On Feb. 1st 2020, Berlin become the largest city of the EU, with a population of approximately. 3,75 million inside the city limits.

Except that Paris is a much larger city by almost any other measure - with arguably up to 12 million people in the wider urban area, compared to only 4 million in the comparable area for Berlin.

This is as Paris draws its city limits really tightly compared to other European cities, with only 2,14 million residents inside the city limits.

There are some advantages to drawing the boundaries of cities fairly broadly - it allows an easy coordination of transportation policy, it ensures that most people who work in the city also live there (and vice-versa).

Whilst Paris/the French government is of course free to choose where it draws its city boundaries, I am interested in if there are historical/political reasons for this.

  • Is there a reason why Paris is so much smaller geographically than other European cities?
  • Is there any other political body which coordinates across the greater-Paris region? (like the GLA, or Berlin State government).
  • Are there any plans/proposals for the defined region of Paris to expand out into the suburbs in the manner that Berlin (1920) and London (1965) have done?
  • 1
    I think the answer for this relates to how France is divided into Departments, which are administrative regions. Defining the city of Paris as a larger region would spread it into multiple departments. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Departments_of_France#History but there's probably a lot of iffy bits in this logic.
    – Jontia
    Feb 6, 2020 at 13:19
  • The Wikipedia article on Paris says that the city limits have remained essentially unchanged since 1860 despite expansion of the built-up area since then. Though it doesn't really explain why.
    – dan04
    Feb 6, 2020 at 14:54
  • 3
    I'd note that the City of London has a population of 9,401. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_of_London
    – ceejayoz
    Feb 6, 2020 at 15:00
  • 5
    No time for a detailed answer, but you might be interested to read how the current city border mostly follows the former fortifications (now a ring road : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boulevard_P%C3%A9riph%C3%A9rique) and the current effort to create a greater administrative division: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Paris . There are about 35,000 communes in France, which means that most big cities are divided in several municipalities.
    – Evargalo
    Feb 6, 2020 at 15:58
  • 1
    @Evargalo in that case, I would have said "...most large metropolitan areas are divided...." Anyway, I'm glad we agree on the facts.
    – phoog
    Feb 7, 2020 at 18:10

3 Answers 3


The city borders of Paris are, of course, essentially defined by history like most other city borders in Europe. Paris’ situation is in no way unique; see for example the City of Brussels which houses only 14.6 % of the inhabitants of the Brussels Capital region (the corresponding number for Paris seems to be around 17.5 %).

The question of why a certain municipality did or did not merge with a number of surrounding villages typically depends on how the country in question handles local government. In France, going down from the Republic at-large there are regions, départements and ultimately cities/towns/villages. Most of the Paris urban area is in the region Île de France which is made up of multiple départements; one of these (number 75) is the city of Paris (or traditionally Seine as per its location in the alphabetical index). Interestingly, this département used to be larger (and contain multiple municipalities) but was split into four départements (Hauts-de-Seine, Seine-Saint-Denis and Val-de-Marne alongside Paris proper) in 1968. I suspect that the central government did not want too much of an imbalance between the main city/département and the areas surrounding it; and maybe also population distributions or importance of départements/regions on a national level was a concern.

In Germany, the cities of Berlin and Hamburg were enlarged in the interwar period by national laws. After the Second World War, many of the original state boundaries (or province boundaries in case of the provinces of Prussia which was dissolved) were kept and the new German states would, where possible, be made up of entire former states. Some boundaries have shifted, some states have merged but Hamburg and Berlin remained unchanged. However, they (and Bremen) are special municipalities in that they themselves are at the level of a state. This means, the mayors of Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin are equal in rank to the minister presidents of e.g. Bavaria and North-Rhine Westfalia but above the mayors of e.g. Munich or Cologne. The city government has state-level and municipality-level duties but I believe some of them are delegated to borough governments.

Munich is larger than Bremen (but smaller than Hamburg and Berlin), yet it is fully contained within the state of Bavaria whose capital it is. Cologne, the fourth-largest city in Germany is part of North-Rhine Westfalia but not the state capital. These two cities (and many, many others) are still special in that they are not contained in a Landkreis (a regional governing area like English counties or French départements); they are Kreis-free cities. However, this still puts them on the same level as much smaller Kreis-free cities such as Kaufbeuren.

