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If you’ve ever flown cross-country in a window seat, chances are, the bright lights at night have caught your eye. From above, the world tells its own story—as concentrated pockets of bright light keep the world’s economy thriving.

Today’s visualization relies on data compiled by CityLab researchers to identify the world’s largest megaregions. The team defines megaregions as:

  • Areas of continuous light, based on the latest night satellite imagery
  • Capturing metro areas or networks of metro areas, with a combined population of 5 million or higher
  • Generating economic output (GDP) of over $300 billion, on a PPP basis

The satellite imagery comes from the NOAA, while the base data for economic output is calculated from Oxford Economics via Brookings’ Global Metro Monitor 2018.

It’s worth pointing out that each megaregion may not be connected by specific trade relationships. Rather, satellite data highlights the proximity between these rough but useful regional estimates contributing to the global economy—and supercities are at the heart of it.

From Megalopolis to Megaregion

Throughout history, academics have described vast, interlinked urban regions as a ‘megalopolis’, or ‘megapolis’. Economic geographer Jean Gottman popularized the Greek term, referring to the booming and unprecedented urbanization in Bos-Wash—the northeast stretch from Boston and New York down to Washington, D.C.:

This region has indeed a “personality” of its own […] Every city in this region spreads out far and wide around its original nucleus.

Gottmann, Megalopolis (1961)

By looking at adjacent metropolitan areas rather than country-level data, it can help provide an entirely new perspective on the global distribution of economic activity.

Where in the world are the most powerful urban economic clusters today?

The Largest Megaregions Today

The world’s economy is a sum of its parts. Each megaregion contributes significantly to the global growth engine, but arguably, certain areas pull more weight than others.

Megaregion Cities Region Population Economic Output (EO) EO per Capita
Total 602.2M $28,135B $46,720
1. Bos-Wash New York, Washington, D.C., Boston North America 47.6M $3,650B $76,681
2. Par-Am-Mun Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Munich Europe 43.5M $2,505B $57,586
3. Chi-Pitts Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh North America 32.9M $2,130B $64,742
4. Greater Tokyo Tokyo Asia 39.1M $1,800B $46,036
5. SoCal Los Angeles, San Diego North America 22M $1,424B $64,727
6. Seoul-San Seoul, Busan Asia 35.5M $1,325B $37,324
7. Texas Triangle Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin North America 18.4M $1,227B $66,685
8. Beijing Beijing, Tianjin Asia 37.4M $1,226B $32,781
9. Lon-Leed-Chester London, Leeds, Manchester Europe 22.6M $1,177B $52,080
10. Hong-Shen Hong Kong, Shenzhen Asia 19.5M $1,043B $53,487
11. NorCal San Francisco, San Jose North America 10.8M $925B $85,648
12. Shanghai Shanghai, Hangzhou Asia 24.2M $892B $36,860
13. Taipei Taipei Asia 16.7M $827B $49,521
14. São Paolo São Paolo South America 33.5M $780B $23,284
15. Char-Lanta Charlotte, Atlanta North America 10.5M $656B $62,476
16. Cascadia Seattle, Portland North America 8.8M $627B $71,250
17. Ista-Burs Istanbul, Bursa MENA 14.8M $626B $42,297
18. Vienna-Budapest Vienna, Budapest Europe 12.8M $555B $43,359
19. Mexico City Mexico City North America 24.5M $524B $21,388
20. Rome-Mil-Tur Rome, Milan, Turin Europe 13.8M $513B $37,174
21. Singa-Lumpur Singapore, Kuala Lumpur Asia 12.7M $493B $38,819
22. Cairo-Aviv Cairo, Tel Aviv MENA 19.8M $472B $23,838
23. So-Flo Miami, Tampa North America 9.1M $470B $51,648
24. Abu-Dubai Abu Dhabi, Dubai MENA 5M $431B $86,200
25. Osaka-Nagoya (tied) Osaka, Nagoya Asia 9.1M $424B $46,593
25. Tor-Buff-Chester (tied) Toronto, Buffalo, Rochester North America 8.5M $424B $49,882
27. Delhi-Lahore New Delhi, Lahore Asia 27.9M $417B $14,946
28. Barcelona-Lyon Barcelona, Lyon Europe 7M $323B $46,143
29. Shandong Jinan, Zibo, Dongying Asia 14.2M $249B $17,535

Altogether, these powerhouses bring in over $28 trillion in economic output.

Unsurprisingly, Bos-Wash reigns supreme even today, with $3.6 trillion in economic output, over 13% of the total. The corridor hosts some of the highest-paying sectors: information technology, finance, and professional services.

The largest city in Brazil, São Paulo, is the only city in the Southern Hemisphere to make the list. The city was once heavily reliant on manufacturing and trade, but the $780 billion city economy is now embracing its role as a nascent financial hub.

On the other side of the world, the cluster of Asian megaregions combines for $8.7 trillion in total economic output. Of these, Greater Tokyo in Japan is the largest, while Shandong might be a name that fewer people are familiar with. Sandwiched between Beijing and Shanghai, the coastal province houses multiple high-tech industrial and export processing zones.

The data is even more interesting when broken down into economic output per capita—Abu-Dubai churns out an impressive $86,200 per person. Meanwhile, Delhi-Lahore is lowest on the per-capita list, at $14,946 per person across nearly 28 million people.

Where To Next?

This trend shows no sign of slowing down, as megacities are on the rise in the coming decade. Eventually, more Indian and African megaregions will make its way onto this list, led by cities like Lagos and Chennai.

Stay tuned to Visual Capitalist for a North America-specific outlook coming soon, and a deep dive into the biggest factors contributing to the growth of these megaregions.