East Asia’s Changing Urban Landscape: Measuring a Decade of Spatial Growth

  • New World Bank data compiled through satellite imagery and geospatial mapping provides better understanding of East Asia’s accelerating urbanization.
  • The new analysis provides vital data at a time when much of the region’s urban infrastructure is getting built as part of a physical and social transformation in East Asia.
  • This World Bank report offers a blueprint for research to help governments and urban planners ensure the population shifts from rural areas to cities contribute to poverty reduction and boosting shared prosperity.

January 26, 2015

Key Findings

  • Almost 200 million people moved to urban areas in East Asia from 2000-2010, a figure that would be the world’s sixth-largest population for any single country.
  • Most of East Asia’s population is still non-urban, meaning the region will likely face decades of further urbanization.
  • The Pearl River Delta in China – which includes the cities of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Foshan and Dongguan – has overtaken Tokyo as the world’s largest urban area in both size and population, with more inhabitants than countries such as Argentina, Australia or Canada.
  • China’s government-implemented urbanization dominates East Asia with 600 of the region’s 869 urban areas located in the country, which also has more than two-thirds of East Asia’s total urban land.
  • East Asia’s urban areas included eight “megacities” with populations over 10 million, 123 large cities with one to 10 million people, and 738 medium and small cities with 100,000 to one million people.
  • The report establishes a direct link between urbanization and income growth, showing how economic output per capita increased throughout the region as the percentage of people living in urban areas went up.
  • Expanding urban areas often cross administrative or political boundaries such as municipal borders, which fragments government management and revenue sources.
  • The rate at which urban areas expanded physically varied widely between countries. Mostly rural countries had the highest spatial expansion rates, with Lao PDR at 7.3 percent and Cambodia at 4.3 percent, while industrialized Japan had the lowest rate of increase at 0.4 percent despite containing the second-largest amount of urban land behind China.


Click here for more infographics on East Asia's massive urban growth.

Moving Forward

  • Getting urbanization right will be essential in ensuring that it contributes to the World Bank’s twin goals of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity.
  • With most of East Asia’s people living in non-urban areas, rapid urbanization is likely to continue for decades, requiring proactive policies to provide land, housing, and services for the new urban residents
  • The report emphasizes the important role of policy makers at the national and municipal levels in ensuring that urbanization proceeds in an economically efficient, sustainable and inclusive manner so that poor people can benefit.
  • Urban planning needs to match physical expansion with access to jobs, affordable housing and shopping, public transportation, and health and education services to ensure equal opportunity for disadvantaged communities.
  • Environmental impacts and risks are a major concern. The report notes that urban expansion brings increased consumption of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, while a lack of planning can result in poor migrants settling on land prone to natural disasters such as flooding and earthquakes.
  • Fragmentation requires a new model of metropolitan governance, and strategies can include in some cases consolidation of authority. In other cases, strengthening local municipalities may be needed to offset too much central authority as part of a tradeoff. Resolving the fragmented management will involve tackling the logistical and political complexities of forging multi-jurisdictional coalitions among participants that may have conflicting priorities.

To encourage further research on urbanization, the World Bank launched a two-track competition based on this report: