500 years in 59 seconds: the race to be the world's largest city

Claire Burke


This compelling interactive “bar chart race” shows the top 10 most populous cities in the world from 1500 to 2018.

“In the early 1500s most people lived in the east, either the east of Europe and north Africa or the east of the world itself in India and China,” says John Burn-Murdoch, who created the interactive for the Financial Times.

Beijing begins in the lead and is overtaken by Istanbul around 1600. In the mid-18th century London joins the top three cities in the world, and its population then really starts to soar as the Industrial Revolution gets in full swing.

Related: The rise and fall of great world cities: 5,700 years of urbanisation – mapped

The UK capital proceeds to race ahead until the 20th century, when it is overtaken by New York and then Tokyo, which remains the world’s most populous city.

The animation ends in 2018 with the top five all in Asia (Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai, Beijing and Mumbai) and none of the top 10 in Europe or North America.

The pre-1900 data is from Nasa Earth Data’s Historical Urban Population. From 1900, that is merged with data from the UN and Demographia on urban agglomerations.

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