Six Trends to Understand a Rapidly Urbanizing World

Rapid urbanization continues to have a powerful impact, changing the face of the planet and the lives of its inhabitants. Urbanization will only get more extreme in the coming years. While there are analyses and predictions being made about urban demographic trends, the following six trends can help you visualize how urbanization will shape our future. 

1. By 2030, urban land is expected to triple in size.

Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS)

As cities expand to accommodate their growing populations, they will have to build twice as much urban infrastructure as has been created over the last several millennia. This physical expansion is a powerful opportunity for cities to integrate a resilience-oriented approach to their design and infrastructure investment.

Source: Cities: an interactive data visual from the International Institute of Environment and Development. Editor's note: This was previously, mistakenly implied to be a graphic from PNAS.


2. Small- and medium-sized cities in Africa and Asia are growing the fastest.

Source: United Nations World Urbanization Prospects: the 2014 revision, highlights (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2014)

The United Nations estimates that 95% of urban expansion between now and 2030 will take place in countries with emerging economies. It is estimated that cities in Africa and Asia gain an average of five million residents combined every month, fueled by increasing birth rates and declining mortality rates, and rural-to-city migration, according to The State of the World’s Children 2012 UN report. Africa and Latin America will overtake Europe in terms of total population in roughly this time span as well.


3. Three billion people will live in informal settlements by 2050. 

Source: UN Habitat’s State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013 Report

One in seven people—totaling 1 billion—currently live in informal settlements and self-built homes, most of these in areas that encircle metropolitan areas. This number is expected to triple by 2050. 

People living in informal settlements face distinct challenges, including insecure land tenure, unsafe housing, lack of electricity and sanitation, and elevated risk of infectious diseases. As urban space continues to expand, these informal settlements will mirror that growth, increasing the importance of addressing their challenges to build genuine urban resilience.


4. Economic inequality is expected to worsen.

Source: UN Habitat’s State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013 survey

UN Habitat reports that income and resource inequality has grown increasingly severe in cities since 1980, with disparities especially evident in income levels and access to education, nutrition, and healthcare, according to the “State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013” survey. A World Bank report predicts that this inequality will continue to rise. 

Eduardo López Moreno of the Global Urban Observatory department at the UN Habitat in Nairobi found that forty major US cities, including New York, Washington D.C., and Chicago, have Gini coefficient values over 0.5—meaning their wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few. Moreno argues that, “overcoming urban divides” in equity is one of the most important jobs of the future.


5. The world's 750 largest cities will experience a $37 trillion USD increase in GDP by 2030.

Source: Oxford Economics’ Future trends and market opportunities in the world largest 750 cities Executive Summary

By 2030, cities will see:

  • 240 million more jobs
  • 220 million more middle-income households
  • $18 trillion increase in consumer spending
  • $1.7 trillion extra spending on cars and eating out

As well as the need for:

  • 540 million meters-squared of extra office space required
  • 260 million new homes needed


6. Cities in China will grow more than most over the coming 20 years, particularly in urban income and consumer spending.

Source: Oxford Economics’ Future trends and market opportunities in the world largest 750 cities Executive Summary

Urban economic power is anticipated to continue its shift eastward. In fact, Oxford Economics claims that Chinese cities like Chengdu, Hangzhou, and Wuhan will become as economically prominent in 2030 as cities like Dallas and Seoul are today. In 2030, China will boast some 45 million urban households with annual incomes in excess of $70,000, putting it well ahead of Europe and right behind North America. 

The rapid expansion of urban space in the next few decades will have a dramatic impact on life, but it can be difficult to imagine exactly what this means. Head to the comments and let us know how these trends will impact life in your city, and share any other important graphics or trends. 

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