Visualizing the Material Impact of Global Urbanization
Cities only cover 2% of the world’s land surface, but activities within their boundaries consume over 75% of the planet’s material resources.
With the expansion of urban areas, the world’s material consumption is expected to grow from 41.1 billion tonnes in 2010 to about 89 billion tonnes by 2050.
In today’s graphic, we use data from the UN International Resource Panel to visualize the material impact of global urbanization.
How Material Consumption is Calculated
Today, more than 4.3 billion people or 55% of the world’s population live in urban settings, and the number is expected to rise to 80% by 2050.
Every year, the world produces an immense amount of materials in order to supply the continuous construction of human-built environments.
To calculate how much we use to build our cities, the UN uses the Domestic Material Consumption (DMC), a measure of all raw materials extracted from the domestic territory per year, plus all physical imports, minus all physical exports.
Generally, the material consumption is highly uneven across the different world regions. In terms of material footprint, the world’s wealthiest countries consume 10 times as much as the poorest and twice the global average.
Based on the total urban DMC, Eastern Asia leads the world in material consumption, with China consuming more than half of the world’s aluminum and concrete.
|Major Global Regions||2010 Material Consumption (billion tonnes)||2050P Material Consumption (billion tonnes)||% total urban DMC change (2010-2050P)|
|Central and Western Asia||1.9||4.7||151%|
|South and Central America||6.5||11.1||71%|
According to the UN, the bulk of urban growth will happen in the cities of the Global South, particularly in China, India, and Nigeria.
Consumption in Asia is set to increase as the continent hosts the majority of the world’s megacities—cities housing more than 10 million people.
However, the biggest jump in the next decades will happen in Africa. The continent is expected to double in population by 2050, with material consumption jumping from 2 billion tonnes to 17.7 billion tonnes per year.
A Resource-Efficient Future
Global urban DMC is already at a rate of 8–17 tonnes per capita per year.
With the world population expected to swell by almost two and a half billion people by 2050, new and existing cities must accommodate many of them.
This could exacerbate existing problems like pollution and carbon emissions, but it could equally be an opportunity to develop the low-carbon and resource-efficient cities of the future.
Ranked: The World’s Largest Cities By Population
This graphic uses data taken from latest official censuses and projections to rank the largest cities by population.
Ranked: The World’s Largest Cities By Population
The world has experienced rapid urbanization over the last century.
Today, more than 4.3 billion people live in urban settings, or 55% of the world’s population.
But what is the world’s largest city? Answers to that question will vary greatly depending on which lines are being used to demarcate city boundaries and measure their populations.
The graphic above uses data taken from the latest official censuses and projections to rank the top cities based on the three most common metrics.
The Largest Cities by City Proper
Our first metric is based on the city proper, meaning the administrative boundaries.
According to the United Nations, a city proper is “the single political jurisdiction which contains the historical city center.”
The Chinese city of Chongqing leads the ranks by this metric and has an administrative boundary the size of Austria, with an urban population of 32.1 million.
The city’s monorail system holds records for being the world’s longest and busiest, boasting 70 stations. Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport, is among the world’s top 50 busiest airports. Additionally, the city ranks among the globe’s top 50 hubs for scientific research.
Other Chinese cities dominate the ranking by this metric:
The first non-Chinese city, Delhi, has been experiencing one of the fastest urban expansions in the world.
The United Nations projects India will add over 400 million urban dwellers by 2050, compared to 250 million people in China and 190 million in Nigeria.
The Largest Cities by Urban Area
This measurement largely ignores territorial boundaries and considers a city a contiguous, connected built-up area.
Demographia describes urban areas as functioning as an integrated economic unit, linked by commuting flows, social, and economic interactions.
By this metric, Tokyo leads the ranking:
|#8||🇧🇷 Sao Paulo||23.1m|
|#10||🇲🇽 Mexico City||21.8m|
The city proper houses about 10% of Japan’s population. If the greater Tokyo metro area is considered, including cities like Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba, then Tokyo’s total population surpasses 37 million—about 30% of the country total.
Consequently, even with one of the world’s largest railway systems, trains in Tokyo are incredibly crowded, with a boarding rate of 200% during peak time in the most overcrowded areas. The city is also famous for its Shibuya Crossing, the busiest intersection on the planet.
The Largest Cities by Metropolitan Area
Tokyo also leads by our final metric, metropolitan area.
This measurement is similar to urban area, but is generally defined by official organizations, either for statistical purposes or governance.
In the United States, this takes the form of metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), such as Chicago-Naperville-Elgin or Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler.
|#6||🇲🇽 Mexico City||21.8m|
|#7||🇧🇷 Sao Paulo||21.7m|
|#9||🇺🇸 New York||20.1m|
As the global urban population continues to rise, new cities, especially in Africa and Asia, are expected to vie for the “largest” tag soon.
The UN projects that by 2050, 68% of the world will live in urban areas.
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