Urbanizing the Developing World

Grant Potter | Dec 11, 2012

Census data in 2010 indicate that cities are home to 3.5 billion people, which is 50.5 percent of the world.1 Only two centuries ago humans were predominately rural dwellers, with just 3 percent of us living in cities.2 According to U.N. estimates, the balance tipped sometime in 2008, when more people lived in urban areas than in rural communities—a first in the history of humanity.3

This trend of urban population growth outpacing rural growth is expected to intensify in the future. The U.N. Population Division projects that between 2011 and 2050 the world’s population will increase by 2.3 billion people, bringing the total population to 9.3 billion (the mid-level estimate).4 During those years, ever-increasing urban populations are projected to grow by 2.6 billion people, bringing the total number of urbanites to 6.3 billion.5 Thus in the next 40 years, new and existing cities will have to cope with all the additional 2.3 billion people on Earth as a result of natural increase plus an extra 300 million people who move there from rural communities.6

This expected staggering growth in urban populations is likely primarily to affect developing countries. The industrial world has little room to urbanize further: it was 78 percent urban in 2011, and by 2050 it is expected to be approximately 86 percent urban.7 (Many cities in industrial countries could continue to grow in overall population as national populations continue to rise, however, even if their proportion of the national population stays stable.) In comparison, the developing world was only 47 percent urban in 2011, and by 2050 the figure could reach 64 percent.8 (See Figure 1.)

Urban Populations Figure 1


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