Big changes in distribution of world's urban population

Africa now has a larger urban population than North America and has 25 of the world's fastest growing large cities. Half of the world's urban population now lives in Asia, which also has half of the world's largest cities and fastest growing large cities.

News, 21 October 2007

These are among the findings published by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in the 2007 edition of its analysis of urban change, which it has issued periodically since 1986.

The research highlights the gap between rapid urban growth and government capacity to plan and manage it in most of Africa, Asia and Latin America, particularly in light of climate change.

Europe's share of the world's 100 largest cities has fallen from more than half to under ten percent in the past century. It now has none of the world's 100 fastest growing cities and most of its declining ones.

The paper draws on the latest urban data from the UN's Population Division and IIED's review of 70 recent censuses. It analyses which cities are growing most rapidly and which are shrinking in population terms, and discusses the social, economic and political causes and their implications for sustainable development.

"The world's urban map is rapidly being redrawn," says the paper's author David Satterthwaite, a senior fellow in IIED’s human settlements group. "Most of Europe's great centres of industry are no longer among the world's largest cities and most of the future growth in urban areas globally will be in low and middle income countries."

"How these centres grow will have huge implications for efforts to reduce poverty," he adds. "This will also influence whether disasters linked to climate change can be avoided and greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced."

The analysis dispels some myths and reveals some surprising findings:

  • Many of the world's largest cities now have more people moving out than in
  • The world's urban population is not concentrated in large and 'mega-cities' (far more people live in smaller urban centres of under a million inhabitants), and
  • The speed of urban growth has been exaggerated in low and middle income countries, particularly African ones.

"Urbanisation is often attributed to an urban bias in government and aid agency policies, but there is little evidence to support these claims," says Satterthwaite. "In fact, these policies leave much to be desired as they tend to neglect the urban poor, leading to high levels of urban poverty, overcrowding in slums and serious health problems."

"Governments should see urbanisation as an important part of a stronger economy and their expanding urban population as an asset, not as a problem," he says.

Worldwide, a billion people live in low-quality tenements or squatter settlements with inadequate water and sanitation.

Economic growth is the dominant driver of urbanisation in most nations. The largest cities and much of the world’s urban population are concentrated in the world’s largest economies, and there is a strong association between a nation’s wealth and level of urbanisation.

Satterthwaite warns however against broad generalisations: "Despite the underlying economic foundation to urban growth, the form it takes is shaped by political and social factors at a local or national level."

"Most of the ten-fold increase in the world's urban population over the past century was in low and middle income countries," he says. "Most of these nations lack the institutional, legal and financial systems needed to manage rapid urban change over the next 15 years in a way that addresses urban poverty and the risks associated with climate change."

"Many governments still see urban growth as something they should try and stop. But urban growth does not have to mean urban problems," says Satterthwaite.

"Many of the world's fastest growing cities are among the best managed. Cities create opportunities for improving quality of life without increasing resource use and environmental problems. How they are governed and planned will becoming increasingly important in the 21st century."