Half of the world’s population lives in cities

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More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. The urbanisation rate, which was just be-low 30% in 1950, rose above 50% in 2007. According to the United Nations, the statistics will rise slightly above 60% by 2030 [1]. There are now 3.3 billion city-dwellers, or 4.5 times as many as in 1950. In 2030, the number of people living in cities is expected to reach the 5 billion mark, which was the earth’s total population back in 1987.

Africa and Asia are less urbanised than other continents

The most developed continents are also the most urbanised, with three quarters of their population living in cities. While Latin America is less industrialised, it too is extremely urbanised (78%). The majority of Africa and Asia’s population, however, live in rural areas, even though Asia also accounts for almost half of the world’s city dwellers. As urbanisation continues, there will be more people in urban centres than in rural areas by 2030, and these two continents will not only have the largest populations but also the majority of large cities.

From 1950 to 2005, the urban population in industrialised countries grew less than 1.4% per year and over 3.6% in developing countries. Growth was highest in Africa – an average of 4.3% per year – and lowest in Europe – less than 1.2%. Urbanisation was also rapid in Asia and in Latin America, which showed increase of 3.4 and 3.3% respectively over the same period.


Large cities become even larger, more numerous and more populated

In 2005, the urban population was more or less equally divided between cities with over and less than 500,000 inhabitants. The demographic weight of the largest urban agglomerations (those with more than 10 million people ) has grown enormously over the past thirty years, surging from 3.5% of the total world population in 1975 to 9.3% in 2005. While only 3 agglomerations in the world had a popu-lation over 10 million in 1975 (Tokyo, New York and Mexico City), there were twenty in 2005. More than 300 million people presently live in these large metropolises, or more than six times as many as in 1975.


Does demographic growth drive urban growth?

Today, developing countries are experiencing the strongest urban growth. Rapid urbanisation is gen-erally regarded as one of the consequences of a large population increase, as urban growth is driven both directly by the natural growth rate in these areas and indirectly by migration from rural areas, which is due to increasing population pressure in the countryside. More than 80 percent of worldwide variations in urban growth correspond to variations in the growth rate of the population as a whole.

It is also possible that rapid urbanisation in developing countries is the result of late urban growth, and that these countries are currently in catch-up phase. However, a long-term comparison of urbanisa-tion in the United States and India reveals that the proportion of urban dwellers not only grew much later in India but also at a slightly more contained rate [2].

In reality, developing countries are seeing stronger growth in total population and in urban population than developed countries, who have lower urbanisation rates.


Does urbanisation impede development?

Paul Bairoch has drawn a strong link between the urbanisation boom and “progress in civilisation”, judging that the idea of a positive interaction between urbanisation and economic development – i.e. that they reinforced each other – did not apply to the situation of developing countries today [3]. This economic historian has coined the term “urban inflation” for urbanisation in developing countries.


It has been clearly demonstrated that people who have just come from rural areas have great difficulty integrating themselves into city life, particularly in Africa. These individuals face the challenge of find-ing work, a place to live, and forming unions. Traffic congestion issues in many cities in the South along with high pollution levels and the rising slums populations seem to indicate a conflict between urbanisation and industrialisation. However, precise analyses reveal more complex urban dynamics.


Cities in developed countries are also feeling the crunch of urbanisation, expressed through social exclusion and spatial segregation, or through the increasing number of people in extremely precarious and marginalised situations. But are these problems exclusively urban? Are not many of them simply “more visible” in cities, where populations are higher? To what extent are the US ghettos or French “banlieues” a specifically urban issue? As Jacques Donzelot stated, “the fact that social problems are concentrated in certain parts of the urban environment seem to prove that there is a problem in the city, not a problem of the city.” [4]

The world will continue to urbanise over the coming decades. By 2030, the global population will in-clude more than 3 billion people living in rural areas. The need to establish a genuine balance be-tween the city and the countryside has often been discussed with talks of halting or at least curbing rural migration. However, concrete action plans have yet to be determined. Doing away with the “urban advantage” (the structures and services only available in cities because of collective facilities and organisations) hardly seems realistic, especially since urban dwellers’ political influence strengthens as cities grow. The imbalance between the town and the countryside – such as in access to water and electricity – varies greatly from one part of the world to another, but rural areas are still overwhelmingly disadvantaged in terms of access to these types of services [5]. For both practical reasons – limiting migration from the countryside to cities – and social justice purposes, it is vital that rural areas not be left on the wayside of development.


[1] United Nations – World Population Prospects. The 2006 Revision, United Nations, New York, 2007. (http://esa.un.org/unpp/)

[2] Jacques Véron – “L’urbanisation du monde”, Paris, La Découverte, 2006

[3] Paul Bairoch – “Cinq millénaires de croissance urbaine” in “Quelles villes, pour quel développe-ment?”, edited by Ignacy Sachs, Paris, PUF, pp. 17-60, 1996

[4] Jacques Donzelot – “La nouvelle question urbaine”, Esprit, November 1999, pp. 87-114

[5] National Research Council – “Cities Transformed: Demographic Change and its Implications in the Developing World”, M.R. Montgomery, R. Stren, B. Cohen, and H. E. Reed (eds), The National Acad-emy Press, 2003

La moitié de la population mondiale vit en ville

Jacques Véron.

Monthly newsletter of the French National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED)

Population et sociétés N° 435, June 2007

La moitié de la population mondiale vit en ville

Jacques Véron (INED)

Population et sociétés magazine, No.435, June 2007

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