UN Cyberschoolbus - HomeUN Cyberschoolbus - Home
Cities of Today, Cities of Tomorrow

Unit 4: What Makes Cities Grow?
Objectives Summary Text Activities


“The shape of a city changes faster, alas, than the desires of the human heart”
—Charles Baudelaire, French poet

Two hundred years ago (around 1800 A.D.) there was only one city in the world —London — with a population of 1 million. At the beginning of this century, almost a hundred years ago, there were three cities with a population of 1 million or more. Today, there are 281 cities with a population of over 1 million! Why have cities been growing so big so fast?

As we saw in Unit 1, cities have existed for thousands of years but grew faster after the industrial revolution. Since the 1950s, rapid urban growth has become a global phenomenon. Given that cities are in different parts of the world, each with its own geography and history, it is difficult to draw universal conclusions about the reasons for city growth.

We can make a few general observations. For the most part, cities have grown as a result of three things: "economic growth", "natural increase" and "rural-urban migration". There are exceptions to this general rule. Some cities, for example, are "created" by governments that want to take the burden off the large cities. Sometimes, such cities are made the capitals of the country, as in the case of Yamoussoukrou which has replaced Abidjan as the capital city of Côte d'Ivoire. Assigning a new capital usually means transferring government offices, foreign embassies and businesses to a smaller city in order to attract people away from over-crowded and over-burdened sites. Another "created capital" city is Brasilia, in Brazil.

In simple terms, "natural increase" is the number of people being born each year minus the number of deaths. Population grows when there is a positive rate of natural increase. This is the main contributor to the growth of cities in developing countries.

"Migration" also affects the growth of cities. "Rural-urban migration" takes place when people from the country-side move, or migrate, to the city. This was the main contributor to urban growth after industrialization and all the way up to the 1970s. Today, international migration, or the movement of people from one country to another, adds a large number of people to the world's major cities.

People move to the city for various reasons, but the most significant reason is economic—when a city's economy is prospering it attracts people. The promise of jobs and comfort, glamour and glitter, "pulls" people to cities. There are also "push" factors: droughts or exploitation of farmers can cause extreme rural poverty and that "pushes" people out of the country-side.

The city's promises are not always fulfilled. Cities may be known for their bright lights, but not everyone who moves to the city, or is born there, benefits from it. The city can't always keep up with the number of people who move there, so urban poverty and homelessness have have become global phenomena. The question that remains to be answered is how we can transform the disadvantages of cities into advantages for its inhabitants.

Objectives Summary Text Activities
TEACHING UNITS   MENU   1 2 3 4 5 6

UN Cyberschoolbus - Home comments and suggestions: cyberschoolbus@un.org Copyright © 1996- United Nations