In this blog, we explore what the urbanized world of the future is expected to look like, following on from our Business of City essay.
Articles, websites and blogs on cities often begin with the statistic that more than half of the world’s population currently live in urban areas, and cite the UN projection that by 2050 this figure will be nearly 70%.[i] This statistic is a useful scene-setter, but when we really start to consider the urbanized world of the future, a thousand more questions present themselves. What type of cities will most people live in? How big will cities become? Which cities will be booming? Recent reports by the UN (World Urbanisation Prospects: 2014 and the State of the World’s Cities 2012/13) provide some of the most in-depth insights into these questions and reveal interesting, and sometimes unanticipated, differences between the urban world of today and that which we expect to see in future.
The UN recorded that there were 1,551 cities (urban agglomerations with more than 300,000 people) worldwide in 2010. By 2030, that number is expected to have surpassed 2,000. There will be more cities of all sizes – small, medium, large and ‘mega’. Today there are 28 megacities worldwide – in 2030 there will be more than 40, each with a population of at least 10 million. We will also see the rise of the super-size city: Delhi, Shanghai and Tokyo are each expected to have more than 30 million people by 2030. But despite the growth of these headline grabbing megalopolises, the UN project that it is actually cities with populations of less than 500,000 that will continue to be home to most urbanites. Pick any one city dweller from the world’s 2050 population at random, and they will be more likely to call a city of the scale of Leicester, Canberra or Windhoek home, rather than a Lagos, Manila or Mexico City.
The ‘70% urban’ statistic also masks the geographical unevenness of the world’s projected urban growth. The UN expect that 2.5 billion people will be added to the world’s urban population by 2050, but almost all of this growth (nearly 90%) will be concentrated in Asia and Africa.
By 2050 more than half of the word’s urbanites will live in Asia. Meanwhile in many Western nations, urban population growth is almost stagnant, and in some cases will decrease. Japan is expected to lose 12 million urban dwellers by 2050 and the Russian Federation’s urban population is expected to decline by seven million people. The aggregate annual population increase in the six cities of New Delhi, Mumbai, Dhaka, Lagos, Kinshasa and Karachi, is already greater than Europe’s entire population.
Although most city dwellers will live in Asia in 2050, it is Africa which will have experienced the most rapid urbanisation. The continent is projected to experience a 16% rise in its urban population between 2014 and 2050, but it will still remain one of the least urbanised regions of the world, with just over half of Africans living in urban areas.
Even continental level projections mask huge differences in future national urbanisation trends. Just three countries—India, China and Nigeria— are expected to account for 37% of the world’s urban growth to 2050.
The 70% statistic is certainly useful. It helps us to understand that the future of the world is urban. But to understand the future of cities we need to probe deeper, as that future is far from uniform. We will be exploring some of the different futures of cities in our next blog posts.
[i] UN State of the World’s Cities 2012/13 available at, http://mirror.unhabitat.org/pmss/listItemDetails.aspx?publicationID=3387