You are here


For this section, you need to know quite a few things. As a minimum, you should have a good understanding of:

  1. Reasons and patterns of urbanisation.
  2. Urban models, their advantages and disadvantages.
  3. The consequences of urbanisation in the developed and developing world.
  4. Solutions to the above problems.


An urban area is a city or town.

City skyline

Urbanisation: The process whereby rural areas (countryside) are becoming urban. It will involve an increase in the absolute (and usually percentage of) population living in the urban area. The urban area will also grow in size to cover a greater physical area and there will be a move away from primary employment to secondary and later, tertiary.

An urban area can grow by two processes. Firstly, it will grow as a result of natural increase and secondly, as a result of net migration.

The developed world has experienced Urbanisation for hundreds of years. In the UK, this was largely following the Industrial Revolution in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Population density is lower than in the developing world. Growth in cities in developed world cities has largely stabilised, but there are still many issues which need addressing.

Urbanisation is a more recent phenomenon in the developing world. The growth over the past fifty years of many developing world cities has had major implications for the people living there and their management. Population density is very high.

The majority of the world's largest cities are in the developing world, as the table below shows:

Top ten world cities: Estimated population in 2000 (millions):
Mexico City 31
Sao Paulo 26
Tokyo 24
Shanghai 24
New York 23
Rio de Janeiro 19
Bombay 17
Calcutta 16
Seoul 14
Delhi 12

The number of million cities in the developing world will continue to increase. 'A million city' is one which has reached a population of one million plus.

You need an understanding of the reasons for growth, the problems and solutions. Problems and solutions will be dealt with later.

Million cities

1. The developed world:

Urbanisation in the developed world has steadied relative to that in the developing world. New York, which was the largest city in the world, is now the fifth largest, having been overtaken by Tokyo, but more significantly, Mexico City, Sao Paulo and Shanghai.

It is still important that you have an understanding of the reasons behind the growth of cities in the developed world.

Many Western European cities have very long histories as Roman or medieval cities. For example, London was a very important city in Roman times as a communication centre. They have, however, experienced the most rapid urbanisation in the last two centuries. London's population growth is shown below:

Year: Population:
Around 1500 75 000
Around 1700 575 000
1801 959 000
1851 2 363 000
1901 4 425 000
1951 8 193 000
1961 7 992 300
1991 6 337 900

(Data prior to 1961 from 'Changing Settlements' by Garrett Nagle)

(Data 1961-1991 from Philips' Geographical Digest 1992-1993)

As you can see, there was significant growth in the 1800's. The drop in population is a result of counter-urbanisation.

Reasons for this and the growth of most cities in the UK would include:

  1. The Industrial Revolution in the latter half of the eighteenth century stimulated a major redistribution of the population. People moved to locate adjacent to factories. This was further prompted by the decline of the traditional cottage industries.
  2. Towns started to benefit from specialisation, prompting further growth. Birmingham grew considerably as a consequence of specialising in brass manufacturing.
  3. The multiplier effect states that if an area receives a financial investment, this will stimulate further growth. For example, alongside the early factories, the following industries would have been likely to grow. Construction to build houses for the workers, navies to dig canals, people to work on the emergent railway network, engineers such as Brunel.
  4. Constant improvements in the removal, transportation and manufacturing of raw materials increased the wealth of the towns/cities and the nation. This allowed further investment.
  5. New transport links (railways) allowed further migration from rural areas.
  6. Towns and cities increased in size as Victorian developers built larger properties on the outskirts of towns/cities. This is an early example of sub-urbanisation where people move to the areas around a town/city. The suburbs can grow as transport links increase and people decide to move away from the densely populated inner city areas.
  7. Growth has continued today as businesses and retail compete for areas close to the CBD (Central Business District). Slum clearance and the building of high-rise developments have increased population densities.

Most recently, the growth in car ownership, improvements in road networks and the congested nature of many city centres has seen the decentralisation of many retail and entertainment functions to 'out-of-town' shopping centres, whilst a significant percentage of the population are choosing to live in rural areas (see counter-urbanisation).

City congestion

2. The developing world:

Cities in the developing world have experienced rapid urbanisation over the last fifty years. Since 1960 Mexico City's population has grown from around 5 million to an estimated 25 million - an average growth of half a million a year!

It is important that you understand the reasons behind the rapid population growth. There are two main reasons:

a. High natural growth rates. Countries experiencing the most rapid urbanisation are in stages two and three of the Demographic Transition Model. In these stages, natural increase is high so there is inevitably population growth. This population growth will be most marked when there is already a large population, as you would find in a city. (For more on the demographic transition model see the site on 'Population'.)

This does not, however, give us the full picture.

b. Developing world cities are experiencing a massive movement of the population from the rural countryside areas to the urban cities - rural to urban migration. People are leaving the countryside in thousands with the hope of a better life in the cities. You should have a good understanding of the reasons for rural to urban migration. If you need to check your knowledge, look up Migration on the 'Population' site.