How Many People Live in Cities? The Answer Isn't Obvious

The measures of urbanization vary widely, and the differences pose a challenge in developing policies and plans for cities.

2 minute read

December 14, 2018, 8:00 AM PST

By Camille Fink


Brazil City

Rien Ramerman / Pexels

Richard Florida considers the various ways in which levels of urbanism have been defined and measured. United Nations estimates say 55 percent of the global population is urban. But a new report from the European Commission puts this figure at 84 percent. The report also found higher urban levels in Asia and Africa.

The differences stem from the variety of ways urbanization is reported country by country, says Florida:

According to the EC group, about half of countries define urban based on a minimum population size threshold—85 percent of countries use a threshold of 5,000 people or fewer but other countries have dramatically higher requirements, like Mali’s 30,000, Japan’s 50,000, or China’s 100,000. Only a few countries use population density as a measure of urbanization.

However, researchers from New York University say the European Commission figures are too high and the 55 percent figure is more accurate. "[Shlomo] Angel believes the most effective way to gauge urbanization is not through population or density per se, but by looking at contiguous built-up areas of 100,000 or more people," reports Florida.

Florida argues that better, more consistent standards and analysis are essential for developing effective policy. "The research, data, and urban science we have on the world’s cities and urban areas is troublingly inadequate. If building better, more resilient, more sustainable, and more prosperous cities is key to our future global well-being, it is critical that we do much better."

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