Doesn’t being in a crowd just suck? Catching the subway, getting in line at the airport, unexpectedly finding yourself in the mosh pit at a heavy metal gig… hey, we’ve all been there. But while those moments were likely among the least-pleasant of our lives, at least we had somewhere you could escape to after. Not everyone is so lucky. Some of our fellow humans are stuck living in cities that are like Black Friday at the magic unicorn store all year round.
We’re talking the world’s densest cities. Cities with so many humans crammed into them that it’s impossible to sneeze without accidentally blowing your neighbor’s toupee off. Specifically, we’re looking at the cities with the highest number of people per square km in their wider metro area. All our data comes from the UN Habitat data set, which you can browse for yourself by following this link. Got all that? Great. Then hold on tight as we take a ride through some of the most overcrowded places in the entire world.
10. Jakarta, Indonesia (9,600 people sq/km)
Overcrowded, crazy, polluted, borderline insane… those are just a few words travelers often use to describe Indonesia’s bloated capital. Home to 30.2 million people crammed into a (relatively) tiny area, Jakarta comes from the “go big or go home” school of urban sprawl. The city exists in a state of near-permanent gridlock, with cars clogging the roads morning, noon and night. The infrastructure, too, is hopelessly crowded, to the point that Jakarta consistently ranks as one of the world’s worst cities for doing business in, as simply getting to your lunchtime meeting on time will involve setting off at 5am. Three weeks earlier.
In fact, Jakarta’s overcrowding has gotten so bad that it’s actually causing the city to subside. You read that right. The sheer weight of all these houses, people and vehicles are causing parts of Jakarta to sink at a rate of 25 centimeters every year. That’s faster than any city affected by climate change or not built over a gigantic sink hole. It’s been estimated that saving Jakarta from a watery grave will cost at least $40 billion.
On the other hand, if you can stand the noise, the pollution, the mess, the near-daily protests and the perma-gridlock, there is a lot to like about Jakarta. Expats talk lovingly of the city’s “energy”, and it’s hard to deny the whole conglomeration has a rugged charm.
9. Singapore, Singapore (10,200 people sq/km)
Just a short hop away by plane from chaotic Jakarta, Singapore feels like a city from another planet. One of the world’s only city states (the others are tiny San Marino and even-tinier Vatican City) Singapore is clean, ordered, high-tech and staggeringly prosperous. It has a world-leading financial center, a famous vertical forest, and a government so devoted to tidiness that it will publicly cane you for littering. Oh, and it manages all this while being one of the densest cities on the face of the Earth.
Note that we didn’t say “overcrowded”. Singapore may have a population of 5.53 million all jammed onto an island of only 518 square kilometers, but it manages all these people with an efficiency that borders on the beautiful. For decades, housing has been tightly controlled by the Housing Development Board, which has covered the city with ultra-dense high-rises. While the projects in the US are a source of alienation, in Singapore they’re just a fact of life. Around 80% of Singaporeans live in HDB apartments, and 90% of those own the apartment themselves.
The result is a city that’s ultra-dense, but also one of the most-orderly places on Earth. The downside is it’s also insanely expensive for expats, especially compared to everywhere else on this list.
8. Abuja, Nigeria (10,500 people sq/km)
The story of Abuja is more than a little ironic. Designed from scratch in the 1970s as a roomy getaway from overcrowded, chaotic Lagos, the new Nigerian capital ultimately ended up going the way of its predecessor. Six million people were sucked into a small strip of land designed for far, far fewer residents. The inevitable result? A Euro-American style city of sweeping boulevards, towering skyscrapers and expensive mansions, ringed by some of the most horrendous slums on the continent.
It’s those slums that make Abuja’s ranking here. While the city proper is relatively prosperous and spacious – bar the chronic traffic jams that affect the whole of Nigeria – the capital’s larger metro area is a brutal, stinking place where people are forced to live right on top of one another in substandard housing. Perhaps it’s no wonder one Abuja expat blog has called the city “the glossy veneer the nation has haphazardly tried to use to cover its wounds.”
Still, we don’t want to just spend this entry kicking Nigeria’s capital. On the upside, the city is remarkably crime-free; something of an achievement in a country being torn apart by a radical Islamist insurgency. It’s also got some stunning landmarks, even if you do have to squint to see them through the smog.
