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Youthink! Issues - Urbanization

Cities growing as people move from the countryside in search of better jobs and living conditions
© The World Bank

What is it?

Cities, large and small, are at the heart of a fast changing global economy -- they are a cause of, and a response to world economic growth.

The world's cities are growing because people are moving from rural areas in search of jobs, opportunities to improve their lives and create a better future for their children.

This is the first time in human history that the majority of the world's population lives in urban areas:

  • 3.3 billion people -- more than half the world's population -- live in cities.
  • 60% of all people will live in cities by 2030. (In 1800, only 2% of people lived in cities and towns. In 1950, only 30% of the world population was urban.)
  • Almost 180,000 people move into cities each day.
  • 60 million people move into cities each year in developing countries. This rate of movement will continue for the next 30 years
  • Over the next 15 to 20 years, many cities in Africa and Asia will double in size.

Why should I care?

City populations are growing faster than city infrastructure can adapt.

Many urban areas are growing because their rural hinterlands are depressed, which forces impoverished rural people to move to the cities in search of work.

These newcomers often end up not finding the opportunities they are looking for, so they become part of the urban poor. Upon arrival to the city, they often encounter:

  • Lack of housing: To make up for the lack of available homes, newcomers often set up shelters on city outskirts, usually on public owned land. This land tends to be dangerous and inhabitable, such as flood plains, river banks, steep slopes or reclaimed land.
  • Lack of infrastructure services: Slum dwellers often live without electricity, running water, a sewerage system, roads and other urban services.
  • Lack of property rights: As illegal or unrecognized residents, slum dwellers have no property rights to the land they inhabit, which makes it impossible for them to use land as collateral.
  • Over the last 50 years the global population living in slums has risen from 35 million to more than 1 billion people. This number is expected to keep rising.
  • Slum dwellers make up the majority of the urban population in Africa and South Asia. The urban population of developing countries is expected to reach 50% in 2020.
  • People living in slums are at particular risk to disease: On top of dealing with pollution from dirty cooking fuels, primitive stoves, and poor access to water and sanitation, they are exposed to modern environmental hazards, such as urban air pollution, exhaust fumes and industrial pollution.

Also, as cities grow, so do environmental problems:

  • Air quality worsens in cities. Each year 1 million people die from urban air pollution.
  • Traffic increases, leading to more congestion and more road accidents. 1.2 million people die and as many as 50 million are injured in urban traffic accidents in developing countries each year, according to the World Health Organization. Victims are mostly poor pedestrians and bicyclists. Those who survive are often left disabled. For example, in Bangladesh, it is reported that nearly 50% of hospital beds are occupied by road-accident victims.

What is the international community doing?

International agencies are also working with poor countries to:

  • Build adequate infrastructure, such as roads, houses, electricity, water and sanitation services, public transportation, schools and health clinics
  • Transform slums into legitimate communities
  • Strengthen urban governance
  • Improve the lives of poor people and promote equity

What can I do?

Explore these websites:

  • UN Habitat is a UN agency charged with looking at human settlements around the world.
  • The Cities Alliance is a global coalition of cities and their development partners committed to improve the living conditions of the urban poor.

For more information: Urban Development

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