The tallest building, the most expensive hotel, the biggest buyer of Airbus A380s – there’s only one attribute to describe Dubai: MEGA! (Image © Sebastian Opitz / No / Corbis)

Towards the Extreme City

Text YD Bar-Ness

Humans are social creatures and we enjoy the company of others. In the earliest times, a handful of family groups would gather temporarily to eat together, teach one another, and have sex. Every face was a familiar face. With agriculture, these gatherings could become permanent and people would gather together in greater numbers. Soon, the group was large enough that faces became unfamiliar. Structures were built, rules were developed, and eventually villages were established.

The villages have become towns, the towns have become cities, and now, we have something new. We have gathered into groups that are orders of magnitude greater than the earliest cities, and we spend most of our lives surrounded by strangers.

Many other animals have home territories, and a subset of these puts effort into building and improving these environments. Wasps, bees, ants and termites create intricate constructions of earth and paper. Beavers fell massive trees and create dams across rivers. Rodents and birds collect material to build nests. Many other animals dig into the earth to create a safe and secure burrow. But their achievements pale in comparison to the cities of our own species. The largest cities of today are the largest and most complex things ever constructed. They live, they die, they grow – and they will outlast you and me.

Solo, Central Java, Indonesia: Java is the most densely populated island in the world: Sixty percent of the population of Indonesia – about 122 million people – live here (Image © Gholib / ZUMA Press / Corbis)

Cities as survivors

A simple and familiar analogy compares a city to a living organism. This organism survives by transporting the vital elements of life – food and water – from regional landscapes in towards the dense urban environment. Settlements that have survived to the present day can be thought of as anatomical bodies, with various functions such as sewage, transport and economy. They can be assessed as healthy or sick.
Those that are failing to meet these functional challenges will decline.

This analogy also assists – to a limited extent – in understanding how to maintain living cities. If a city is thirsty, you must give it water. The massive cities that now exist on Earth can be looked at positively – as entities that have successfully met these challenges over long periods of time. They can also be looked at cautiously: Will the resources they require be available into the future? This helps us to be proactive citizens and to anticipate what may come.

Their fixed locations also mean that these homes are subject to specific geographic concerns. Place your home too close to a river and you may find yourself flooded out. Place it too far, and you will struggle to have enough water to drink and to grow with. Avalanches, earthquakes, eruptions, tsunamis and floods can all impact settlements in profound ways.

Homebound: Dhaka will to be the sixth largest megacity in 2030, after adding at least 10 million more people. None of the world’s megacities comes close to Dhaka’s population density. Mumbai is about one-third less dense, despite its reputation as crowded and congested. The only other megacity (minimum 10 million population) more than one-third as dense as Dhaka is Karachi, Pakistan (Image © KM Asad / ZUMA Press / Corbis)

Sapiens – a new measurement for population

One of the philosophical results of the French Revolution in the 1790s was a standardised set of prefixes used to conveniently multiply units of measure (grams, metres, litres) by factors of 10.

To describe populations, a new unit can easily be developed – the sapien. One sapien is one human, Homo sapiens. A novel vocabulary for measurement can spark new ideas of scale, reinforce our common humanity, and can help us to precisely understand just how large the human community has become.

A village of a thousand people could therefore be described as a single “kilosapien”, and a city of a million as a single “megasapien”. The most populous cities on Earth today, depending on how you measure their extent, contain almost 40 megasapiens. The countries of India and China have populations over a billion – they are gigasapiens. Our planet is currently measured at seven gigasapiens.


While it is difficult to precisely ascertain the size of cities today, it is impossible to know the size of cities in the distant past. Using indirect methods combining such fields as archaeology and agriculture, scholars have created rough estimates of urban sizes at various times in history. These numbers are subject to vigorous debate, as there is no systematic way to measure with certainty.

Ten thousand years ago, settlements reached only a few hundred people at most. As agricultural technology improved, these settlements grew rapidly. Five millennia ago, Memphis (Egypt) was a city of 30 kilosapiens, and 2,500 years ago, Babylon became the first city larger than 200 kilosapiens.

Nanpu Bridge, Shanghai: Construction on the Nanpu Bridge project began on December 15, 1988, and actual construction was finished by June 20, 1991. Deng Xiaoping personally inscribed the name of the bridge on a main girder. Mainly financed by the Asian Development Bank, the total cost for this project was CNY820 million (US$128 million) (Image © Martin Puddy / Corbis)

The first city to reach a megasapien was Rome, now the Italian capital, in the first century BC. Rome’s population shrank in the first years of the modern calendar, and by 500 AD Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) was the world’s largest city, at 500 kilosapiens. On the other side of the continent, the Cambodian city of Angkor, as well as Kaifeng, Chang’an and Hangzhou, all in China, each reached a megasapien at some point around 1000 AD.

By the start of the 20th century, written records allow for much more precise determinations. In 1900, London, UK, was the largest city to ever have existed, at almost seven megasapiens. In 1925, it was overtaken by New York, which was the first city to reach 10 megasapiens. At the turn of the millennium, Tokyo was the largest city ever seen on Earth, and the first to pass 25 megasapiens.

Extreme cities

What defines the most extreme city? Is it a specific place marked by imaginary lines, historical reference or natural boundaries? Is it an economic unit, a residential zone or a tribal membership? A city can be all of these simultaneously.

Following on from the analogy of a city as a living thing, one appropriate metric of an extreme city to compare the largest cities on Earth is the number of people in the urban or metropolitan area. The people are the neurons of the city’s brain. This measure is not confounded by historical quirks of city borders or terrain and can be compared in our new unit of sapiens.

Devotees take part in the Hindu festival of Thaipusam in the Batu Caves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Over one million people usually visit the Batu Caves on this day (Image © Charles Pertwee / Corbis)

The eight most populous urban areas in the year 2015 are in Asia. The largest collection of humans in a single area is Tokyo (Japan), which as at 2015, contains an estimated 38 megasapiens. This is followed by Jakarta (Indonesia, 31), Karachi (Pakistan, 30), Manila (Philippines, 24), Delhi (India, 24), Seoul (South Korea, 23), Shanghai (China, 23) and Beijing (China, 21).

At 21 megasapiens, New York, is the most populous urban area outside Asia. In South America, the most extreme city is Sao Paulo (Brazil, 21); in Africa, it is Lagos (Nigeria, 17); and in Australia, Sydney, at four megasapiens.

Each of these cities has a unique character, position, history and environment. But one thing they share is that they are all alive and they are all being constantly refreshed and maintained by the thoughts and efforts of those who live there. Even the most extreme city has something in common with the smallest village – it is a living thing that is more than just the sum of its parts.

For more stories and photos, check out Asian Geographic Issue 114.


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