Urban growth projections

By Matt Burdett, 14 May 2018 [updated 17 May 2019].

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.

  • Varanasi, India. The world’s urban population is expected to increase hugely this century, with the greatest increase in Middle Income Countries like India. Source: By the author.

The UNDP’s ‘World Urbanization Prospects’

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

The 2018 revision: Urban growth trends

The 2018 revision included the following key information (UNPD, 2018b):

  • 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas compared to 30% in 1950
  • This figure is projected to rise to 68% by 2050
  • North America is the most urbanised region at 82% urban dwellers, while Africa is the least with 43% of people living in urban areas
  • Both rural and urban populations are growing, but the rural population will decline from 3.4 billion to day to 3.1 billion by 2050
  • India, China and Nigeria will be responsible for 35% of the increase in urban population worldwide from 2018 to 2050
  • Around 50% of urban dwellers live in settlements with fewer than 500,000 people, while around 12% live in the world’s 33 megacities
  • The biggest city remains Tokyo with 37 million people; Delhi is second at 29 million, and Shanghai third with 26 million

Global urbanisation trends

The world is already more urban than not; as the graph shows, the balance between rural and urban dwellers was tipped earlier in this century for the first time in human history. It is forecast that of the future growth of the world’s population, all of it will be in urban areas while the number of people living in rural areas will actually decline slightly.

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

Regional and continental patterns of urban growth

However, the increase in urban population will not occur everywhere. Oceania will see only moderate increases, but this could be because there are relatively few urban locations in the region. Even so, every other major world area will see the balance become increasingly urban, even in world regions like Europe and North America which are already very urban.

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

However, the fastest growth of urban areas will be in Low and Middle Income Countries. The richest countries, despite seeing some growth, will see slow growth compared to countries such as India, Nigeria and China.

  • 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

The United States is the largest economy of the world and is already a very urban society. Both the proportion of people living in urban areas and the number of people in urban areas is forecast to continue growing. This means that both urbanisation and urban growth are occurring.

  • The United States is forecast to have urbanization. Source: ESA, 2018.

  • The United States is forecast to have urban growth. Source: ESA, 2018.

Detailed example: Kenya

Kenya is a rural society with both the rural and urban populations are increasing – however, the urban population is increasing faster than the rural population, so urbanization is occurring. This means that both urbanisation and urban growth are occurring, but Kenya will not be an urban society before 2050 according to the 2018 population projections.

  • Kenya is forecast to have urbanisation but is not going to be a dominantly urban society before 2050. Source: ESA, 2018.

  • Kenya is forecast to have urban growth but the rural population will also continue to grow up to 2050, albeit at a slowing rate. Source: ESA, 2018.

Detailed example: China

China has had one of the most remarkable demographic changes of any nation in history over the past fifty years. Strong government policies in two main areas have resulted in a rapid growth of cities: the One Child Policy and the deliberate policy to relocate people from rural areas to urban areas. These are dealt with in other areas of this site.

China’s rapid urbanization over the past fifty years has been matched by a rapid reduction in the growth rate of the population. This meant that while population in both urban and rural areas were growing up to the 1990s, the urban areas grew in absolute numbers faster because they were also growing due to in-migration.

  • China’s urban population is growing rapidly, mainly due to in-migration from rural areas. Source: ESA, 2018.

  • China’s rural population will decline rapidly due to out-migration to urban areas, and due to the low number of births compared to the large number of people entering old age. The result is that even though urban areas will decline in population, rural areas will decline even faster – so urbanization is still occuring. Source: ESA, 2018.

In the next decades, China’s population will begin to decline thanks to a low level of new births and a large number of people entering old age. However, the urban population will continue to grow due to in-migration. This will mean that the population of the rural areas will decline even faster, due to a out-migration and a natural decrease in the population from births and deaths (also known as negative natural increase).

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 total population is generally affected only by natural increase. Therefore, the change in urban population is almost entirely down to internal rural to urban migration rather than being due to immigration from outside of China.

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

Changing urban population sizes

The growth of cities will not be even. The world’s largest cities are currently found mainly in Asia with occasional cities in the Americas and Europe. This is likely to continue in the future with even more large cities in Asia, and these cities are continuing to grow. However, the very largest cities are likely to grow less than the medium sized cities.

  • Growth rates of urban agglomerations by size class, 2018-2030. Future growth is going to be in Asia and Africa – but not necessarily in the cities that are already largest. Source: UNDP, 2018c.

The growth in urban population in the past has often been attributed to the growth of megacities. Megacities (urban areas with a population of 10 million or more) are eye-catching and often feature in geographical sources, but in truth they are not the source of the current urbanisation trend. In fact, although the population of megacities is due to grow, it is the cities of less than 500,000 people that are growing the fastest.

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

These megacities may have reached their limit as they grow into the very largest cities on the planet. The graph below shows the growth of the 10 current largest cities and it’s possible to see that there is a great variation in their future growth. Cairo is due to decline in population, and several others will stabilize by 2030. Again, this suggests that the future of urban growth is not in massive centres of population but in small and medium sized cities.

  • 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 Accessed 18 May 2018.

ESA [United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division], 2018. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision. https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Country-Profiles/ Accessed 17 May 2019.

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 Accessed 18 May 2018.

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 Accessed 18 May 2018.

UNPD, 2014. World Urbanisation Prospects, the 2014 Revision: Country Profiles. https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Country-Profiles/ Accessed 18 May 2018.

UNPD [United Nations Population Division], 2018. World Urbanisation Prospects. https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/ Accessed 18 May 2018.

UNPD [United Nations Population Division], 2018b. World Urbanisation Prospects, the 2018 Revision: Key Facts. https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Publications/Files/WUP2018-KeyFacts.pdf Accessed 19 May 2018.

UNPD [United Nations Population Division], 2018c. World Urbanisation Prospects: Maps. https://population.un.org/wup/Country-Profiles/ Accessed 17 May 2019.

Urban growth projections: Learning activities


  1. Which organisation produces the most comprehensive forecasts of world population? [1]
  2. How often are these forecasts published? [1]
  3. When was the most recent forecast? [1]
  4. Describe the overall trend in urban population that is forecast by 2050. [3]
  5. Describe the overall pattern in urban population that is forecast by 2050. [3]
  6. Suggest two reasons for this pattern of growth. [4]
  7. Explain why China is forecast to have urbanization despite a reduction in urban growth. [2]
  8. Identify the type of urban area that is likely to have the most growth in the future. [1]

Other tasks

Choose two other countries that you are interested in. Identify and describe the changes they will have in terms of their urban populations over the next three decades. Use the following website to help you: https://population.un.org/wup/Country-Profiles/

© 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.