With respect to Munich, the Bavarian state is divided into regions (Regierungsbezirke) and it was recently discussed whether Munich should become its own region (it is currently in the region of Upper Bavaria). However, that discussion seems to be going nowhere. Other large cities of Germany are probably going to stay where they are and even a merger of Bremen and the surrouding state of Lower Saxony (i.e. the opposite direction; but making sense considering how much smaller Bremen is) is probably not going to happen any time soon.

  • Would a merger between Bremen and Niedersachsen even be legal? I thought the German constitution banned any changes to the federal structure.
    – gerrit
    Apr 19, 2022 at 16:02
  • 1
    @gerrit The constitution bans abolishing states altogether but explicitly allows reorganisation of states in Art. 29. For the states that today make up Baden-Württemberg (Art 118) and Berlin/Brandenburg (Art 118a) special provisions are mentioned, allowing for an easier process.
    – Jan
    Apr 21, 2022 at 8:02

I cannot give a definitive answer to this — French local politics is not really my field of study — but in general municipalities are determined as much (if not more) by history and political happenstance than by anything systematic. For instance, cities in the US have been known to change their city limits in order to change their demographic profile, because certain Federal programs tie funding to demographic distributions. Local politics is a Byzantine affair...

I suspect that the city limits of Paris are mostly a matter of historical path dependency. Cities in Europe (and many of the older cities founded in the original thirteen US states) were often created by coalescing a number of independent villages that rose up around some important resource or feature: a port, a military fortification, an aqueduct or other construction, etc. The villages arose because people wanted to be as close to the resource as possible while still maintaining enough open land for productive agriculture, but as populations increase, villages grow out over the agricultural land until they merge together. Within these new cities, the old villages still maintain a degree of political sovereignty, and often resist any incorporation that would rob them of that independent identity. Back in the day, the central fortification likely marked the original 'Paris,' with all the other territory of the modern city being composed of agricultural villages that supplied the military compound with food and supplies; Now they've all grown together, but that central region still considers itself 'Paris' in exclusion to the expanded metropolis.

Berlin is unique among European cities in that in the aftermath of WWII the city was extensively damaged and then split in two between different nations. The borders of the city of Berlin became a matter of international concern, and that high-level focus erased most of the effects of local/historical politics. Had WWII not happened, Berlin would likely still have the 'coalesced villages' structure typical of other cities, and that 3.75 million figure would be split up among various regions, much the way that the population of Manhattan is often contrasted with the population of New York City.

  • One important thing about Berlin is that the city's infrastructure is really built for a far larger population. If it wasn't for WWII Berlin could be the largest city on the European continent (except Moscow and maybe Paris.) But Germany is far less centralized than France. Feb 6, 2020 at 18:21
  • 2
    Sorry but your comment on Berlin is just wrong. The change from Berlin being just a small inner city with lots of indepedent villages around to the entire metro region happened in 1920. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greater_Berlin_Act. The city borders of Berlin are essentially unchanged since then. This happened well before WII and had nothing to do with it.
    – quarague
    Feb 7, 2020 at 7:54
  • ? My point was that Berlin is dimensioned for a far larger population. WWII and its aftermath changed the future of Berlin (with regards to its population and the commercial/industry side.) Feb 7, 2020 at 10:20
  • @quarague: so it was the aftermath of WWI rather than WWII? My bad; I just assumed. I'll revise that later today. Feb 7, 2020 at 14:46
  • @StefanSkoglund I think quarague's comment was directed at the last paragraph of this answer, not at your comment.
    – phoog
    Feb 7, 2020 at 17:43

As Jontia pointed out, Paris is one departement, out of 98? 99? in France. At 2+ million inhabitants it is already a big department and doesn't need to be any more powerful (that's a matter of opinion of course, as Paris likes to think it's the only city that matters in France). What you think of as a natural unit of government of a greater urban area is taken care of by its membership of the Ile-de-France region, which does cover the neighboring departments. For example, public transport, is coordinated by this body, which does cover the suburbs.

The other bit is that Paris proper is sometimes referred to as Paris intra muros (French), i.e. Paris-within-the-walls. Now, I am not totally sure where the walls (French) went and when they were taken out, but as far as I understand, they were roughly located where the peripherique ring road is and therefore the city limits are basically where the walls used to be + 2 of the neighboring parks.

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