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What the Most Populated Cities in the World Used to Look Like

They're some of the densest and most crowded places on Earth. But was it always so?

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Tokyo, Japan

It’s the most populous metropolitan region in the world, with a current total of 37.4 million residents. In the early 20th century, Tokyo was decidedly less populous but was taking strides towards Westernization. In 1923, the year this photo was taken, the Great Kansho Earthquake laid waste to the city. Rebuilding brought an airport, opened in 1931, and by 1935, 6.35 million residents were living in Tokyo, putting the city on a par with New York and London. Today, children in Japan are some of the healthiest in the world, which helps to explain its growing population. These are the most populated cities on Earth today. 

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Delhi, India

In 1965, the population of Delhi was 2.8 million people—crowded, but nothing like the 29.4 million who are living within the second-largest metropolitan area in the world today. It’s seen growth of at least 3.3 percent—and as much as 5.4 percent—ever since that year, a year which also saw the outbreak of war between India and Pakistan over dominion over Jammu and Kashmir, according to the U.S. State Department.

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Shanghai, China

In the late 19th century, Shanghai was on the “cusp of the modern era,” writes the BBC. A magnet for artists, writers, and creative people of all sorts, the city was also a burgeoning commercial port city and the country’s leading transportation center. The earliest available data puts the population of Shanghai at 4.3 million back in 1950. Today, it’s got a whopping 26.3 million in its greater metropolitan region, making it the third most populous city in the world. Its skyline today would be unrecognizable to a time traveler from the turn of the century.

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Sao Paulo, Brazil

It’s the most populous city in Brazil (and fourth in the world), with almost 22 million residents. And it was the largest city in Brazil even back in the 1930s when this aerial photo was shot, and its surrounding state was the country’s biggest coffee exporting region. What’s not visible here: The political strife that was rampant throughout the country during this decade, with a revolution in 1930 which led to a coup d’état in 1937.

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Mexico City, Mexico

It may look downright bucolic in this image of street vendors taken in 1968, but Mexico City has been a crowded place for at least three generations. In fact, the population has been steadily climbing since 1955, when residents numbered 4.3 million. In 2019, it is fifth on the list of most populous cities, with a greater metropolitan region that’s home to 21.7 million people.

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Cairo, Egypt

Today, Cairo is sixth in the world for population, with 20.5 million city-dwellers calling it home. Shown here in 1970, it was already at 5.6 million people and getting set for steady growth, at over 2 percent, pretty much ever since. What accounts for this rapid uptick? According to the World Population Review, a birth rate of 30 per 1,000 people and a death rate of 7 per 1,000 people. The city, as well as the entire country of Egypt, are one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

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Mumbai, India

This scene of a relatively calm Mumbai street, taken in 1870, when the city’s population was down around 645,000 and was actually seeing negative growth, is not one that is likely to repeat today in a city that’s currently the world’s eighth most populous (20.2 million). Formed from seven islands, Mumbai has been a major port city for 150 years

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Beijing, China

This photo is what passed for “crowded” in Beijing in 1970—a year in which the city had 4.4 million residents and was seeing an almost 1 percent decline in its growth. My how things have changed. In 2019, Beijing, the ninth most populous metropolitan region in the world, has a population of 20 million and, as World Population Report puts it, “is growing at breakneck speed.”

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Osaka, Japan

When this photo was snapped in 1970, the greater Osaka region had a population of 15.3 million rather than the staggering 19.2 million it’s weighing in at today. Japan’s largest city by far in the 1930s—today it falls far short of Tokyo and is only the tenth most populous city in the world—in 2019 it is seeing population declines; by 2035 it’s estimated that only 18.3 million people will call Osaka home, as more and more residents make a beeline for the suburbs.

Karachi PakistanHistoria/Shutterstock

Karachi, Pakistan

This is Karachi—today’s 11th most populous world metropolitan region, at 15.7 million residents, here seen around 1930 when it was still ruled by the British Raj and considered, condescendingly, the “Paris of Asia,” according to Newsline Magazine. Migrants from rural areas looking for a better life have been flooding the city since Partition—a trend that continues to this day, with 45,000 workers a month arriving in the city looking for jobs.

Argentina Buenos AiresHistoria/Shutterstock

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Argentina’s capital city has been a cultural Mecca since around the time this photo was taken in the 1930s, with tango, literature, cinema, and theater all flourishing, according to Frommer’s. In 1950, the population of its greater metropolitan region hovered at 5.2 million. Today it’s at 15.5 million, which makes it the world’s 13th most populous city. And although its population is expected to continue to rise, the rate slowing, due to a stagnating economy that’s causing many of its residents to flee to the suburbs.

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Istanbul, Turkey

This scene of a bustling market street in Turkey’s largest city, in 1972, when its population was around 3 million, seems almost quaint when considered against its behemoth size today—a population of almost 15 million in its greater metropolitan area, representing a steady rise in numbers for at least 60 years. The number of its residents doubled in the 1980s and even today, it’s one of the fastest growing cities in the world, as well as its 14th most populous. It’s also a great under-the-radar destination for your next vacation.