Eurostat, the statistical agency of the European Union (EU) indicates that Paris is the largest metropolitan area in the EU, Switzerland and Norway, with 12.8 million residents, according to the latest estimates. This is slightly more than number two London — which may soon be outside the Union — with 12.4 million residents.
Metropolitan areas are labor markets, as former principal planner of the World Bank Alain Bertaud has shown. They are also housing markets. Metropolitan areas are the generic economic definition of cities and are called “functional urban areas” (FUA’s) by Eurostat.
FUA’s are defined similarly, but not exactly like metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada and Greater Capital City Statistical Areas (GCCSA’s) and significant urban areas in Australia. Most countries do not delineate metropolitan areas, while there are significant variations among the nations that define them. The biggest difference is the size of the geographic “building blocks” that include the historic “city proper” (the term for the historic core municipality used by the United Nations), the built-up urban area and the overwhelmingly rural urban fringe from which a significant percentage of workers commute into the urban area.
Eurostat’s data is reported for various years from 2009 to 2018, and dates for the latest data varies by metropolitan area. It is reported for nations within the European Union, as well as Norway and Switzerland. A broader definition of Europe, which would include more eastern European nations such as Russia and Turkey would push Paris and London down by two positions, with Moscow and Istanbul being larger.
There is a considerable gap between number two London and third ranked Madrid (at 6.8 million). The fourth through seventh ranked metropolitan areas hover around the 5,000,000 mark. This includes Berlin (5.21 million), Milan (5.15 million) the Rhine-Ruhr (5.12 million) and Barcelona (4.99 million).
The Rhine-Ruhr is notable for not having any very large municipalities, with Essen, Dortmund, Duisburg, and Bochum, with 350,000 to 600,000 population and a number of others over 100,000 population.
Rome and Athens have 4.4 million and 3.8 million residents respectively. Naples ranks tenth, with a population of 3.4 million.
A total of 14 metropolitan areas have more than 3,000,000 residents, and 14 have between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 residents. Finally, there are 36 metropolitan areas with between 1,000,000 and 2,000,000 residents.
Germany accounts for 14 of the 64 metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 population. The United Kingdom has 8, and France 7, while Italy and Spain have five each.
The Eurostat data shows 64 metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 population (Table). This accounts for approximately 31 percent of the total European Union, Switzerland and Norway population.
Comparison European and US Metropolitan Areas
Europe’s 64 metropolitan areas over 1,000,000 population have a combined population of 163 million, and an average size of 2.5 million residents. This compares to the 53 metropolitan areas of the same size in the United States, which had 184 million residents in 2018, with an average population of 3.5 million. Paris and London are somewhat smaller that second ranked US metropolitan area Los Angeles (13.3 million) and a full one-third smaller than New York (20.0 million). The major metropolitan area population in the United States constitutes a higher percentage than in Europe, at 56 percent (Figure 1).
However, European and US metropolitan areas are not strictly comparable. The have different commuting criteria. US metropolitan area are comprised of entire counties, which average 200 times land area of municipalities (communes) that comprise European metropolitan areas. One such county, San Bernardino (Riverside-San Bernardino metropolitan area) covers more land area than five EU nations as well as Switzerland. Being composed of much smaller geographical units, European metropolitan areas are much more precisely defined than in the United States.
European, US and virtually all other formally defined metropolitan areas share the characteristic of having more rural than urban land. For example, the major metropolitan areas of the US are more than 90 percent rural by land area.
For nearly two centuries, urban footprints been expanding beyond the historic cities proper. In his classic history of British urban planning (Genesis of Modern Urban Planning), William Ashworth noted that by the 1881 census, there was a tendency for populations to “settle more and more on the fringes of the existing largest centers.” Suburbanization, in Europe, as well as the United States, made for much larger labor markets, as commuters were liberated by trams (streetcars) for longer commutes, interurban and commuter railways and finally the automobile. In short, this was the genesis of the metropolitan area (also see: Metropolitan America).
Because of the intermittent nature of Eurostat metropolitan area reporting, it is difficult to compare growth rates with metropolitan areas in the United States. However, since 2010, the reported annual growth rates for the five largest European metropolitan areas (Paris, London, Madrid, Berlin and Milan) has been 0.35 percent. The top five US metropolitan areas (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston) has been substantially higher, at 0.95 percent. Virtually all of that difference is represented by the strong growth rates of Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, which have been growing at about two percent annually. The growth rate for the top three US metropolitan areas is actually less than the top three European metropolitan areas. The fastest growing metropolitan area in Europe’s top five is Milan, which had average annual growth of 0.70 percent.
Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the “Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey” and author of “Demographia World Urban Areas” and “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.” He was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. Speaker of the House of Representatives appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Council. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.
Photograph: Paris looking east from the Eiffel Tower (by author)