Growing cities

Posted: 26 January 2008

The world is steadily becoming more urban, as people move to cities and towns in search of employment, educational opportunities and higher standards of living. Some are driven away from land that, for whatever reason, can no longer support them. The share of the global population living in urban areas has increased from one-third in 1960 to 50 per cent (3.3 billion people) in 2008.

Urban & rural population
Urban & rural population
Urban & rural population of the world, 1950-2030. Source: UN Population Division. Click on image for full-size graph

  • By 2030, three out of every five people on earth are likely to reside in urban centres, and nearly half of the world's population will live in the cities of developing countries.

  • With an annual urban growth rate of 1.8 per cent, nearly double that projected for the total population (1 per cent), the world's urban population is currently growing at four times the rate of the rural population.

  • Population growth is projected to be particularly rapid in the urban areas of the less developed regions, averaging 2.2 per cent annually during 2005-2030. As a consequence, the urban population in the less developed regions will increase from 2.3 billion to 3.9 billion by 2030.

  • By 2030, it is expected that nearly 5 billion (60 per cent) of the world's 8.1 billion population will live in cities. An estimated 90 per cent of the increase will occur in developing countries.

  • Even the best-run cities are having problems coping with rapidly expanding human numbers and escalating needs. Cities in developing countries are growing on average by over 3 per cent a year, and the growth is fastest in the poorest regions.

  • In East, West and Central Africa, cities are growing by 5 per cent a year, enough to double their populations every 14 years. In the overwhelming majority of these cities, population growth has far outpaced municipal services and up to 40 per cent of all urban dwellers live in squatter settlements and slums.
Urban and rural population
Urban and rural population
Urban and rural population of more developed regions and less developed regions, 1950-2030. Source: World Urbanization Prospects: the 2005 Revision. Click on image to see full-size graph.
In 2005, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Northern America and Oceania were highly urbanized with more than 70 per cent of their total population living in cities. Africa and Asia were the least urbanized major areas in the world. By 2030, however, 50 per cent or more of the population of Africa and Asia is projected to be living in a city.
  • Urbanisation usually accompanies social and economic development, but rapid urban growth on today's scale strains the capacity of local and national governments to provide basic services such as water, electricity and sewerage.

  • Squatter settlements and overcrowded slums are home to tens of millions, like the favelas that cling to the hillsides of Rio de Janeiro and the tombs used as homes by tens of thousands in Cairo's "City of the Dead". In some developing countries, notably in Africa, this growth reflects rural crisis rather than urban-based development.

  • At least 600 million urban dwellers live in squatter settlements in housing of such poor quality and with such inadequate provision of water, sanitation, drainage and garbage removal that their lives and health are under constant threat.
Garbage, Mathare, Nairobi. Credit: UNEP
Garbage, Mathare, Nairobi. Credit: UNEP
Garbage, Mathare, Nairobi. Credit: UNEP
  • There is a continuing trend towards ever-larger urban agglomerations. By 2005, 302 cities in developing countries had populations over 1 million, compared with 227 ten years earlier.

  • While in 1960, only New York and Tokyo had more than 10 million people, by 2005, there were 20 so-called "megacities" with at least 10 million inhabitants. Their number is expected to reach 22 by 2015, 17 in less developed regions and 11 of those in Asia. But by then only 5.2 per cent of the world's population will live in these cities, and only 8.7 per cent (623 million) in cities with over 5 million inhabitants.

  • However, some previous projections of exploding growth have not been borne out - e.g. Mexico City, which is now not expected to grow to more than 21.6 million by 2015 - only 3 million more than in 2000. In Mexico family planning has been very successful and the fertility rate is now only a little above replacement.

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