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)|
The 8 Ways Urban Demographics are Changing
These pivotal trends show how urban demographics are aiding in the transition to a very different economic and investment landscape.
The 8 Ways Urban Demographics are Changing
Cities are what keep the global economic machine humming.
Over 80% of the world’s economic output is derived from activities in cities – and more specifically, it’s estimated that 60% of GDP growth occurs in just the top 600 urban centers.
Given the above, it’s fair to say that the destiny of humankind is directly linked to what happens in major cities. Further, how urbanization plays out over time could end up having a significant ripple effect on the economy, and we should pay close attention to such trends.
Today’s infographic comes to us from Raconteur, and it showcases eight different ways that urban demographics are evolving.
Below we will summarize the changes, along with potential impacts on the economy:
1. A Higher Percentage of Urban Dwellers
Between 1950 and 2018, we went from 30% to 55% of the world’s population living in cities. This has been driven largely by today’s middle and high income economies in places like North America, South America, Europe, and Japan.
The next stage of urbanization will see us move to 68% – more than two-thirds of the world’s population – living in these urban conglomerations. It will be driven by countries in developing markets, creating a potent investing megatrend along the way.
2. The Countries Driving Growth
It’s estimated that three countries will combine for 35% of all urban population growth.
|Rank||Country||Growth in Urban Population (2018-2050)||% of Global Urban Growth|
|World||860 million people||35%|
|#1||India||416 million people||17%|
|#2||China||255 million people||10%|
|#3||Nigeria||189 million people||8%|
In total, there will be 2.5 billion more urban dwellers in 2050 than there are today. Many of these people will experience rising incomes in cities, increasing the global middle class to an unprecedented size.
3. Peaking Rural Populations
On the flipside, it appears the world’s rural population has nearly flatlined, with anticipation that it will peak in absolute terms in the next couple of years. Rural populations have been slowly growing since 1950 until this point.
4. The Rise of Megacities
There will be 43 megacities by the year 2050, which is more than quadruple the amount that existed back in 1950.
The changing geography of the world’s megacities will be one of the major forces that shapes the future of the global economy and accompanying investment trends.
5. New Population Centers
By 2050, more than 70% of the world’s urban population will live in Asia or Africa. Meanwhile, North America and Europe will combine for closer to 15% of that total.
The role of de-urbanization is often downplayed or forgot about when discussing urban demographics, but it is an interesting issue.
Factors such as falling fertility rates, economic contraction, and natural disasters are actually shrinking the size of some cities. In fact, McKinsey predicts that 17% of cities in developed regions will see a drop in population between 2015-2025.
7. Disparities in Urban Growth
The rate for urban population growth is actually trending down across all types of economies – however, these rates come from very different starting points.
High income countries are currently averaging growth of less than 1% per year, and this will continue to decline to below 0.5% per year by 2050. Over the same time period, low income nations will go from 4% to 3% per year.
8. Changes in Average Age
The age distributions in large cities within developed nations will begin to skew older, something we’ve shown previously when looking at the median age of every continent.
The biggest impact here may be felt on dependency ratios in the workforce. With a smaller pipeline of new workforce entrants and a burgeoning population of seniors, this changing ratio is one of the most significant stories impacting urban demographics.
The Hydrogen City: How Hydrogen Can Help to Achieve Zero Emissions
Cities are drivers of growth and prosperity, but also the main contributors of pollution. Can hydrogen fuel the growth of cities with clean power?
In the modern context, cities create somewhat of a paradox.
While cities are the main drivers for improving the lives of people and entire nations, they also tend to be the main contributors of pollution and CO2 emissions.
How can we encourage this growth, while also making city energy use sustainable?
Resolving the Paradox
Today’s infographic comes to us from the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association and it outlines hydrogen technology as a sustainable fuel for keeping urban economic engines running effectively for the future.
The Urban Economic Engine
Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and according to U.N. estimates, that number will grow to 6.7 billion by 2050 – or about 68% of the global population.
Simultaneously, it is projected that developing economies such as India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil, China, Malaysia, Kenya, Egypt, Turkey, and South Africa will drive global growth.
Development leads to urbanization which leads to increased economic activity:
The difficulty in this will be achieving a balance between growth and sustainability.
Currently, cities consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions to produce 80% of global GDP.
Further, it’s projected by the McKinsey Global Institute that the economic output of the 600 largest cities and urban regions globally could grow $30 trillion by the year 2050, comprising for two-thirds of all economic growth.
With this growth will come increased demand for energy and C02 emissions.
The Hydrogen Fueled City
Hydrogen, along with fuel cell technology, may provide a flexible energy solution that could replace the many ways fossils fuels are used today for heat, power, and transportation.
When used, it creates water vapor and oxygen, instead of harmful smog in congested urban areas.
According to the Hydrogen Council, by 2050, hydrogen could each year generate:
- 1,500 TWh of electricity
- 10% of the heat and power required by households
- Power for a fleet of 400 million cars
The infrastructure requirements for hydrogen make it easy to distribute at scale. Meanwhile, for heat and power, low concentrations of hydrogen can be blended into natural gas networks with ease.
Hydrogen can play a role in improving the resilience of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, by being an energy carrier. By taking surplus electricity to generate hydrogen through electrolysis, energy can be stored for later use.
In short, hydrogen has the potential to provide the clean energy needed to keep cities running and growing while working towards zero emissions.
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