Mapping the World’s Urban Population from 1500 – 2050
In 133 BC, Rome was the first city to hit a population of one million people.
While that number might seem small now, the truth is that modern megacities are just a blip in the long timeline of human history.
Today’s interactive data visualization from Our World in Data maps out how many people have lived in urban areas over time, as well as the powerful economic pull of cities after the Industrial Revolution.
Shifting Human Geography
The stages of urbanization can be roughly broken into two parts.
1500s – 1900s
Most people lived an agrarian life until the first Industrial Revolution. The urban population quadrupled over this lengthy timeframe, from 4.1% to 16.4%.
Urbanization accompanied the moves away from agricultural employment, but it was still a slow burn until the 20th century.
1900s – Present
The expansion of the global economy and population saw urbanization skyrocket along with it. The urban public leaped from 16% to 55% today, a trend which comes from both births within urban areas and rising human migration out of rural areas.
This turning point between the centuries becomes pretty clear when we look at the population shifts relative to each other:
What Defines An Urban Area?
While this widely cited data comes from the United Nations, many researchers suggest that the actual numbers are much more dramatic.
Why is there a discrepancy? It turns out that the definition of an urban population varies widely around the world. The UN figures are based on nationally-defined urban shares – but the thresholds and metrics used to calculate these are not uniform. Here are just a few examples:
|Argentina||Localities with 2,000 inhabitants or more.|
|Australia||Significant Urban Centres representing concentrations of urban development with 10,000 inhabitants or more.|
|Belgium||Communes with 5,000 inhabitants or more.|
|Canada||Areas with 1,000 inhabitants or more and at least 400 inhabitants per square kilometre.|
|Iceland||Localities with 200 inhabitants or more.|
|Japan||Cities defined as shi (A municipality that is 50,000 inhabitants or more); 60 per cent or more of the population engaged in urban type of business.|
|Netherlands||In the present publication, municipalities with 20,000 inhabitants or more.|
|United States of America||Territory that meets minimum population density requirements and with 2,500 inhabitants or more.|
Cities That Never Sleep
In 1950, two-thirds of the global population lived in rural areas, but this distribution will be reversed in a matter of decades. Almost 70% of the world will live in urban areas by 2050.
In total, 2.5 billion people could be added to global urban areas by 2050, and a whopping 90% of this increase will take place in Asia and Africa.
By the time the dust has settled, large portions of the urban population will be concentrated in megacities, which are areas defined as having 10 million or more inhabitants. These are projected to be the top 10 megacities by the middle of the 21st century:
|City||Country||2010 Population (millions)||2050 Population (millions)|
Ranked: The Megaregions Driving the Global Economy
Today’s stunning map ranks the world’s most powerful megaregions — together, they contribute a whopping $28 trillion to the global economy.
Ranked: The Megaregions Driving the Global Economy
If you’ve ever flown cross-country in a window seat, chances are, the bright lights at night have caught your eye. From above, the world tells its own story—as concentrated pockets of bright light keep the world’s economy thriving.
Today’s visualization relies on data compiled by CityLab researchers to identify the world’s largest megaregions. The team defines megaregions as:
- Areas of continuous light, based on the latest night satellite imagery
- Capturing metro areas or networks of metro areas, with a combined population of 5 million or higher
- Generating economic output (GDP) of over $300 billion, on a PPP basis
It’s worth pointing out that each megaregion may not be connected by specific trade relationships. Rather, satellite data highlights the proximity between these rough but useful regional estimates contributing to the global economy—and supercities are at the heart of it.
From Megalopolis to Megaregion
Throughout history, academics have described vast, interlinked urban regions as a ‘megalopolis’, or ‘megapolis’. Economic geographer Jean Gottman popularized the Greek term, referring to the booming and unprecedented urbanization in Bos-Wash—the northeast stretch from Boston and New York down to Washington, D.C.:
This region has indeed a “personality” of its own […] Every city in this region spreads out far and wide around its original nucleus.
By looking at adjacent metropolitan areas rather than country-level data, it can help provide an entirely new perspective on the global distribution of economic activity.
Where in the world are the most powerful urban economic clusters today?
