Stop Saying 50 Percent of Humans Live in Cities

The idea that half the world's population has moved to cities, with more coming soon, misses a fundamental fact about cities: many of them are actually suburbs.

2 minute read

June 8, 2016, 5:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


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Tim Roberts Photography / Shutterstock

An article by Courtney Humphries debunks the commonly cited statistic that half the world's population is living in cities. Karen Seto, a geographer at Yale University, is quoted directly to describe the lost nuance of that claim: "We don’t have 50 percent of the world living in cities….A lot of these people are living in towns and small centers." Or, as Humphries adds, "a far cry from Dubai."

Humphries credits the misconception to a 2007 report by the United Nations as well as the May special issue of the journal Science. An article also from May, by Randy Rieland, made a similar claim about the U.N. report in support of a different argument about the future potential of suburbs.

The problem under examination here: since the U.N. report, many people have been too quick to jump to conclusions about the definitions of "urban" and "city," when in fact many countries define those terms differently and in every country they mean more than one type of place. Humphries follows through to the consequences of the misconception:

Swapping one term for another seems like a harmless convenience. But it directs the attention on urbanization toward big cities — which are iconic and visible places — and away from less exciting areas, such as vast tracts of houses on the fringe of cities, or smaller but increasingly people-packed townships.

Not only does a too-narrow definition erase the many worthy people and causes that live and work in suburbs and small towns, a too-narrow definition also erases the negative externalities of suburban development patterns. Humphries describes that latter consequence as "[missing] the realities of where we live and how our sprawling ways are changing the world." 

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