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World News
World city dwellers to outnumber rural

Milestone has been millennium in making

Monday, April 08, 2002

By Joan Lowy, Scripps Howard News Service

Within the next five years, half the population of the world will for the first time live in cities, a milestone that has been more than a millennium in the making.

Nearly all the world's population growth for the foreseeable future is projected to be concentrated in urban areas, with most of the growth occurring in the poverty-ridden cities of Asia, Africa and Latin America. By 2007 -- some demographers say perhaps sooner -- the number of urban dwellers will equal the number of rural dwellers.

The trend toward urbanization is as old as civilization, although it accelerated with the industrial revolution of the 19th century and kicked into overdrive during the last 50 years.

"We can't really stop urbanization," said Joseph Chamie, chief of the United Nations Population Division. "It's going to continue. We project it to be increasing throughout the 21st century. We have to adjust to it."

The trend is both promising and alarming. Cities are home to art, industry, communications and information and there is reason to believe that, on balance, people lead more successful lives in cities. But cities are also breeding grounds for poverty, violence, pollution and congestion.

"The great challenge and the great worry is that urbanization in developing countries -- particularly poor ones like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa -- is happening at such an incredibly fast pace that they are way outstripping infrastructure and services," said Don Hinrichsen, a senior consultant to the United Nations Population Fund. "They just cannot keep up. I see it every time I go to these places. These cities are just in meltdown."

The global urban population reached 2.9 billion in 2000 and is expected to rise to 5 billion by 2030, according to the United Nations Population Division. While 30 percent of the world population lived in urban areas in 1950, the proportion of urban dwellers rose to 47 percent by 2000 and is projected to attain 60 percent by 2030.

Over the next three decades, the global urban population is expected to grow at an average of 1.8 percent annually while the rural population of less-developed regions is expected to grow at just 0.2 percent per year.

The United States, Europe, Japan and much of Latin America and the Caribbean have long had majority urban populations. Africa and Asia are both about 37 percent urban, but they also are experiencing the most rapid growth. By 2030, an estimated 53 percent of Africans and 54 percent of Asians will live in urban areas.

Global urbanization has given rise to "megacities," urban areas with a population of 10 million or more. The number of megacities is rapidly increasing, with almost all the growth in the developing world. In 1950, there was only one megacity in the world, New York. Today, there are 17 megacities, led by Tokyo; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Mexico City; New York, and Bombay, India.

A notable aspect of the growth in megacities is that the trend bypasses Europe entirely. Europe's population is declining due to low birth rates and limited immigration. Italy is projected have fewer people in 2050 than it had in 1950.

As a result, the major cities of Europe are no longer the world's urban colossuses. In 1950, Europe had 10 of the world's 25 largest cities, but today it has just three, and by 2015 it will have none.

Alone among the developed nations of the world, the United States continues to experience population growth at a steady pace, primarily as a result of immigration. The U.S. population is projected to increase by 40 percent over the next 50 years, from 285 million to more than 400 million.

While virtually all of that growth is expected to be concentrated in urban areas, only two U.S. cities -- New York and Los Angeles -- rank among the world's megacities.

The environmental consequences of collecting a majority of the world's people in cities -- most of which are along coasts or major waterways -- are also profound. The Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., which monitors global environmental trends, estimates that the world's cities take up just 2 percent of Earth's land surface, yet account for 76 percent of industrial wood use, 60 percent of the water tapped for use by people and roughly 78 percent of the carbon emissions from human activities, believed by most scientists to be the major cause of global warming.

"These figures suggest that the struggle to achieve an environmentally sustainable economy will be won or lost in the world's urban areas," said Molly O'Meara, author of "Reinventing Cities for People and the Planet."

Like their U.S. counterparts, many of the rapidly growing cities of the developing world are also sprawling outward even faster than they are increasing in population.

"There are positive consequences and negative consequences," Chamie said. "If you have urbanization, you can increase access to health care, but at the same time you have greater contact with people who can give you a cold. Rather than saying urbanization is good or bad, it is more appropriate to say urbanization is simply a fact of life."

Preliminary findings by a National Academy of Sciences panel examining the social consequences of urbanization indicate city dwellers live longer and have smaller families, said Ellen Brennan-Galvin, a demographer and panel member.

But the explosive growth of cities in developing countries is testing the capacity of governments to stimulate the investment required to generate jobs and to provide services and infrastructure.

"The number one issue is job creation,' " said Brennan-Galvin, who has authored more than a dozen case studies on megacities for the United Nations Population Division. "That's true in the cities throughout the world, developed as well as developing. No one really has an answer to how to do that."

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