Globally, more people live in urban areas than in rural areas, with 54 per cent of the world’s population residing in urban areas in 2014. In 1950, 30 per cent of the world’s population was urban, and by 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population is projected to be urban.
There is significant diversity in the urbanization levels reached by different regions. The most urbanized regions include Northern America (82 per cent living in urban areas in 2014), Latin America and the Caribbean (80 per cent), and Europe (73 percent).
In contrast, Africa and Asia remain mostly rural, with 40 and 48 per cent of their respective populations living in urban
areas. All regions are expected to urbanize further over the coming decades. Africa and Asia are urbanizing faster than the other regions and are projected to become 56 and 64 per cent urban, respectively, by 2050.
Close to half of the world’s urban dwellers reside in relatively small settlements of less than 500,000 inhabitants, while only around one in eight live in the 28 mega-cities with more than 10 million inhabitants.
Several decades ago most of the world’s largest urban agglomerations were found in the more developed regions, but today’s large cities are concentrated in the global South. The fastest growing urban agglomerations are medium-sized cities and cities with less than 1 million inhabitants located in Asia and Africa. As the world continues to urbanize, sustainable development challenges will be increasingly concentrated in cities, particularly in the lower-middle- income countries where the pace of urbanization is fastest. Integrated policies to improve the lives of both urban and rural dwellers are needed.
While the high income countries have been highly urbanized for several decades, upper-middle-income countries have experienced the fastest pace of urbanization since 1950. In the lower-middle-income countries the pace of urbanization has been slower. Nevertheless, this group of countries is expected to experience faster urbanization than others in the coming decades.
In 2014, the proportion of the population living in urban areas was 39 per cent in lower-middle-income countries and 30 percent in low-income countries. By 2050, these countries are expected to reach, on average, 57 per cent and 48 per cent urban, respectively.
Whether driven by rising economic prosperity or by other demographic shifts also underway, trends in urbanization present great opportunities for development, but at the same time give rise to formidable challenges to social equity, environmental sustainability and governance. Indeed, where people live is a powerful determinant of how they live with respect to employment, consumption patterns, access to basic services such as housing, water, sanitation, education and health care, as well as their environmental footprint and vulnerability to natural hazards.
Environmental sustainability is additionally challenged by the consumption patterns that prevail in urban settings. Owing in part to their higher incomes, urban dwellers tend to consume more per capita than rural dwellers. Today’s cities consume more than two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions (UN-Habitat, 2011; IEA, 2008).
Low-density urban areas tend to consume more than high-density areas. Evidence from Toronto indicates that energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are twice as high on a per capital basis in low-density suburban development compared to development in the high-density urban core (Norman et al., 2006; Hoornweg et al., 2011).
To respond to the challenges and leverage the opportunities presented by continuing urbanization, Governments should implement forward-looking policies that prepare for a growing number of urban dwellers with an eye towards sustainability. Sustainable urbanization requires generating better income and employment opportunities in both urban and rural areas; expanding the necessary infrastructure for water and sanitation, energy, transportation, information and communications; ensuring equal access to services, like education and health care; developing sufficient quality housing and reducing the number of people living in slums; and preserving the natural assets within the city and surrounding areas.