United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2018)
The Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations has been revising and updating urban and rural population projections for several decades. This note presents the main findings of the 2018 update, which covered the period 1950-2050.
The results are shown for development groups, six geographic regions (Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Northern America and Oceania), income groups and 21 geographic sub-regions. Data are further presented for 233 countries or areas of the world. Estimates of the proportion of the population living in urban areas and the population of cities are based on national statistics, including population censuses, population registers and administrative statistics.
Globally, more people live in urban areas than in rural areas, with 55 per cent of the world’s population residing in the former in 2018. In 1950, 30 per cent of the world’s population was urban, and by 2050, 68 per cent of the world’s population is projected to be urban.
There is significant diversity in the urbanization levels reached by different geographic regions. The most urbanized geographic regions include Northern America (82 per cent living in urban areas in 2018), Latin America and the Caribbean (81 per cent), Europe (74 per cent) and Oceania (68 per cent). The level of urbanization in Asia is now approximating 50 per cent. By contrast, Africa remains mostly rural, with 43 per cent of its population living in urban areas. Close to half of the world’s urban dwellers reside in relatively small settlements of less than 500,000 inhabitants, while around one in eight live in 33 megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants.
Several decades ago, most of the world’s largest urban agglomerations were found in the more developed regions, but today’s large cities are concentrated in the global South. Between 1990 and 2018, the world’s cities with more than 300,000 inhabitants grew at an average annual rate of 1.8 per cent.
As the world continues to urbanize, sustainable development depends increasingly on the successful management of urban growth, especially in low income and lower-middle-income countries where the most rapid urbanization is expected between now and 2050.
In 1950, 59 per cent of the population in high-income countries already lived in urban areas, and this share is expected to rise further, from 81 per cent in 2018 to nearly 88 per cent in 2050.
While the high-income countries have been highly urbanized for several decades, upper-middle-income countries have experienced the fastest pace of urbanization since 1950. In these countries, the percentage of population living in urban areas was only 22 per cent in 1950, increasingly quickly to 67 per cent in 2018, and expected to rise to 83 per cent by 2050.
In lower-middle-income countries the pace of urbanization has been slower, but this group is expected to experience faster urbanization than others in the coming decades. In 2018, the proportion of the population living in urban areas was 41 per cent in lower-middle-income countries and 32 per cent in low-income countries. By 2050, these countries are expected to reach, on average, 59 per cent and 50 per cent urban populations, respectively.