Urban growth projections

By Matt Burdett, 14 May 2018

On this page, we look at urban growth projections for 2050, including regional/continental patterns and trends of rural–urban migration and changing urban population sizes and structures.

The World Urbanization Prospects

Every two years since 1988, the United Nations Population Division (UNPD) has released a statistical update on urbanisation around the world (UNPD, 2018). It includes data about individual countries, the growth rates of urban areas, and the populations living in these areas.

The UNPD recongises that there is no agreed definition of what makes a settlement urban, and that the definition varies from country to country. They advise (UNPD, 2014) “readers should keep in mind the heterogeneity of the urban definition across countries” and the same should go for information on this page!

The 2014 revision: Urban growth trends

At the time of writing, the 2014 revision is the most up to date. If you are reading after 16 May 2018, come back soon to check the latest information – or, check the link below:


The 2014 revision included the following key information (UNPD, 2014):

  • “54 per cent of the world’s population residing in urban areas in 2014. In 1950, 30 per cent of the world’s population was urban, and by 2050, 66 per cent of the world’s population is projected to be urban”
  • The Americas and Europe are still the most heavily urbanised areas – “Northern America (82 per cent living in urban areas in 2014), Latin America and the Caribbean (80 per cent), and Europe (73 per cent)”
  • Urban population by total number is concentrated in Asia – “Asia, despite its lower level of urbanization, is home to 53 per cent of the world’s urban population”
  • The size of settlement is important: “half of the world’s urban dwellers reside in relatively small settlements of less than 500,000 inhabitants, while only around one in eight live in the 28 mega-cities with more than 10 million inhabitants”
  • “Tokyo is the world’s largest city with an agglomeration of 38 million inhabitants, followed by Delhi with 25 million, Shanghai with 23 million, and Mexico City, Mumbai and São Paulo, each with around 21 million inhabitants”

Global urbanisation trends

Urban and rural population of the world, 1950–2050. Source: UNPD, 2014, p7

Regional and continental patterns of urban growth

Urban and rural population as proportion of total population, by major areas, 1950–2050. Source: UNPD, 2014, p8

Average annual rate of change of the percentage urban by major areas, 1950–2050. Source: UNPD, 2014, p9

Proportion urban by income group of country, 1950–2050. The top line is HICs; then Upper MICs, Lower MICs, and finally LICs at the bottom. Source: UNPD, 2014, p10.

Detailed example: USA

All the following graphs were sourced from: https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Country-Profiles/

Detailed example: Kenya

All the following graphs were sourced from: https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Country-Profiles/

Detailed example: China

All the following graphs were sourced from: https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Country-Profiles/

Rural-urban migration trends

There is no data available at the global scale for the contribution of rural to urban migration to urban growth. It is recognised that this is a gap in the data (Bravo, 2018). It may be hypothesised, and on a national or local scale data can be found.

Detailed example: China

China has undoubtedly experienced a large urbanisation to migration. It is not possible that it is from natural increase, as shown in the graph below:

Urbanization Ratio and Natural Growth Rate of Population since 1949. Source: Lu and Xia, 2016 p20.

Indeed, the number of internal migrants in China is very high (see below) and China’s immigration policies make it very hard for non-Chinese to migrate into China so the population is generally affected only by natural increase. Therefore, the change in urban population is almost entirely down to internal rural to urban migration.

Number and Share of Migrants in the People’s Republic of China, 1982–2010. Source: Lu and Xia, 2016 p8.

Changing urban population sizes

Global urban population growth is propelled by the growth of cities of all sizes. Source: UNPD, 2014, p13

The ten largest urban agglomerations in 2014 show varied growth patterns both in the recent past and in future projections. Source: UNPD, 2014, p14



Bravo, 2018. Sustainable cities, human mobility and international migration: Report of the Secretary-General for the 51st session of the Commission on Population and Development (E/CN.9/2018/2) Briefing for Member States. http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/commission/pdf/51/briefing/Introduction_of_the_report_Jorge_Bravo_28Feb2018.pdf

Henning, 2017. Overview of global trends in international migration and urbanization. UN Population Division & DESA’s UN Expert Group Meeting on Sustainable Cities, Human Mobility and International Migration. http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/events/pdf/expert/27/presentations/I/presentation-Henning-final.pdf

Lu and Xia, 2016. Migration in the People’s Republic of China: ADBI Working Paper 593. Tokyo: Asian Development Bank Institute. https://www.adb.org/publications/migration-people-republic-china/ Accessed directly at https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/191876/adbi-wp593.pdf

UNPD, 2014. World Urbanisation Prospects, the 2014 Revision: Country Profiles. https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Country-Profiles/

UNPD, 2014. World Urbanisation Prospects, the 2014 Revision: Highlights. https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Publications/Files/WUP2014-Highlights.pdf

UNPD [United Nations Population Division], 2018. World Urbanisation Prospects. https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/

Urban growth projections: Learning activities


Other tasks

Going further

Visit the UNPD World Urbanisation Prospects website yourself and discover more country profiles. For two contrasting countries, compare the level of urban growth and attempt to explain it.

© Matthew Burdett, 2018. All rights reserved.

All secondary material on this site is clearly referenced and may be subject to copyright restrictions by the original authors. All original material on this page is subject to copyright.