26 February 2008


26 February 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



Urbanization is growing everywhere, but not all of the world’s regions are equally urbanized, said Hania Zlotnik, Director of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Population Division, as she presented the 2007 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects at a Headquarters press briefing this morning.

The 2007 report reflects the most recent estimates of the world’s urban and rural populations, projected, for the first time, to 2050, rather than 2030, as in past Revisions.  The report indicates that most of the population growth expected in urban areas will be concentrated in the cities and towns of the world’s less developed regions, particularly Africa and Asia.

In Africa, 40 per cent of the population currently lives in urban areas, Ms. Zlotnik explained.  That figure was expected to reach 50 per cent by 2050, meaning that the urban population of the continent would likely triple over the next 40 years, from a current 340 million to some 900 million people.  If Asia continued to urbanize at its current rapid pace, the region was expected to become 50 per cent urban by 2025, with the number of urban dwellers expected to jump from 1.6 billion people today to 1.8 billion people by 2050.

Such “sobering” numbers depended on the decline of fertility rates for the world as a whole, and particularly in Africa and Asia, she continued.  Should they remain constant, those regions would likely gain another 1.8 billion urban dwellers.  Thus, fertility must drop in countries with relatively high rates for urban and rural growth to remain manageable.

She said at least half of the world’s urban growth was expected to take place in smaller cities, or those with less than 500,000 inhabitants, which were more difficult to locate because of their small populations, often numbering in the tens of thousands.  It was in these more rural areas of the “urban structure” that new cities would develop.

In most of the developing world, estimates showed that 60 per cent of urban growth was due to the excess of births over deaths, a phenomenon referred to as “natural increase”, which was an important component of that growth, she said.  The exception was China, where only 30 per cent of urban population growth was attributed to natural increase, and 70 per cent to both changes in the number of areas considered urban, and to migration from rural areas to urban centres.

China today was about 40 per cent urban, with more than 500 million people in its cities, and was expected to be 70 per cent urban by 2050, with a city population of over 1 billion.  In comparison, India was expected to urbanize more slowly, and therefore remain the country with the largest rural population in the coming decades.   India was about 30 per cent urban -– its city inhabitants numbering 300 million -– and likely to reach 55 per cent urban by 2050, with more than 900 million people living in its cities.

In the world’s rural areas, she said populations were expected to decline in the coming years, with the peak number of residents likely seen towards the end of the next decade.  The total number of rural inhabitants was expected to fall by 600 million people by 2050, which was relatively good news for those areas, as there would be fewer population demands on land use.

Today, urban areas covered 3 per cent of the world’s area, she explained.  Most countries around the world had very small urban populations; about two thirds of them had urban populations of less than 5 million people.  She expected it would become easier for Governments to develop policies that produced sustainable use of natural resources, as people increasingly became concentrated in relatively smaller areas.

She next turned to “mega cities”, or those with more than 10 million inhabitants, which today accounted for about 9 per cent of the world’s urban population.  While it was estimated that the number of mega cities would increase to 27 by 2025, she pointed out that these centres would likely absorb only 12 per cent of the world’s urban population growth.  Smaller cities were likely to grow more quickly.

Tokyo -– with 36 million people in 2007 and encompassing 87 cities and towns -- was by far the most populous urban centre, and expected to retain that stature into 2025, she said.  That mega city accounted for 42 per cent of Japan’s urban population, making it the only “primary city” -– or one that holds more than 40 per cent of a country’s population -- among the world’s mega cities.

The fastest population growth rates would likely be found in Africa, in cities such as Lagos, Nigeria and Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which both could become mega cities in the coming decades.   Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the Pakistani cities of Lahore and Karachi were also prime candidates.

However, 75 per cent of the world’s urban population was concentrated in only 25 countries, and there were great disparities in nations’ levels of organization.  In Burundi and Papua New Guinea, for example, only 10 per cent of the population lived in cities.  At the other extreme, city-states like Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau boasted 100 per cent urban population.

Such disparities were an important determinant of how well Governments would be able to implement policies, she said, making the related point that rapid urbanization was positively correlated with economic growth.  Governments should understand that urban growth, including through migration, was proof of economic dynamism.

Taking a question on Latin America’s large urban population, Ms. Zlotnik noted that the region was among the first to push industrialization, in the early part of the twentieth century.  That push was more characteristic of Latin America than regions such as Africa, which, at that time, had concentrated on extractive and agricultural production.   China’s Government, for years, prevented people from moving to cities.

Asked about projections, she responded that today there were some 3.4 billion urban dwellers in the world, a number that was expected to reach 6.4 billion by 2050, or the size of the total world population in 2005.  As for housing, she said, while her Office did not advise Governments on such issues, it would be interesting to focus on what Mayor Michael Bloomberg was considering for New York City in the coming decades.  Decisions depended on each locality.  National policies designed to stem urban growth -– notably through limiting migration –- had not worked, as migrants tended to move to areas that held opportunities to make money.

Responding to another question, Ms. Zlotnik said most countries were very small.  Using Sweden’s population of 9 million as an example, she said many countries held the potential to develop mega cities.  The fact that countries were small did not limit their potential to be economically dynamic.  African countries were the least urbanized, however, urbanization there did not always “make sense”, because economic growth often stalled.

To a point that Indian planners were trying to prevent people from migrating to urban centres, Ms. Zlotnik said Indian planners indeed should be trying to foster economic dynamism in rural areas, as 70 per cent of the country was rural.  Rural development implied creating agricultural production that was “more productive”.  To do that, fewer people would be needed in production, which meant that employment would need to be found for the excess labour, likely in non-farm employment.

She outlined two scenarios:  either people would migrate to cities such as Mumbai, or one-time rural areas would transition into urban centres by generating other activities.  That process had been seen in China, and would need to happen in India.  Moreover, if those areas became more dynamic, people would earn more, become more educated, and demand better services, as had been the case in Europe, the United States and Latin America.

* *** *

For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.