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The planet is urbanized

Eric Berg
Erik Berg
Erik Berg worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs / NORAD from 1978 to 2013. He now heads Habitat Norway.
CITY AND COUNTRY / The number of countries with more than 90 percent of the population in urban areas has doubled from 16 to 32 since 1975. Today, urbanization is no longer limited to cities.


Population is the denominator in any sustainability equation. It matters for development how many of us there are, age and gender distribution, where we live and what we do. Such data determines how the authorities will meet the climate crisis and deliver health services in future pandemic situations.

In the poorer, populous countries in the south, there are major weaknesses in reporting to the UN, including population data. The choice of indicators varies from country to country. In Norwegian aid, facts have recently become power. The challenge is that it is often power that determines the facts. The UN's representation that 55 per cent of the world's population today lives in cities, a proportion that will reach 70 per cent in 2050, is probably a serious underestimation of the facts.

At least if you put your trust in the last one Atlas of the Human Planet (EU/JRC, 2020) which has concluded that over three quarters of the world's population already live in urban areas. It appears that experts have used artificial intelligence to analyze several terabytes of high-resolution satellite images. From 1975 to 2015, the proportion of people in urban areas has consequently increased from 69 per cent to 76 per cent. In the same period, the number of countries and territories with less than 50 percent of the total population in cities has also fallen from 48 to 36, while the number of countries with more than 90 percent of the population in urban areas has doubled from 16 to 32. The planet is thus becoming more and more urbanized as a result of faster population growth in cities and towns compared to the countryside.

5000 inhabitants

It is the countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America that experience the strongest urbanisation. In Eastern Europe, the population in the cities is shrinking faster than in the countryside. According to the "atlas", the most urbanized EU country is Malta, where 95 percent of the population lives in cities. In second and third place we find the UK before Brexit (85 per cent) and the Netherlands (82 per cent). The "atlas" contains a short description for all countries and territories – more than 200 – so that different urbanization trends can be compared.

Its conclusions are based on the EU definition of urban and rural areas. The definition distinguishes between cities, towns, suburbs and rural areas based on population density and size. According to the definition, a human settlement becomes "urban" when it reaches 5000 inhabitants.

With a global population that is only growing, and many unpredictable consequences of climate change, insight into cities and population will be important for making informed decisions about where to move, possibly build new settlements. When individual countries collect and interpret urbanization in different ways, challenges such as floods, rising seas, droughts and fires can become fatal.

India and the United Nations

Neil Brenner and Christian Schmidt criticize in the book The Urban Age in Question (2014) The UN's traditional way of collecting population data to show how urban the world really is. A half-century-old system – they claim – is based on dubious methods "to homogenise a heterogeneous urban cohort". As an example, they refer to India. The country uses the following criteria to categorize a city: a minimum population of 5000; at least 75 percent of total male population employed in non-agricultural activities; a population density of at least 400 people per square kilometre.

What flashes red are the criteria linked to 75 per cent and to gender. When the world's second most populous country does not classify a large number of small and medium-sized cities with over 5000 inhabitants, it has consequences for planners' understanding and approach to population growth and the processes associated with it. Urbanization processes exist outside randomly placed city boundaries.

The question must be asked: Why do India and other populous states base their reporting to the UN on such criteria? In the decade 2001-11, 90 per cent of a rapidly increasing number of settlements in the country were not recognized as cities. The consequence is that the citizens – largely poor migrants from the countryside – do not get access to the administrative and institutional apparatus that ensures a minimum of social services and rights. And local authorities save significant amounts.

The periphery

Since such peri-urban areas are not recognized (in some places they are barely found on the map), the World Bank's and the UN's large global health and education program – also financed with billions of Norwegian aid kroner – do not target the inhabitants here. It is serious when researchers bring up Friedrich Engels's 1800th-century characterization of "social murder" from industrialist England.

Multilateral actors have long since rejected the city/country dichotomy. It is the interaction between "leading and lagging places" that is the key to economic development (World Development Report, World Bank 2009). We need future reporting based on "territorial" indicators that precisely reflect how the periphery is urbanised.

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