7. Kota, India (12,100 people sq/km)
Not far from the capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur, sits India’s second-most crowded city (yep, we’ve got at least one more to go). Kota is way off the tourist trail, for good reason. It’s a sprawling, industrial city that stretches along the river Chambal, and its major commodities are heavy industry and the sort of grittiness usually associated with Raymond Chandler novels. Population wise, it’s surprisingly small (by Indian standards). A mere one million souls call this city home, yet the sheer amount of space given over to industrial architecture means that those who do live here are tightly crammed together.
Perhaps one reason you never hear much about overcrowding in Kota is because those being crowded are generally students. Kota is the place to go for those cramming to pass India’s ultra-competitive engineering and medical exams, and the city is full to overflowing with stressed-out students pulling 18-hour study shifts. So hardcore is study in Kota that it has become a byword for burnout and even suicide in Rajasthan. Instead of advertisements, many street billboards sport pictures of successful students, beaming down almost mockingly at the huddled masses below them. Hmm… is it just us, or does that sound less like a city, and more like the set-up for a dystopian YA novel?
6. Lagos, Nigeria (13,300 people sq/km)
Aaaaaaannnnnd we’re back in Nigeria. With 182 million citizens, the West Africa nation is by far the most-populous on the continent. And by far its most-populous city is the insane megalopolis of Lagos. A sprawling, creaking, groaning, whirling mass of people, cars, skyscrapers, slums, mosques, temples, madness and garbage, Lagos is like your average country-dweller’s nightmare vision of a city on steroids.
The streets are gridlocked 24/7, both on the road and the sidewalk. There are rolling blackouts that last for days. Apartment blocks are so overcrowded that up to 50 people can share a single toilet and sink. We don’t want to pass judgement here, but when you’ve got 50 people fighting to take a dump, you’ve got serious overcrowding problems.
Then there’s the crime. Lagos is so crime-ridden it makes Gotham City look like the winner of “Denmark’s safest suburb”. A US government report for 2017 said the dire economic conditions of most residents had led to a spate of “armed muggings, assaults, burglaries, carjackings, rapes, kidnappings, and extortion” aimed at foreigners, plus a staggering number of home invasions, even when that home was surrounded by guards. While all of the cities on our list have problems, we’re willing to bet no others have them quite so acute as Lagos.
5. Casablanca, Morocco (14,200 people sq/km)
Known as the ‘White City’, Casablanca appears from afar like a glimmering jewel; a sculpture made of marble. Then you get closer and the whole illusion gives way to a writhing, pulsing, frenetic mass of life scrabbling to cling onto the edges of Morocco’s craziest port. Nearly 7 million people live here, in a mess of traffic congestion and pollution so bad that, by one count, it may be the sixth most polluted city in the world. Forget Humphry Bogart telling Ingrid Bergman “here’s looking at you, kid.” In modern Casablanca, he likely wouldn’t be able to see her for all the smog.
Yet Casablanca is a city on the up. After decades of being overlooked as the “dirty, ugly sister” of Morocco’s big cities, the famous port has reinvented itself as a 21st Century Cinderella, by which we mean it’s now a booming tech capital. The city has even introduced a new ‘smart traffic’ system to try and combat the mind-numbing congestion that has overwhelmed the streets for so long. Whether it works or not remains to be seen.
Despite all these improvements, the issue of Casablanca’s overcrowding is unlikely to get better. Like Abuja above, the city’s main population problem stems from the grim, rundown slums snaking through its heart, where Morocco’s urban poor live in squalid conditions.
4. Manila, Philippines (14,800 people sq/km)
If you count just the city proper (i.e. not the extended metro area), Manila is the most-overcrowded city on Earth. Even if you do as we’re doing, and measure the whole mess, it still comes in at fourth. 12.49 million people are squeezed into this super-high rise, super-compact city; with another 8 million in the urban conglomeration surrounding it. Grinding poverty exists alongside unfeasible wealth, and it shows in all the worst possible ways.
