More Than Half the World Is Now Urban, UN Report Says

July 11, 2007

July 11, 2007—In a historical first, more people now live in cities than rural areas.

The world’s population is now 6.6 billion, according to a new UN report, and slightly more than half live in urban areas, the majority of them in developing countries.

Between now and 2050, the report says, world population will surge by more than 37 percent – from 6.616 billion to 9.076 billion, with Asia and Africa leading the way.

This report comes as cities and countries mark World Population Day on July 11 and focus on efforts to turn the challenges of population growth into opportunities.

“What happens in the cities of Africa and Asia and other regions will shape our common future,” says Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director of the UN Population Fund. “We must abandon a mindset that resists urbanization and act now to begin a concerted global effort to help cities unleash their potential to spur economic growth and solve social problems.”

Since the growth is inevitable, Obaid says, governments must develop timely policies that turn potential crises into opportunities. “If they wait, it will be too late,” she says. “This wave of urbanization is without precedent. The changes are too large and too fast to allow planners and policymakers simply to react: In Africa and Asia, the number of people living in cities increases by approximately 1 million, on average, each week. Leaders need to be proactive and take far-sighted action to fully exploit the opportunities that urbanization offers.”

William Cobbett of the World Bank, Manager of Cities Alliance, a Bank-supported global coalition of cities aimed at reducing urban poverty, said the UN report identifies “three pressing policy initiatives":

  • Accept the right of poor people to the city, abandoning attempts to discourage migration and prevent urban growth;
  • Adopt a broad and long-term vision of the use of urban space (providing minimally serviced land for housing, planning in advance to promote sustainable land use, and looking beyond the cities' borders to minimize their `ecological footprint'); and
  • Begin a concerted international effort to support strategies for the urban future.

Four of the top 10 “mega-cities” (those of at least 10 million population) are in South Asia – Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi and Dhaka.  Asia is home to three-fifths of the world’s population, but it will be Africa that leads the way in population growth in coming decades, the report says.

Africa is projected to more than double its population by 2050 –from its current 945.3 million to 1.937 billion, with 88 percent of that growth occurring in the Sub-Sahara, home to many of the world’s poorest nations.   While Africa is still predominantly rural, much of coming growth will be in urban areas – from 294 million in 2000 to 742 million in 2030.

In other developing regions, rapid population growth will prevail, the UN report says, with the Arab states growing from 335 million to 598.5 million by 2050, and Latin and Caribbean countries from 576.5 million to 782.9 million.

North America is projected to grow at a much slower rate between now and 2050 – with Canada’s population rising from 32.9 million to 42.8 million and the U.S. from 303.9 million to 395 million.

Europe and some former Soviet Union countries are the only regions expected to decline in population.  Europe is projected to decrease from 727.7 million to 653 million and Russia from 141.9 million to 111.8 million. Ukraine is seen experiencing the biggest decline – from 45.5 million to 26.4 million, a trend driven by a low fertility rate as well as continuing migration, including internal mobility within the FSU

While the world’s 20 mega-cities get a lot of attention, more than half of the urban world lives in cities of less 500,000 population, the report says.  The study says those smaller cities have the undeveloped land and economic potential to deal with population shocks, but are handicapped by inadequate housing and infrastructure, including water and sanitation.

One of the myths of urban growth, the report says, is that migration from rural areas should be controlled.  It says migrants to cities generally make “rational choices” that give them more livability options than they would have in rural villages.  Similar conclusions were reached in the World Bank’s just-published book -- International Migration, Economic Development & Policy.