Only a couple of centuries ago, human settlements in the form of extensive urban agglomerations were not yet present across the globe. For the better part of human history, we have been living in low-density rural settings.¹
Beginning in the 20th century, the rate of urbanisation increased rapidly, meaning people started migrating from rural to urban areas. Today, the majority of countries have more people living in urban areas than in rural.²
Urbanisation is a rather complex process with many benefits (when developed successfully), including a high density of economic activity, shared infrastructure, utilisation of human capital, shorter trade links and division of labour.³
Urbanisation in Numbers
The graph below visualizes the “flippening” of urban and rural population share in Europe with predictions reaching to the not-so-distant future in 2050:
Today, 3.5 billion people — half the world population — live in cities, and this number is projected to increase to 5 billion by 2030. Geographically, cities cover only about 3% of our planet’s land but account for 60–80% of energy consumption and 75% of carbon emissions.⁴
In general, the urban population of the world has been growing rapidly, from 751 million in 1950 to 4.2 billion in 2018. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs has estimated that by 2050, the world’s population will reach about 9.8 billion, nearly 70% of whom will live in cities.⁵
Looking at the numbers, urbanisation appears to be an inevitable trend that will continue to shape the future of humanity. But what does this mean for the quality of our lives?
How Urbanisation Affects Quality of Life
These projections might seem remote, but accelerating urbanisation is already putting a strain on fresh water supplies, sewage and public health, resulting in a decreased quality of living environment. As such, urbanisation is a substantial contributor to high use of natural resources and waste generation, with ecological effects at the local, regional and global levels.
Research shows that in 2016, 90% of urban dwellers were breathing unsafe air, resulting in 4.2 million premature deaths linked to outdoor air pollution.⁶ More than half the global urban population were exposed to air pollution levels at least 2.5 times higher than the prescribed safety standard.
Environmental changes can also have devastating effects. By 2030, climate change and natural disasters may cost cities worldwide $314 billion each year and push 77 million more urban residents into poverty.⁷
A 1987 report by the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. By choosing to act sustainably, we choose to build cities where all citizens have a decent quality of life and form a part of their city’s productive dynamic, creating shared prosperity and social stability without harming the environment.⁸
According to a press release issued by the UN Population Division in May 2018,
“[m]any countries will face challenges in meeting the needs of their growing urban populations, including for housing, transportation, energy systems and other infrastructure, as well as for employment and basic services such as education and health care.” ⁹
Such findings are not new and had already been addressed in one of the previous versions of the annual World Economic and Social Survey, which stated that the contribution of individual cities to sustainable development can be multiplied if more countries are committed to that goal and when people are able to produce, consume and govern their behaviour in a sustainable manner.¹⁰
Further, the report mentions that an integrated approach to urbanisation will be based on a holistic view of its social development, economic development, environmental management (at the local, national and global levels) and governance. This entails the coordination of objectives and programmes among different city stakeholders (e.g., citizens, government and the business sector), as well as the development of linkages between and within socioeconomic sectors and activities. In economic terms, the integrated path tries to improve synergies and efficiencies among activities such as public transportation, energy consumption, biodiversity and human health.
With the right innovative approach and incentivised behavior by all stakeholders, we can combine the increasingly urbanised environment with sustainable development and smart resource consumption.
We look forward to presenting you with more interesting facts, findings, and future outlooks with a focus on solutions. Stay tuned for our upcoming series of posts to find out more!
: Black, D., & Henderson, V. (1999). A theory of urban growth. Journal of Political Economy, 107(2), 252–284. Available at: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/250060
: Ciccone, A., & Hall, R. E. (1993). Productivity and the density of economic activity (No. w4313). National Bureau of Economic Research. Available at: http://www.nber.org/papers/w4313
: Montgomery, M. R., Stren, R., Cohen, B., & Reed, H. E. (2013). Cities transformed: demographic change and its implications in the developing world. Routledge. Available at: https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781134031665
: United Nations. Sustainable Development Goals. Available at: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/
: Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA). 2018 Revision of the World Urbanization Prospects. Available at: https://population.un.org/wup/Publications/Files/WUP2018-PressRelease.pdf
: World Health Organization (WHO). Ambient air pollution: Health impacts. Available at: https://www.who.int/airpollution/ambient/health-impacts/en/
: The World Bank (2018). 3 Big Ideas to Achieve Sustainable Cities and Communities. Available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/immersive-story/2018/01/31/3-big-ideas-to-achieve-sustainable-cities-and-communities
: United Nations. Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 11: “Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Available at: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Goal-11.pdf
: UN Department of Public Information (2018). Press release: “68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, says UN”. Available at: https://population.un.org/wup/Publications/Files/WUP2018-PressRelease.pdf
: UN DESA. World Economic and Social Survey (WESS) 2013. Chapter III: Towards sustainable cities. Available at: http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/policy/wess/wess_current/wess2013/Chapter3.pdf