What is the optimal size for a city?


Optimal Size for a City Cycling Image source Shutterstock

When people in Bangalore meet each other, what they talk about is anybody’s guess, yes, it is the traffic problems. But what people not living here may not know is that what we share with people around us most is the information on which road went One-way today and how much de-tour you have to take to reach a destination, which you can see across the road. This situation is obviously because of over-population, and the difference between the rate of growth of industry and infrastructure here.

I was just trying to think what would be the optimal size for a city is so that while you get the advantages and feel of living in a city but there are minimal disadvantages that come with the big size and huge population.

Here are some of my thoughts on it:

Size of the City: I should be able to reach from one end of the city to another in about 30-35 mins on an average. This should roughly mean about an area of about 100-125 Sq Kms.

Population: May be between 15-16 lakhs, so that you have enough faces to see, and you would see some known faces in every crowd that you visit in the city. You may not get total anonymity like what a Mumbai may offer, but then do you need that all the time.

Proximity: Ideally city should not be adjacent to another city or town, which virtually makes the two cities act as one for all practical purposes (think NCR). This would also ensure that you drive for about an hour and you would be out of city limits and can probably be with nature.

I think this combo of size and population would ensure that the city would have all kind of facilities like education and medical facilities. There can be basic infrastructure for traveling in and out of the city. This combo may not give you a facility to have linking flights / trains like our mahanagars, but then if you do not live in the vicinity of airport / railway station, reaching your part of the town is as much time taking as traveling from a nearby town.

Can we not have network of such optimally sized cities across the country, rather than having few jumbo sized cities trying to take the burden of inflowing population and trying to balance the growth of the city with the growth of the population and their demand. Can our city planners debate on the ‘ Optimal Size for a city’.

Do you know any such cities in India?

Update: Roughly 10 years after asking ‘ What is the optimal size for a city?’ , I find myself living in Panaji – which meets almost all the criteria that I thought would make an Ideal city to live. Universe does work in some strange ways for you – if you let share your desires with it.


  1. Dont we all desire of such a dream place at some point of time when utterly frustrated with the ever increasing traffic bottlenecks and uprising constructions throwing the system out of gear.
    Well, there used to be a place some years earlier which could have been the answer to your search — Chandigarh.It had been a blend and very peaceful. Planned and decorated streets ,lake the gardens but over the past few years the population has escalated suddenly – not naturally of course but due to the influx of migrants from Bihar , Bengal, Orissa and the beautiful city is flooded with street urchins -a major traffic hazard.
    Then, with the arrival of MNCs and construction of an IT Park -the volumes in vehicles have increased resulting in slow traffic, pollution and of course irritation.
    A beautiful , contented , planned city is now going the Bangalore way .
    It would be certainly interesting to know a place devoid of all the metros frustrations.
    Cheers !!!

  2. Are we talking about Bangalore or Utopia. I guess big cities despite their problems are a necessary evil. We wouldn’t have cities like NYC, London, Tokyo if small well planned cities were the panacea. But the problem with India is we hardly have such small, well planned comfortable cities. We ought to develop them. But the problem is it calls for a huge commercialization of areas that are currntly rural. The sustainability of this commercialization in turn depends on the purchasing power of the non urban populace, which is lousy at the moment. If we want our cities degongested we need a revolution in rural consumerism with Walmarts and similar enterprises.

  3. I live in a suburb of Seattle, which is 11 miles away from my place of work. There are a couple of roads that take me to my work place, and both serve as bottleneck. A distance that can be covered in 15 minutes take 35 every morning. Point being, this can happen anywhere. I think having seen the worse in India has made me more tolerant 🙂 I use that time to catch up on music.

  4. interesting post….
    I guess it’s possible to have a larger city if facilities (schools, hospitals, offices, airports etc) are well distributed…
    I have lived in the Bay area and there cities like Palo Alto, Mountain View etc. are as large as say Andheri, Goregaon… At the two ends of the area are San Francisco and San Jose with the large airports…most offices are well spread.. but the cultural heart obviously lies in Frisco

  5. Anonymous, I have lived in Chandigarh for most of my life, so I am sure somewhere I was looking for that kind of a city only. But since its been almost 10 years that I am out of that city, and I don;t know how it has grown in these years, I did not mention it. But yes, that may be the city closest to a dream city.