The Largest Megaregions Today
The world’s economy is a sum of its parts. Each megaregion contributes significantly to the global growth engine, but arguably, certain areas pull more weight than others.
|Megaregion||Cities||Region||Population||Economic Output (EO)||EO per Capita|
|1. Bos-Wash||New York, Washington, D.C., Boston||North America||47.6M||$3,650B||$76,681|
|2. Par-Am-Mun||Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Munich||Europe||43.5M||$2,505B||$57,586|
|3. Chi-Pitts||Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh||North America||32.9M||$2,130B||$64,742|
|4. Greater Tokyo||Tokyo||Asia||39.1M||$1,800B||$46,036|
|5. SoCal||Los Angeles, San Diego||North America||22M||$1,424B||$64,727|
|6. Seoul-San||Seoul, Busan||Asia||35.5M||$1,325B||$37,324|
|7. Texas Triangle||Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin||North America||18.4M||$1,227B||$66,685|
|8. Beijing||Beijing, Tianjin||Asia||37.4M||$1,226B||$32,781|
|9. Lon-Leed-Chester||London, Leeds, Manchester||Europe||22.6M||$1,177B||$52,080|
|10. Hong-Shen||Hong Kong, Shenzhen||Asia||19.5M||$1,043B||$53,487|
|11. NorCal||San Francisco, San Jose||North America||10.8M||$925B||$85,648|
|12. Shanghai||Shanghai, Hangzhou||Asia||24.2M||$892B||$36,860|
|14. São Paolo||São Paolo||South America||33.5M||$780B||$23,284|
|15. Char-Lanta||Charlotte, Atlanta||North America||10.5M||$656B||$62,476|
|16. Cascadia||Seattle, Portland||North America||8.8M||$627B||$71,250|
|17. Ista-Burs||Istanbul, Bursa||MENA||14.8M||$626B||$42,297|
|18. Vienna-Budapest||Vienna, Budapest||Europe||12.8M||$555B||$43,359|
|19. Mexico City||Mexico City||North America||24.5M||$524B||$21,388|
|20. Rome-Mil-Tur||Rome, Milan, Turin||Europe||13.8M||$513B||$37,174|
|21. Singa-Lumpur||Singapore, Kuala Lumpur||Asia||12.7M||$493B||$38,819|
|22. Cairo-Aviv||Cairo, Tel Aviv||MENA||19.8M||$472B||$23,838|
|23. So-Flo||Miami, Tampa||North America||9.1M||$470B||$51,648|
|24. Abu-Dubai||Abu Dhabi, Dubai||MENA||5M||$431B||$86,200|
|25. Osaka-Nagoya (tied)||Osaka, Nagoya||Asia||9.1M||$424B||$46,593|
|25. Tor-Buff-Chester (tied)||Toronto, Buffalo, Rochester||North America||8.5M||$424B||$49,882|
|27. Delhi-Lahore||New Delhi, Lahore||Asia||27.9M||$417B||$14,946|
|28. Barcelona-Lyon||Barcelona, Lyon||Europe||7M||$323B||$46,143|
|29. Shandong||Jinan, Zibo, Dongying||Asia||14.2M||$249B||$17,535|
Altogether, these powerhouses bring in over $28 trillion in economic output.
Unsurprisingly, Bos-Wash reigns supreme even today, with $3.6 trillion in economic output, over 13% of the total. The corridor hosts some of the highest-paying sectors: information technology, finance, and professional services.
The largest city in Brazil, São Paulo, is the only city in the Southern Hemisphere to make the list. The city was once heavily reliant on manufacturing and trade, but the $780 billion city economy is now embracing its role as a nascent financial hub.
On the other side of the world, the cluster of Asian megaregions combines for $8.7 trillion in total economic output. Of these, Greater Tokyo in Japan is the largest, while Shandong might be a name that fewer people are familiar with. Sandwiched between Beijing and Shanghai, the coastal province houses multiple high-tech industrial and export processing zones.
The data is even more interesting when broken down into economic output per capita—Abu-Dubai churns out an impressive $86,200 per person. Meanwhile, Delhi-Lahore is lowest on the per-capita list, at $14,946 per person across nearly 28 million people.
