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News & opinion

29 AUG 2018

Global urban populations: not all data is the same

‘Everything we’ve heard about global urbanisation turns out to be wrong’.

In July 2018, the Thomson Reuters Foundation published an article with the headline: ‘Everything we’ve heard about global urbanisation turns out to be wrong’. The headline was a quote from a lead researcher at the European Commission (EC) who claimed that the widely accepted UN global urban population statistics were an underestimation.

The Thomsen Reuters article, picked up by several websites and newspapers, reported that EC researchers had estimated that 84% (the latest estimate is 81%) of the world’s population currently live in urban areas. Their estimate used a definition made possible by high-resolution satellite imagery. This compares with the often-quoted UN figures that the world’s urban population will grow to 70% by 2050 from 55% at present. The latest UN forecast is 68% by 2050 (World Urbanization Prospects).

Global vs regional figures

It should be remembered, though, that these UN figures are global and not regional. According to the UN, 2018 regional urban populations are: Northern America 82%, Latin America and the Caribbean 81%, Europe 74% and Oceania 68%. The UN figure for Europe is very similar to the EC’s estimate of 72% reported in The State of European Cities 2016, Cities Leading the Way to a Better Future report. The EC estimate for Northern America in the report is 73%.

According to an Accenture study, 79% of enterprise executives agree that companies that do not embrace Big Data will lose their competitive position and could face extinction. Even more, 83%, have pursued Big Data projects to seize a competitive edge.

The UN expects Asia and Africa to account for almost 90% of the predicted growth in urban population between now and 2050, and it is these two regions where the UN and European figures diverge most significantly. The UN figures state that the percentage of citizens in urban populations in Asia and Africa are around 50% and 43% respectively. By contrast, the corresponding latest (2018) EC estimates are around 83% and 80%. These differences could have important implications for where to focus development efforts, ie. the balance between rural and urban. Countries use national definitions when reporting their demographic statistics to the UN, whereas the EC uses harmonised standard definitions.

Speaking at a recent World Bank event, Lewis Dijkstra of the Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy at the European Commission (whose presentation contains updated EC estimates) said that a “harmonised” and “people-based definition” of cities enables effective monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Also known as the Global Goals, the SDGs are part of the UN’s universal call to action to end poverty and tackle macro-challenges, such as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, and peace and justice.