Urbanization, City Growth, and the New United Nations Development Agenda

By Barney Cohen
Chief of Branch, Population Division,
Department of Economic and Social Affairs,
United Nations

In September 2015, member states of the United Nations (UN) will meet in New York to finalize a new global development agenda that will guide the international community’s efforts to eradicate poverty, reverse global trends toward unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, and protect and manage the environment over the next 15 years. For the past 15 years, the international community’s efforts have been guided by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the eight-point agenda adopted by member states in 2000 that focused on eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child and maternal mortality, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, ensuring environmental sustainability, and strengthening global partnerships for development, by the target date of 2015. The world has made notable progress in reducing extreme poverty over those years, in large part because of the remarkable economic growth that China has achieved. Some countries look set to attain all or most of the MDGs prior to the 2015 deadline. Overall, however, progress has been uneven both within and between countries and regions.1 At the same time, signs of global climate change and environmental degradation have become increasingly visible and the international community has come to recognize that global goals and targets for sustainable development need to be reprioritized in order to give environmental objectives a somewhat higher profile.


In designing the new global development agenda, it will be important for policymakers to understand and account for the nature and extent of the major demographic changes likely to unfold over the next 15 years and how such changes can be expected to contribute to or hinder the achievement of the new sustainable development goals. Much will depend, for example, on how well countries manage their cities. Cities have always been focal points for economic activity, innovation, and employment. Historically, most cities developed because of some natural advantage that they possessed in location related to ease of fortification or transportation, access to markets, or access to raw materials. Today, cities play a central role in creating national wealth, enhancing social and economic development, attracting direct foreign investment and manpower, and harnessing both human and physical resources in order to achieve gains in productivity and competitiveness. Cities also offer other advantages that are important for achieving sustainable development. Higher population density associated with urbanization provides an opportunity for governments to deliver basic services such as water and sanitation more cost-effectively to greater numbers of people. Higher population density may also be good for minimizing the effect of humans on local ecosystems. Despite the high rates of urban poverty found in many cities in low-income countries, urban residents, on average, enjoy better access to education and health care, as well as other basic public services such as electricity, water, and sanitation, than people in rural areas. For example, it has been estimated that 94% of urbanites have access to electricity compared with only 68% of rural residents.2

The challenge, of course, is that as cities become ever larger, managing them inherently becomes increasingly complex. A basic determinant of the world’s ability to achieve the post-2015 development agenda will be the quality of governance at all levels. In this context, it is important to note that the structure and organization of urban governance has itself undergone significant changes over the recent past, resulting in solutions to urban problems increasingly being sought at the local rather than the state or national level. This has created an urgent need to strengthen the capacity of local governments charged with solving new and persistent environmental and social service challenges that accompany rapid urban growth so that the benefits of urban living are shared equitably. In many cities, unplanned or inadequately managed urban expansion has led to urban sprawl, pollution, environmental degradation, and, in some cases, heightened exposure to the risk of natural hazards (e.g., floods and landslides). Future urban expansion needs to be undertaken in a more sustainable and inclusive manner, and needs to be accompanied by a reduction in the number of slum dwellers, an expansion of infrastructure to ensure greater access to basic services for the urban poor, and the implementation of policies that preserve the natural assets within cities and surrounding areas, protect biodiversity, and minimize tropical deforestation and changes in land use.


Cities are currently home to just over half of the world’s population and nearly all of the 1.1 billion increase in global population projected over the next 15 years is expected to occur in urban areas. For that reason, the United Nations Population Division has published a new resource, World Urbanization Prospects: 2014 Revision [Highlights]. The report contains the latest official UN estimates and projections of urban and rural populations for major areas, regions, and countries of the world from 1950 to 2050 and estimates and projections to 2030 of all urban agglomerations with 300,000 or more inhabitants in 2014. As such, it was created to provide important insights into the size and characteristics of future urban challenges and opportunities.3

The latest official UN estimates were provided in the 2014 World Urbanization Prospects.

The latest official UN estimates were provided in the 2014 World Urbanization Prospects.

As the report makes clear, urbanization has proceeded rapidly over the past 60 years. In 1950, more than two-thirds of people worldwide lived in rural areas and slightly less than one-third resided in urban areas. In 2014, 54% of the world’s population lived in urban areas, and the coming decades will not only see continued global population growth but also continued urbanization so that all of the growth in global population over the next 15 years is projected to occur in urban areas. Furthermore, those projections show that urbanization, combined with the overall growth of the world population, could result in the addition of another 2.5 billion people to the global urban population by 2050, at which time the world is expected to be one-third rural and two-thirds urban—almost the exact opposite of the situation observed in the mid-20th century (see Figure 1).

FIGURE 1. Estimated and projected populations in urban and rural settings, 1950–20503

FIGURE 1. Estimated and projected populations in urban and rural settings, 1950–20503

Just over the brief span of the next 15 years, the timeframe for the implementation of the new UN development agenda, the world’s urban population is projected to expand 28%. All regions, with the exception of Europe, are projected to increase the size of their urban population by at least 15%—with Africa and Asia projected to have the largest increases of 63% and 30%, respectively (see Table 1).3 Perhaps not surprisingly, given the size of their populations, the greatest urban growth is expected to occur in India, China, and Nigeria. Taken together, these three countries are projected to account for 37% of the total growth of the world’s urban population between 2014 and 2050. By 2050, India is projected to have added an additional 404 million urban residents, China an additional 292 million, and Nigeria an additional 212 million.