Where To Next?
This trend shows no sign of slowing down, as megacities are on the rise in the coming decade. Eventually, more Indian and African megaregions will make its way onto this list, led by cities like Lagos and Chennai.
Stay tuned to Visual Capitalist for a North America-specific outlook coming soon, and a deep dive into the biggest factors contributing to the growth of these megaregions.
Ranked: The Autonomous Vehicle Readiness of 20 Countries
This interactive visual shows the countries best prepared for the shift to autonomous vehicles, as well as the associated societal and economic impacts.
For the past decade, manufacturers and governments all over the world have been preparing for the adoption of self-driving cars—with the promise of transformative economic development.
As autonomous vehicles become more of a looming certainty, what will be the wider impacts of this monumental transition?
Which Countries are Ready?
Today’s interactive visual from Aquinov Mathappan ranks countries on their preparedness to adopt self-driving cars, while also exploring the range of challenges they will face in achieving complete automation.
The Five Levels of Automation
The graphic above uses the Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index, which details the five levels of automation. Level 0 vehicles place the responsibility for all menial tasks with the driver, including steering, braking, and acceleration. In contrast, level 5 vehicles demand nothing of the driver and can operate entirely without their presence.
Today, most cars sit between levels 1 and 3, typically with few or limited automated functions. There are some exceptions to the rule, such as certain Tesla models and Google’s Waymo. Both feature a full range of self-driving capabilities—enabling the car to steer, accelerate and brake on behalf of the driver.
The Journey to Personal Driving Freedom
There are three main challenges that come with achieving a fully-automated level 5 status:
- Data Storage
Effectively storing data and translating it into actionable insights is difficult when 4TB of raw data is generated every day—the equivalent of the data generated by 3,000 internet users in 24 hours.
- Data Transportation
Autonomous vehicles need to communicate with each other and transport data with the use of consistently high-speed internet, highlighting the need for large-scale adoption of 5G.
- Verifying Deep Neural Networks
The safety of these vehicles will be dictated by their ability to distinguish between a vehicle and a person, but they currently rely on algorithms which are not yet fully understood.
Which Countries are Leading the Charge?
The 20 countries were selected for the report based on economic size, and their automation progress was ranked using four key metrics: technology and innovation, infrastructure, policy and legislation, and consumer acceptance.
The United States leads the way on technology and innovation, with 163 company headquarters, and more than 50% of cities currently preparing their streets for self-driving vehicles. The Netherlands and Singapore rank in the top three for infrastructure, legislation, and consumer acceptance. Singapore is currently testing a fleet of autonomous buses created by Volvo, which will join the existing public transit fleet in 2022.
India, Mexico, and Russia lag behind on all fronts—despite enthusiasm for self-driving cars, these countries require legislative changes and improvements in the existing quality of roads. Mexico also lacks industrial activity and clear regulations around autonomous vehicles, but close proximity to the U.S. has already garnered interest from companies like Intel for manufacturing autonomous vehicles south of the border.
How Autonomous Vehicles Impact the Economy
Once successfully adopted, autonomous vehicles will save the U.S. economy $1.3 trillion per year, which will come from a variety of sources including:
- $563 billion: Reduction in accidents
- $422 billion: Productivity gains
- $158 billion: Decline in fuel costs
- $138 billion: Fuel savings from congestion avoidance
- $11 billion: Improved traffic flow and reduction of energy use
Transportation will be safer, potentially reducing the number of accidents over time. Insurance companies are already rolling out usage-based insurance policies (UBIs), which charge customers based on how many miles they drive and how safe their driving habits are.
Long distance traveling in autonomous vehicles provides a painless alternative to train and air travel. The vehicles are designed for comfort, making it possible to sleep overnight easily—which could also impact the hotel industry significantly.
- Real Estate
An increase in effortless travel could lead to increased urban sprawl, as people prioritize the convenience of proximity to city centers less and less.
With the adoption of autonomous vehicles projected to reduce private car ownership in the U.S. to 43% by 2030, it’s disrupting many other industries in the process.
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