1. Current Urbanization processes: Trends and overview

Learning objectives

  • Understand conceptually what urbanisation denotes
  • Identify the major drivers of urbanisation processes globally
  • Assess key demographic trends as they relate to urbanisation globally

Key Concepts

Urbanization, spatial transformation

1. An urbanizing world

A radical demographic shift has occurred worldwide that has been characterised by the movement of people from urban to rural areas at an increasing rate. While in the mid seventies less than 40 per cent of the world’s population lived in urban areas, by 2025, 60 per cent of this population would do so (World Bank 2000). The world’s urban population today is around 3 billion people, which is about the same size as the world’s total population in 1960 (Satterthwaite 2006). Around 50 per cent of the world’s population now lives in urban centres, compared to less than 15 per cent at the beginning of the century.

Two striking features of this process of urbanisation may be noted. First, there is a large concentration of urban population in developing countries. It is believed that changes in the urban population will particularly affect low income countries in the future (World Bank 2000). In 1950, 41 of the world’s 100 largest cities were in developing countries. By 1995 the number had risen to 64 and the proportion has risen ever since. The urban population of Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean is now nearly three times the size of the urban population of the rest of the world (World Bank 2009). UN projections suggest that urban populations are growing so much faster than rural populations, that 85 per cent of the growth in the world’s population between 2000 and 2010 would have been in urban areas and nearly all this growth would be in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Cities in developing countries are expected to double in three decades, adding another 2 billion people to their population (World Bank 2009). Second, though concerns regarding this rapid urbanisation tend to focus on large cities, half the world’s urban population and a quarter of its total population live in urban centers with less than half a million inhabitants (Satterthwaite 2006). The increasing number of mega-cities with 10 million or more inhabitants may seem to be a cause of worry or concern but there are relatively few of them world-wide; in 2000, there were 18 of them. They contained less than 5 per cent of the world’s population and were heavily concentrated in the world’s largest economies. On the other hand, if we take small urban centers to mean all settlements defined by governments as urban with a population of less than half a million inhabitants, then by 2000, about 1.5 billion people lived in small urban centers, including more than a billion in low and middle-income countries. In the year 2000, a quarter of the world’s population lived in urban centers with less than half a million inhabitants. Once again, nearly half of this small urban centers’ population lived in Asia; and nearly a quarter in Europe.

Urbanisation is considered to be an irreversible force driven at least in part by an economic shift in many countries from agriculture to industry, trade and services (World Bank 2000). Spatial transformations – the growth of cities and leading areas – are linked closely to changes in the economy, especially the sectoral transformations that accompany growth and the opening of an economy to foreign trade and investment (World Bank  2009). Further, urbanisation processes have been understood to be propelled by the forces of globalisation, a subject which is widely contested (for a review, see Narain and Goodrich, et al., 2014). With the onset of urbanisation processes globally, social science and urban theorists started devoting much of their intellectual energies to understanding the growth of cities. Various theories of cities came to be propounded by urban theorists: cities emerge and grow when increasing returns exceed transportation costs; spatial concentration itself creates a favorable economic environment by providing the technological spillovers and socio-economic factors such as religious causes or defensive needs.

In The Economy of Cities (1969), Jane Jacobs developed a theory in which early cities were understood to support their surrounding areas, disputing the notion that cities build upon a rural economic base. 19th and early 20th century social theorists equated increasing urbanisation and progress (Bienen 1984). Development economists looking at Asia, Africa and Latin America after World War II considered urbanisation a positive development. Rising standards of living were associated with growth of cities in Western Europe and the U.S. Cities had higher productivity and social services could reach a larger number of people; new technologies were generated and disseminated. Political sociologists who turned their attention to non-western areas in the 1950s and 1960s also tended to associate urbanisation with progress.

2. Urbanization in India

This video will introduce the definition of urbanization introduce you to conceptual debates around it (major methods used in India/ south Asia) while also describing some of the drivers of urbanization in India.


Key Readings

Key Readings
These readings will introduce you to the general concepts related to urbanization and the current trends. Furthermore, they will help to contextualize urbanization in  South Asia.

Further Readings

Further Readings

  • Beall, J., et al, (2010), Urbanization and Development: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, Data and Definitions, Oxford University Press. (Refer to part II of the book)
  • Seto, K., Rodríguez, R.,Fragkias, M., (2010), The New Geography of Contemporary Urbanization and the Environment, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol. 35: 167-194

Other related International Waters Lessons and Submodules


Next submodule: Growth of periurban spaces

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