The Living World
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An Overview of Urbanisation

Urbanisation is the process by which cities grow or societies become more urban, leading to significant social, economic, and environmental changes.

New York

Global Pattern

Globally, urbanisation is on the rise and has been for some time. More people now live in cities and towns than in rural areas such as villages, and there are various reasons for this, including migration and population increase. 

The global population has increased rapidly over the last two centuries. There are now more than 8 billion people living on Earth, a significant jump from 1950 when there were 2.5 billion people. High Income Countries (HICs) have a high level of urbanisation, while areas such as Africa and Asia have the lowest.

More people have moved to urban areas, a process known as rural to urban migration, and it has several causes, including:

  • The increase of industry in Newly Emerging Economies (NEEs) and Low-income Countries (LICs)
  • New industry increasing employment opportunities, pulling people into urban areas

In 1900, there were only two ‘millionaire cities, London and Paris. However, by 2018 this had increased to 512. Megacities are cities with more than 10 million people living there. In 1970, there were 4, while in 2023 there are 33.

HICs, NEEs and LICs Urban Growth

Urbanisation grows at different rates globally, and we can categorise countries into three broad groups to measure their development.

  • HIC – High Income Countries: Countries with a GNI (Gross National Income) per capita of $12,535 or above. These are richer countries with lots of industry and service jobs, like the UK, Germany and the USA.
  • NEE – Newly Emerging Economies: Countries experiencing high rates of economic development and industrialisation. These countries are moving away from agriculture and experiencing increasing incomes and investment e.g. Brazil, Mexico and Pakistan.
  • LIC – Low Income Countries: Countries with a GNI per capita of $1,035 or less. These are poorer countries whose jobs are mainly in fields such as mining or farming, e.g. Mali, Benin and Madagascar.

Urbanisation pathway

Below is an example of the stages a country will pass through as development occurs over time.

We can roughly plot most countries onto this pathway. Let’s take the UK for example:

The rate can be different depending on the country, but most urbanised countries in the world follow this urbanisation pathway trajectory.

HICs, NEEs and LICs all experience urbanisation differently and are positioned at different stages of the urbanisation pathway.


High income countries experience a slow urbanisation growth or may even experience a decline. Countries such as the UK, Japan and Germany experienced a big boom in urbanisation during the Industrial Revolution.

This has led to urban centres becoming overcrowded, pushing people towards more rural settings. Transport links tend to be excellent, so people can live outside of the city but still work in it.


Newly emerging economies are experiencing rapid urbanisation. Countries like China and Russia are emerging into a post-industrial economy, where cities are receiving investment from large corporations and the government.

Non-capital cities, such as Shanghai in China or Lagos in Nigeria, experience this as they become trading hubs. The cities have large financial districts, with many making money through electronic and manufactured goods.


Low income countries experience a more rapid state of urbanisation than any others. Countries like Rwanda, Vietnam and Bangladesh see massive movement towards urban centres for employment opportunities. Cities and towns house low-cost manufacturing, run by corporations to make things like clothing or shoes.

Multi-national corporations take advantage of comparatively low wages, while the citizens are paid more than they would be in a labour-intensive job. Cities are experiencing high levels of population increase and grow rapidly.

Key Terms

UrbanRelating to or characteristic of a town or city
Urban SprawlRapid expansion of cities and towns, usually the growth and increase of residential housing, creating new suburbs

Urbanisation Revision Guide

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