    Shivaji, Bay area is a good example of distributes cities, but again I have always visited that area, never really lived there.

    Samba, looks like you have always lived in a big cities. Small cities are equally good if not better, its just that when you live in big city, you start thinking that no other city has these facilities. I have different views on rural consumerism, will writw about that sometime.

    Parth, we all find out the ways to utilize this time, but would you really like to spend time that way, specially in India where driving is not as much a pleasure, at least within the city limits of any big city.

    Thanks for writing in guys…I am thinking loud, but can we do something to have smaller well developed places, rather than a 1 Billion+ population trying to run to 5-7 major cities.


  6. There is nothing like optimal size.The rise of Bangalore just happened in a short span of 3 years where almost every IT and BPO MNC set shop there. And due to its weather and location in the country, people across India migrated to it. But the city was not ready for it.
    The reverse is happening in Hyderabad. The city was all ready but there are so many office spaces going empty. The demand was below supply.
    Mumbai is a perennial problem due to the linear nature of the city and snob value attached to being in South Mumbai. Plus Mumbai is always starved of funds by Delhi which keeps expanding radially into Noida, Ghaziabad and Gurgaon.

  7. Good thought Anuradha! Every day while travelling to work and back the thought which occurs to me a million no of times is why can’t other district headquarters be developed into smaller and decent cities and why the Government is allowing so many companies to set up their shops in Bangalore, even when the companies themselves are looking for secondary cities to spread out.
    Hope one day, our Government will learn the concept of Pro-active thinking rather than digging up the well, when the fire has been caught.

  8. I can think of one … Baroda/Vadodara… where i was brought up…
    Its close to a city called Bharuch and ankleshwar and lots of people work in these cities..and come back to Baroda everyday.

    You can travel across the city in 30 min highest… and all points of the city are accessible..

    This is answering your query…
    I’d say you could’ve easily been a part of the Planning Commission… I dream of that too… to be able to plan India better…
    But you have no ideas of all the factors that hold back such plans and ideas… India is far too old a country with many determinants existing already!

  9. Well its true that we dream of a city that can provide all the facilities. And chandigrah is supposed to be the only planned city in the country .. and the planning was done so well that for the next few decades the authorities need not worry about the infrastructure part. However bangalore on the contratry was not planned.. it was supposed to be a pensioners grand place. So, the planning mostly meant to adhoc, just like BCC does, repair patch work.

    Just thinking about the question in the reverse direction. Given the current situation of the way in which the population of everthying is increasing except greenary where it is decreasing, its important what can be thought to de-congest?.. Can we as individuals come up with some solutions?.. We love to live her.. but can we do to the city? …!! something ponder about!!

  10. Well you should not be complaining 🙂

    Top 100 Cities of the World – ranked by population

    NOTE: Numbers shown include population within the recognized metro area
    of the city, and they include
    people living in the immediate surrounding area outside of the
    established border of the city.

    1. Tokyo, Japan – 28,025,000
    2. Mexico City, Mexico – 18,131,000
    3. Mumbai, India – 18,042,000
    4. Sáo Paulo, Brazil – 17, 711,000
    5. New York City, USA – 16,626,000
    6. Shanghai, China – 14,173,000
    7. Lagos, Nigeria – 13,488,000
    8. Los Angeles, USA – 13,129,000
    9. Calcutta, India – 12,900,000
    10. Buenos Aires, Argentina – 12,431,000

    11. Seóul, South Korea – 12,215,000
    12. Beijing, China – 12,033,000
    13. Karachi, Pakistan – 11,774,000
    14. Delhi, India – 11,680,000
    15. Dhaka, Bangladesh – 10,979,000
    16. Manila, Philippines – 10,818,000
    17. Cairo, Egypt – 10,772,000
    18. Õsaka, Japan – 10,609,000
    19. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 10,556,000
    20. Tianjin, China – 10,239,000

