1. Built environment
July 30, 2014

The urban revolution

By Jonn Elledge

As years go, 2008 was a bit of a biggie. It was the year that the United States elected its first black president. It was the year the Large Hadron Collider came online, and didn’t destroy the universe. And it was the year Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers blew up, taking large chunks of the global economy with them.

But something even more momentous happened that year – something that will, in the long-term, have far greater long-term implications. In 2008, for the first time in history, a majority of humanity lived in cities.

In the west, we’ve grown so used to the idea that most of us live in urban areas that it’s easy to forget quite how radical a change this is. But for most people, during most of history, life was tribe, village or field: the city was exotic and unfamiliar, if not altogether alien. As recently as 1800, just 3% of the world’s population lived in cities.

Then the industrial revolution happened. By 1990, 40% of the world’s population was urban; by 2008, it was half. Today, most authorities reckon that 53% of the world’s population are crammed into roughly 3% of the world’s surface. In 2012, there were 3.7 people living in cities – in 1970, there weren’t that many people in the world. All this adds up to nothing less than a revolution in human civilisation.

There are a few other facts about the urban revolution that it’s worth highlighting up front.

It’s big

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Before the twentieth century no more than a handful of cities had ever held a population of more than 1 million. (Exactly how many is a matter of some debate: both records and historical administrative skills are a bit patchy, and one suspects propagandists to have muddied the waters further.)

Today, there are at least 466 cities with populations of over that size. At least 30 of these are ‘megacities’, with populations of 10 million or more.

466 Number of cities with populations of over 1 million

22% Proportion of world population they contain

By far the largest is Tokyo, which has a population of 38 million, more than that of over 150 countries, and which single-handedly generates around 2% of the world’s GDP. (Its unexpected disappearance could thus tip the world into recession, something that comes up in Godzilla movies less than you’d think.) In China, though, there’s talk of a turning the Beijing region into a single, giant megacity containing 130 million people.

Humanity isn’t just increasingly urban, it’s increasingly metropolitan.

It’s everywhere

It’s tempting to assume that the urban revolution is actually just a function of shifts in the global economy: a result of the rapid development of Asia, by far the world’s most populated continent.

That’s true, but also incomplete. In fact, urbanisation is going on in every region…

…and in every income group.

There are over 190 countries in the world. Fewer than 30 of them haven’t seen an increase in urbanisation over the past generation.

And it’s speeding up

By 2030, the UN predicts, 60% of the world’s population will live in a city. By 2050, it’ll be 70%. Demographic forecast is a difficult business, requiring a lot of different assumptions about a lot of different variables – but no serious authority expects urbanisation to slow down any time soon. We’ve seen the future. And the future is urban.


There are many ways in which this will make life better. Urbanisation is both the result, and a driver, of economic development: the agglomeration effect of cities means that companies can grow, and ideas can spread, faster.

More than that, though, they can make the world seem smaller. The psychological distance between New York and Mumbai, the difference in outlooks and life experiences, is far smaller than that between, say, rural Wyoming and Utter Pradesh. Urban life means more opportunities to meet different types of people, experience new cultures or cuisines, or just live however the hell you want to live. In almost any field of human endeavour you can name, the city provides a bigger canvas: there is a reason that no starry-eyed 14 year old dreams of making it big in the Cotswolds.

Set against that, though, you have stress, crime, pollution, and all the other problems that inevitably arise when you try to squeeze ever larger populations into the same basic space. There are questions, too, about whether our legal and governmental institutions will remain effective in an age in which economic power is increasingly concentrated into smaller shares of the globe, and when London competes less with Liverpool than it does with with Lahore. It’s possible that urbanisation could drive inequality, even create a new global class system.

The urban revolution is one of the biggest things ever to happen to humanity. It’ll have a profound and lasting impact on almost every area of human endeavour, changing how we live, what we build, where we work, and how we get there.

CityMetric will explore all these topics and more. Working with our partners at Timetric, we’ll use data to track the changes in the way humanity lives and works, and make forecasts about how the world is changing. Our writers will report on the challenges facing different cities, and the answers their populations are finding to them. We’ll probably end up writing a fair bit about geeky stuff like skyscrapers and metro maps, too.

It’s going to be fun. Stick around.

Data sources: World Bank; Demographia World Atlas, May 2014; CityMetric Intelligence.

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