Urban areas will absorb most of the population growth discussed in the first part of this series on global mega trends “Part 1: Diverging Global Population Trends”. By 2050, 67% of the projected 9.6 billion people on the planet will be living in cities.
Increasing urbanisation is being driven by several key trends the most important of which is industrialisation. If we look at the very first industrial revolution in the world, Great Britain in the late eighteenth century, in just one generation urban populations increased from less than 20% to more than 50%. In London, the population grew from 2 million in 1840 to 5 million just 40 years later.
Industrialisation allows existing goods to be produced on a larger scale and for new goods to be produced for the first time. Those previously self-employed as weavers and other occupations were forced to move to the cities to find alternative work. These people then needed goods and services that required even more people to live and work in the cities.
Similarly, with industrialisation came the increased mechanisation of agricultural production. This resulted in more food being produced with a greatly reduced workforce. This increased production fuelled further growth of the cities both in terms of food and further displaced people from rural areas.
The trend of industrialisation and agricultural mechanisation has continued to the present day with developed countries seeking goods from developing countries through the latter half of the twentieth century and into the 21st. This demand for workers and supporting services is creating a global industrial revolution in all of the developing countries of the world to varying degrees.
Currently, 80% of North America’s, South America and the Caribbean’s population is urban; 70% in Europe, 40% in Africa and 48% in Asia. However, the latter two regions are urbanising rapidly as shown in the figure below.
In 1970, Tokyo and New York were the only mega cities with populations of more than 10 million people. In 2014 this had increased to 28 and by 2030 there could be as many as 41 globally. However, small and medium sized cities will be the main driver of urbanisation.
As the majority of urban growth will be in developing countries, it is highly likely that the projected growth in populations will result in a disproportionate growth in urban areas due to the informal development otherwise known as slums or favelas. 1 billion people already live in these urban areas and are projected to increase to 3 billion by the middle of this century. This could lead to increased environmental pollution or be an opportunity to promote renewable energy, sanitation and water efficiency in densely populated areas impacting a significant portion of the global population. A previous article of mine discusses this further: “Slumdog Millionaire: A Lesson on Environmental Sustainability?”.
Poorly planned, dense urban populations can have negative impacts including congestion, overcrowding, pressure on infrastructure and the environment and higher housing costs. A high concentration of people can also make it easier for disease to spread.
However, compact cities are the most efficient and sustainable way to secure the welfare of a growing population so this urbanisation is not necessarily a bad thing.
Smart planning that utilises concepts such as green infrastructure and innovative urban farming techniques will allow small areas to host large populations. High-rise buildings will allow for greater pedestrianisation in these cities whilst reducing sprawl would allow for the greatest efficiencies.
Providing green spaces is a key way to provide a more sustainable urban design for the growing city populations. Parks, green walls and nature reclamation of old industrial areas provide regulating services, tackling air pollution and reducing flooding, encouraging biodiversity and, if carefully planned, can act as wildlife corridors. They also create places of culture and recreation.
So in summary, the population is growing and much of this growth will happen in our cities. If we want to continue on a sustainable trajectory then we need to rise to the challenge of delivering this growth in a way that is positive, built on renewable and green infrastructure and that creates the kind of places that people want and can lead healthy lives.