Urbanization refers to the process of a country's population becoming more urban over time, with the percentage of people who live in cities growing more quickly than the percentage who live in rural areas. This results in a more urban society overall, which requires adaptation from both rural communities and urban dwellers. Urbanization is the primary process through which cities form and grow. The world’s population has increased rapidly from 751 million in 1950 to an estimated 7.87 billion in 2021, According to the United Nations (UN), approximately 55% of whom lived in urban areas as of 2018. This percentage is expected to grow to 68% by 2050, adding about 2.5 billion people to urban areas around the world. It is also projected that 90% of this increase will take place in Asia and Africa.
Urbanization causes unique issues for both humans and the environment, particularly if a country's population grows more quickly than its infrastructure. One of the main issues is environmental degradation. For example, emissions from factories, power plants, and motor vehicles can decrease air quality. Meanwhile, increased volumes of organic and inorganic waste can create safety and health problems. Moreover, rapid population growth can increase poverty, already a pressing issue in many nations. These challenges can be overcome, however—with effort. Job creation and economic development can overcome poverty, green policies and alternative energy systems can control pollution, and trees and green spaces can help improve air quality and preserve the environment.
Top 10 Countries with the Highest Urbanization Rates:
The majority of countries with the lowest urban populations are located in Africa—however, as the data above indicate, many of these countries are also experiencing the highest rates of urbanization. For example, Burundi’s urban population is 14.4% of its total population, which is quite low—however, its urbanization rate is a blistering 5.43%, the highest in the world. Similarly, Uganda’s urban population is 26.2%, but the country is urbanizing at a rate of 5.41%. Many of these countries are among the most underdeveloped or least developed in the world.
Urbanization and its relation to Human Development Index (HDI)
Higher or lower urbanization rates do not necessarily correlate to a country's rank on the Human Development Index. For example, Hong Kong is classified as 100% urbanized (see below), as the overwhelming majority of its residents live in a city environment. However, Sweden, a country that is considered highly advanced, has a fairly low urbanization percentage because most Swedish cities are fairly small and not as densely populated, with the exception of some of their large towns, such as Stockholm or Gothenburg. Both countries rank very highly on the HDI, despite the stark difference in their levels of urbanization.
Countries with 100% urban populations:
- Cayman Islands
- Hong Kong
- Saint Maarten
- Vatican City
Most countries with a 100% urban population have low or negative urbanization rates, ranging from 1.78% to -0.44%, simply because there are so few people left living outside the city that the population is, for all intents and purposes, already fully urbanized. Negative urbanization rates are known as counterurbanization or deurbanization.
Counterurbanization has many possible causes. Typically, people leave the city in search of something, which may be new job opportunities, a simpler lifestyle, more space, a decreased cost of living, cleaner air, or a less-urban culture.
Urbanization vs gentrification
Urbanization is often confused with or used interchangeably with gentrification, a related but distinct term. Urbanization centers around the modernization of an area, turning a mildly organized jumble of houses into a well-connected town that’s accessible and creates community in the most current sense of the word. Gentrification, by comparison, is the process of making neighborhoods that have historically been regarded as undesirable into more upscale and sought-after areas. This is typically accomplished by attracting more affluent residents and upscale businesses, as well as adding the infrastructure (adequate roads, police, utilities, etc.) necessary to support them. Gentrification is frequently criticized by detractors who maintain that it homogenizes a neighborhood's unique character and displaces its original residents.