital of Guandong in southern China. It is also known as Canton. Because it is at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, the city is perfectly positioned for commerce. It is, without a doubt, one of China’s key trading centres.

Guangzhou was the first Chinese port to receive frequent visits from European traders, earning it the nickname Canton. Spoken Cantonese differs greatly from the more commonly spoken Mandarin. Despite this, both languages are now commonly spoken as a result of the large number of internal immigrants that travel between cities.

The bulk of Guangzhou’s residents live in the city centre, which has one of the highest population densities in China. Smaller Chinese Muslim (Hui) groups exist in the city, although the city’s two largest demographics are “overseas Chinese”, or individuals who left their home in China for countries such as the US and returned in the 1980s, and temporary workers from other Chinese provinces.

5. Karachi – 16.8 million

Pakistan’s largest metropolis, Karachi, is located in the south of the nation. Its seaport further enhances its standing as a significant industrial and economic hub along the Arabian Sea coast.

Numerous ethnic groups reside in the city, the bulk of them being Indian Muslims who immigrated there following the 1947 India partition. A small number of Christians, Hindus, Parsis, Buddhists and Jains are also present.

The industry of Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, has a lot to offer its 16 million residents, from textiles and footwear to metals and machinery. This gives Karachi a competitive advantage. Additionally, Karachi is in charge of managing all maritime traffic between Pakistan and a portion of Afghanistan.

6. Delhi – 16.7 million

Delhi is split into two parts, just like Shanghai: Old Delhi, which is the old city and New Delhi, which has been India’s capital since 1947. Since then, when India declared its independence, the city has been home to thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees who fled Pakistan.

The largest urban agglomeration in India is located about 100 miles from the Himalayas on the Yamuna River, a branch of the Ganges River. Delhi’s history is replete with commercial, transportation, and cultural innovation and growth.

The main employer in Delhi and the most significant component of its economy is the service sector, so agriculture is no longer as important. The majority of the population works in trade, finance, public administration, and social services, and both Old and New Delhi have grown into key hubs in global corporate and financial networks.

It is the fourth-largest city by population in both the city and the metropolitan area, with a city population of more than 16 million and a metropolitan area population of about 32 million. 

7. Istanbul – 15.5 million

Istanbul, originally called Constantinople, is now the most populous city in Turkey. The city is spread out over seven hills and is situated between Europe and Asia. Thanks to its rich history, some of the mosques and historical sites were given UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1985.

Even though parts of the locations have little to no access to water, many people choose to relocate from the countryside to Istanbul, aiding in the creation of gecekondu shantytowns. Kurds now make up the biggest portion of the population, which is estimated to be approximately 15 million.

Istanbul’s industries—which include those in textiles, food processing, glass, cement, and tourism in addition to finance and tourism—are another factor in the city’s high population growth.

8. Tokyo – 14 million

Tokyo’s city population sits at 14 million, but with 37 million residents, it has the most populous metropolitan area in the world.

The Olympic Games were hosted there in 1964, further demonstrating Tokyo’s status as Japan’s true administrative, cultural, financial, commercial, and educational power.

However, city life is now regarded as less convenient, due to the introduction of remote working and rising inflation. Takashi Otsuka from Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting told Bloomberg that more people in their 20s and 30s may want to live outside the capital, where it’s less expensive and there’s more room to spread out.

Tokyo’s population was reduced in 2022 for the first time in 26 years, as the city’s population fell by around 48,600 to under 14 million at the beginning of the year.

9. Tiānjīn – 13.8 million

Tiānjīn, in northern China, is the third-largest municipality in the country, after Shanghai and Beijing.

Because of its maritime connections, the city has historically served as a vital transportation and trade hub. This reputation stretches back to the Mongol Dynasty in 1206. It also resulted in a more diverse and enterprising citizenry since it served as Beijing’s primary trade entrance point.

The bulk of Tiānjīn’s residents lives in the inner city. Individual distribution has changed in tandem with the population’s occupational inclination, which has transitioned from being very commercial to being more industry-led. As one of China‘s largest producers of mining equipment, the city’s heavy machinery manufacturing plant is currently primarily focused on the production of metal and heavy gear.

Furthermore, Tungans make up the highest proportion of the population, followed by Koreans, Manchu and Mongolians.

~10. Mumbai – 13 million

Mumbai, also known as Bombay until 1995, serves as the Maharashtra state’s capital. Located on the Konkan coast of India, the city is regarded as the wealthiest city in the nation since it has the most millionaires per capita.

Bombay (as it was then known) became more connected in the 18th century as a result of the Hornby Vellard project, which saw the building of new roads, significant railways and a huge harbour on the Arabian Sea. Since the 18th century, Mumbai has maintained its status as a centre of commerce and learning.

Mumbai has grown significantly since the 1940s, nearly tripling in size to over 13 million people during the course of the following 50 years. Given the constrained size of the city, Mumbai’s population growth has been accompanied by a rise in population density.

Metals, chemicals, autos, and electronics products are the primary industries in the city.

~10. Moscow – 13 million

Moscow’s population reached 13 million people in October 2021. In Russian history, Moscow has played an important role.

Its focus on industry and culture is reflected in tourism and the political interest Moscow receives. Not only is it Russia’s largest city, but it is also the country’s pulsating core.

The majority of Moscow’s population is made up of Russians from Tatarstan, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan. As Moscow grew in popularity, many of them migrated there, culminating in the propiska system of mandatory residency registration. In the 1990s, the city’s population grew from two million to ten million as it expanded.

This list only includes urban areas with a city proper/metropolitan split, so, for example, Lagos was discounted, even though it has some 15–20 million residents.

[Read more: London’s population has changed more than you think]

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