The tales of overcrowding in Manila can tell sound like something from an earnest, 1970s sci-fi novel. People with decent, middle class jobs live in tiny shacks under bridges, inches from railway lines, or even in unused crypts, so overcrowded (and expensive) is the Philippine capital. General maternity hospitals stack mothers and newborn babies up to four a bed, just to ensure there is enough room. It’s not unusual for a family of 8 to live in a 3 meter x 3 meter shack, like they’re stuck playing the longest, dullest game of sardines in the history of the world. Things have gotten so bad that local journalists are sounding the alarm and calling the levels of overcrowding dangerous. And we’ve still got 3 more cities to go.
3. Medellin, Colombia (19,700 people sq/km)
The only entry on our list that’s neither in Asia or Africa, Medellin is Colombia’s second largest city, and erstwhile home of notorious douchebag Pablo Escobar. But while Medellin’s 3.7 million residents are far short of capital Bogota’s 9.8 million citizens, Medellin is much more compact. Where Bogota sprawls for miles and miles in every direction, Medellin likes to keep its residents close.
Interestingly, visit them both and Medellin actually feels less crowded than Bogota. While any trip to Bogota is likely to leave you with memories of interminable traffic jams, streets thick with bodies, and a transport system that resolutely refuses to function, a trip to Medellin will probably leave you marveling at how comparatively orderly it is. Unlike its big brother, the city has a functioning metro system, is kept clean and tidy, and ticks over in a normal way. It also has much better weather; a fact completely unrelated to our topic of overcrowding, but one Paisas (those from Medellin) are so proud of we couldn’t leave it out.
Even the city’s slums are better than you’ll find elsewhere in the region. While fighting in the slums once made Medellin the world’s murder capital, today the rundown streets are the focus of a massive regeneration project that is making it safer, richer and more connected.
2. Mumbai, India (31,700 people sq/km)
Now we get on to the really, really crowded cities. Mumbai’s larger metro area has a population of 20.7 million, as much as greater Manila and greater Detroit combined. Only in a much, much smaller area. No prizes for guessing how that has turned out.
Mumbai is so jam-packed with heaving human flesh that it makes ultra-dense Manila feel like remotest Alaska. To give just a hint of the levels of crowding on display, figures released in 2014 found that nearly 800 people a year die after falling from Mumbai’s trains. The reason they fall? The carriages are so full that they get physically pushed out the open doors.
What else? Well, there’s the time that the state government decided to ease overcrowding by building a whole new city, Navi Mumbai, to house new arrivals. Navi Mumbai filled up so fast that, within 20 years, the government was forced to start building a second overflow city to cope with it all. There’s also the crippling traffic jams. A short drive from the center to the airport routinely takes upwards of 2 hours. The government is worried that if things continue they soon won’t be able to provide sanitation, jobs or even food for everyone in the city.
The trouble is that Mumbai was built on a series of islands, and expansion is therefore a hugely costly and time-consuming endeavor. On the other hand, leaving things as they are clearly isn’t an option, either.
1. Dhaka, Bangladesh (44,500 people sq/km)
And then there was Dhaka.
The capital of Bangladesh is an unbelievable urban sprawl, with 17 million lost souls crammed into its metropolitan urban area. The operative word there is “crammed”. Dhaka’s overcrowding is so abysmally intense that it frequently comes 2nd last in Quality of Life indexes. Only highly unstable Caracas in Venezuela fares worse among cities not actually in a warzone.
It doesn’t help that Bangladesh is abysmally poor. The entire country is hugely underfunded, while even the simplest things cost far above market rates, due to rampant corruption. In Dhaka, that means there is no public transport, no infrastructure projects, few ways to police this insane overcrowding, and almost nothing that can be done. Infamously, this can be seen in Dhaka’s traffic jams, which are more-or-less eternal. Except during major strikes, Dhaka’s streets are always, always gridlocked. The city may never sleep, but it also never moves.
That’s before we get onto the slums. Traffic and poverty are bad in India, but in Dhaka they reach their apex. So many humans living in such miserable conditions so close to each other is surely something God never intended for his great green earth, yet there they are. Migrants from around Bangladesh, looking to make their living in the most-overcrowded city in the world. Maybe next time the rest of us get stuck in traffic, we can think of those poor souls in Dhaka’s jams and put our moaning in perspective.