    21. Jakarta, Indonesia – 9,815,000
    22. Paris, France – 9,638,000
    23. Istanbul, Turkey – 9,413,000
    24. Moscow, Russian Fed. – 9,299,000
    25. London, United Kingdom – 7,640,000
    26. Lima, Peru – 7,443,000
    27. Tehrãn, Iran – 7,380,000
    28. Bangkok, Thailand – 7,221,000
    29. Chicago, USA – 6,945,000
    30. Bogotá, Colombia – 6,834,000

    31. Hyderabad, India – 6,833,000
    32. Chennai, India – 6,639,000
    33. Essen, Germany – 6,559,000
    34. Hangzhou, China – 6,389,000
    35. Hong Kong, China – 6,097,000
    36. Lahore, Pakistan – 6,030,000
    37. Shenyang, China – 5,681,000
    38. Changchun, China – 5,566,000
    39. Bangalore, India – 5,544,000
    40. Harbin, China – 5,475,000

    41. Chengdu, China – 5,293,000
    42. Santiago, Chile – 5,261,000
    43. Guangzhou, China – 5,162,000
    44. St. Petersburg, Russian Fed. – 5,132,000
    45. Kinshasa, DRC – 5,068,000
    46. Baghdãd, Iraq – 4,796,000
    47. Jinan, China – 4,789,000
    48. Wuhan, China – 4,750,000
    49. Toronto, Canada – 4,657,000
    50. Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) – 4,458,000

    51. Alger, Algeria – 4,447,000
    52. Philadelphia, USA – 4,398,000
    53. Qingdao, China – 4,376,000
    54. Milano, Italy – 4,251,000
    55. Pusan, South Korea – 4,239,000
    56. Belo Horizonte, Brazil – 4,160,000
    57. Almadabad, India – 4,154,000
    58. Madrid, Spain – 4,072,000
    59. San Francisco, USA – 4,051,000
    60. Alexandria, Egypt – 3,995,000

    61. Washington DC, USA – 3,927,000
    62. Houston, USA – 3,918,000
    63. Dallas, USA – 3,912,000
    64. Guadalajara, Mexico – 3,908,000
    65. Chongging, China – 3,896,000
    66. Medellin, Colombia – 3,831,000
    67. Detroit, USA – 3,785,000
    68. Handan, China – 3,763,000
    69. Frankfurt, Germany – 3,700,000
    70. Porto Alegre, Brazil – 3,699,000

    71. Hanoi, Vietnam – 3,678,000
    72. Sydney, Australia – 3,665,000
    73. Santo Domingo, Dom. Rep. – 3,601,000
    74. Singapore, Singapore – 3,587,000
    75. Casablanca, Morocco – 3,535,000
    76. Katowice, Poland – 3,488,000
    77. Pune, India – 3,485,000
    78. Bangdung, Indonesia – 3,420,000
    79. Monterrey, Mexico – 3,416,000
    80. Montréal, Canada – 3,401,000

    81. Nagoya, Japan – 3,377,000
    82. Nanjing, China – 3,375,000
    83. Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire – 3,359,000
    84. Xi’an, China – 3,352,000
    85. Berlin, Germany – 3,337,000
    86. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – 3,328,000
    87. Recife, Brazil – 3,307,000
    88. Dusseldorf, Germany – 3,251,000
    89. Ankara, Turkey – 3,190,000
    90. Melbourne, Australia – 3,188,000

    91. Salvador, Brazil – 3,180,000
    92. Dalian, China – 3,153,000
    93. Caracas, Venezuela – 3,153,000
    94. Adis Abeba, Ethiopia – 3,112,000
    95. Athina, Greece – 3,103,000
    96. Cape Town, South Africa – 3,092,000
    97. Koln, Germany – 3.067,000
    98. Maputo, Mozambique – 3,017,000
    99. Napoli, Italy – 3,012,000
    100. Fortaleza, Brazil – 3,007,000

  11. Well that does seem like the ideal place to find no? I would say somehow from my own experience Pune comes quite close. The pace is average population isn’t plenty and infra is very much suitable.