Linking population, poverty and development

Published online: Jan 31, 2014

Urbanization: A Majority in Cities

The world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history. In 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of the world's population will be living in towns and cities. By 2030 this number will swell to almost 5 billion, with urban growth concentrated in Africa and Asia. While mega-cities have captured much public attention, most of the new growth will occur in smaller towns and cities, which have fewer resources to respond to the magnitude of the change.

In principle, cities offer a more favourable setting for the resolution of social and environmental problems than rural areas. Cities generate jobs and income. With good governance, they can deliver education, health care and other services more efficiently than less densely settled areas simply because of their advantages of scale and proximity.

Cities also present opportunities for social mobilization and women's empowerment. And the density of urban life can relieve pressure on natural habitats and areas of biodiversity. The challenge for the next few decades is learning how to exploit the possibilities urbanization offers. The future of humanity depends on it.

The pace and scale of urbanization

Urban growth, which is mostly due to natural increase, is inevitable. However, the speed and size of the growth are not fixed, and vary widely among regions. The most effective way to slow rates of urban growth is to reduce unwanted fertility in both rural and urban areas. Lowering poverty, empowering women and providing quality reproductive health services all influence fertility preferences and ability to meet them.

Fertility rates are lower in urban than in rural areas throughout the world. However, the fact that such large percentages of people in many developing countries are young means that urban population growth will continue rapidly for years to come. Moreover, impoverished urban women are significantly less likely than their more affluent counterparts to have access to reproductive health or contraception. Not surprisingly, they have higher fertility rates.

Migration is a significant contributor to urbanization, as people move in search of social and economic opportunity. Environmental degradation and conflict may drive people off the land. Often people who leave the countryside to find better lives in the city have no choice but to settle in shantytowns and slums, where they lack access to decent housing and sanitation, health care and education-in effect, trading in rural for urban poverty.

Urbanization of poverty

Poverty is now growing faster in urban than in rural areas. One billion people live in urban slums, which are typically overcrowded, polluted and dangerous, and lack basic services such as clean water and sanitation.

Although urbanization increasingly concentrates poverty, it also provides possibilities for escaping it. For the most part, rich countries are already urbanized, and most of the expected urban growth will occur in less-developed regions, which have fewer resources for coping with the scale of the change.

In the Millennium Declaration, the international community recognized that to halve by 2015 the proportion of people living in extreme poverty, it will have to directly address the needs of the burgeoning population of poor people living in cities. One of the targets set by world leaders in 2000 was to improve significantly the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020. Addressing the housing needs of the urban poor will be critical. A roof and an address in a habitable area are the first step to a better life. Improving access to basic social and health services, including reproductive health care, for poor people in urban slums is also critical to breaking the cycle of poverty.

UNFPA at work

UNFPA helps countries to address emerging demographic issues such as urbanization in development and poverty eradication policies, plans and strategies. It assists them to analyse the socio-economic implications of urbanization and to design policies that respond to the needs of diverse demographic groups within cities. The Fund conducts research studies and strengthens national capacity to understand trends and to collect, analyse and use data related to urbanization. The 2007 State of World Population report describes the coming urban transformation and raises an urgent call for policymakers to take proactive measures to unleash the potential it offers.