The new UN report differs from previous versions because, for the first time, estimates and projections from 1950 to 2030 are provided for all urban agglomerations with populations currently over 300,000. Previously, data were reported only for cities with over 750,000 residents. Although there is obviously much uncertainty about the future course of urbanization and city growth, and, in particular, the exact trajectory of any given city or urban area, the broad trends across regions and across city sizes over a 15-year time horizon can be expected to be reasonably robust and are very clear: The world’s fastest growing cities are located in Africa and Asia and tend to be medium-sized cities of between one and five million residents.

Given the projected increase in the global urban population, it is not surprising that the world is projected to experience not only an increase in the absolute number of large cities, but that the largest cities are projected to reach unprecedented sizes. “Mega-cities”, conventionally defined to be large urban agglomerations of 10 million or more, have become both more numerous and considerably larger in size. In 1990, there were 10 such mega-cities, containing 153 million people. By 2014, the number of mega-cities had nearly tripled to 28, and the population that they contain had grown to 453 million inhabitants, accounting for roughly 12% of the world’s urban dwellers. While Tokyo, currently the world’s largest urban agglomeration with 38 million inhabitants, has grown at an annual rate of roughly 0.6% over the last five years, other megacities such as Delhi (with 25 million residents) and Shanghai (with 23 million) have been growing at more than 3% per annum over recent years. Such rapid growth is creating significant challenges for local authorities charged with delivering essential services. Rounding out the list of the top 10 largest urban agglomerations are Mexico City, Mumbai, and Sao Paulo, each with around 21 million, Osaka with just over 20 million, Beijing with slightly under 20 million, and New York-Newark and Cairo, each with around 18.5 million inhabitants.


While there is no doubt that large cities will play a significant role in absorbing future anticipated growth, the new report also makes clear that at least for the foreseeable future the majority of the world’s urban residents will continue to live in far smaller urban settlements.3 In 2014, close to one-half of the world’s urban population lived in settlements with fewer than 500,000 inhabitants whereas only around one in eight lived in the 28 mega-cities with 10 million inhabitants or more. Although the percentage of the urban population living in relatively smaller urban settlements is projected to shrink over time, even in 2030, the anticipated final year for the implementation of the soon-to-be-adopted new UN development agenda, small cities and towns will still be home to around 45% of the population. Typically, residents of small cities in developing countries suffer a marked disadvantage in the provision of basic services, including provision of piped water, sanitation, and electricity, compared to residents of medium or large cities. Furthermore, researchers have found that in developing countries, rates of poverty are typically higher in smaller cities than in medium or larger cities, and that infant and child mortality are negatively proportional to city size.4 Given the role that will be played by small cities in accommodating future population growth, improving the provision of basic services in such cities must remain a priority.

Urbanites have better access to basic services, such as water, trash removal, and electricity.

Urbanites have better access to basic services, such as water, trash removal, and electricity.


It has long been recognized that the size, composition, and spatial distribution of human populations can substantially affect the likelihood of achieving sustainable development goals. Over 20 years ago, in 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development’s Programme of Action pointed out that unsustainable consumption and production patterns were contributing to the unsustainable use of natural resources and environmental degradation as well as to the reinforcement of social inequities and poverty. In designing the new post-2015 development agenda, member states of the UN need to ensure that efforts to improve the quality of life of the present generation are far-reaching, broad, and inclusive, but do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Accomplishing these ambitious goals will depend on identifying strategies to expand access to resources for growing numbers of people, eradicate poverty, increase standards of living, reduce unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, and safeguard the environment.

Cities have become the principal venue for attempting to achieve the goals and targets of the new development agenda. Consequently, one of the central challenges over the next 15 years is finding means to take full advantage of the potential benefits of urbanization and city growth in ways that lessen the obvious potential negatives. The realization by the international community that, alongside poverty reduction, environmental objectives must feature more prominently in any new list of global goals and targets suggests that attention to issues of energy use and energy efficiency5 are likely to attract much more attention than ever before. Continued urban population growth combined with rising standards of living suggests that energy use and greenhouse gas emissions will be much higher in the future, unless there is concerted action to reduce them. Therefore, one essential element of the new sustainable development agenda will be to encourage local authorities to invest in new cleaner energy infrastructure relying on high-efficiency, low-emissions fossil-fuel technologies and utilize new technologies that take advantage of alternative energy sources.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.


  1. United Nations. (2014). The millennium development goals report: 2014. New York: United Nations, www.un.org/millenniumgoals/2014%20MDG%20report/MDG%202014%20English%20web.pdf
  2. International Energy Agency (IEA). (2011) World Energy Outlook 2011. Paris: IEA. www.worldenergyoutlook.org/resources/energydevelopment/accesstoelectricity/
  3. United Nations. (2014). World urbanization prospects: The 2014 revision [Highlights]. New York: United Nations), esa.un.org/unpd/wup/
  4. National Research Council. (2003). Cities transformed: Demographic change and its implications in the developing world. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  5. International Energy Agency (IEA). (2014). Capturing the multiple benefits of energy efficiency. Paris: IEA.


The content in Cornerstone does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Coal Association or its members.
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