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Urbanization describes both growing cities and population shifts away from rural living.

This lesson explains both of these processes as well as several examples of urbanization from around the world.

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What Is Urbanization?

While Li Beming eats lunch, he watches the trucks below with both fascination and dread. The teenager has always wanted to be a construction worker, but he also knows these construction workers are scheduled to tear down his village next year. Beming and the Li family have lived in the same village in China for centuries, and generations of his family have eaten lunch at this spot. The small hill he’s on had previously offered views of several surrounding villages, but now his village is the only one remaining. The trucks, bulldozers, and cranes he’s watching have torn down the villages, put in roads, and built tall buildings–the city that used to be a day’s journey on foot is now on Beming’s doorstep.

Li Beming and his family’s village are hardly alone. Around the globe, more than a million people are changing from rural living to urban living every week. Because of this, the percentage of people living in urban areas has been increasing dramatically, with the UN announcing that 2008 marked the landmark year where more than half of humanity was living in urban areas.

Urbanization describes both the increasing footprint of urban areas and the increasing percentage of the urban population.


Increasing urbanization is hardly a new phenomenon. One could argue this has been happening since the time of the first city, which is somewhere between 6,500 and 8,000 years ago (depending on how city is defined and which evidence you deem sufficient). Every city that has sprung up in that time period could be considered an example. Let’s zoom in on a couple of the best known examples–London and Chinese coastal cities.


You may think of London as a sprawling city with trendy spots to eat and be seen.

Was it always this way? Between 1800 and 2000, the population of London increased from one million to ten million, which correlates to an annual population growth of just over 1%. During the same time frame, the urban area of London grew from 36 square kilometers to 2300 square kilometers, which correlates to an annual increase in urban land area of just over 2%. For this, and many urban centers, the growth in urban land was greater than the growth in urban population.

Chinese Coastal Cities

Cities along China’s coast, such as Zhangzhou–soon to be home to Li Beming and his family–have experienced unprecedented growth rates since 1978. That year saw the national government institute reforms to encourage commerce and industrialization. The fastest-growing Chinese cities have tripled in population from 1978-2010, with the urban footprint increasing by a factor of five in the same period.

Urbanization Statistics

Li Beming’s country of China and the rest of the world are now following in the footsteps of the United States, which exceeded 50% of the population living in urban areas somewhere between 1910 and 1920. At that time, the world urban population was just over 10%.

Now that the world urban population has crossed 50%, the United States’ urban population is greater than 80%.Even though more than 80% of the population of the United States lives in urban areas, the area of land taken up by urban centers is only around the 3% mark. Other countries have very different figures:

Country Estimated Urban Land %
Australia ;1%
Canada ;1%
United States 3%
Great Britain 6%
France 12%
Japan 14%
Germany 28%
Netherlands 28%

Lesson Summary

Urbanization describes both the increase in the percentage of a population that lives in cities as well as the increase in the size of those cities.

This process has been going on for thousands of years, but the planet crossed a threshold in 2008–there are now more humans living in urban areas than rural areas. That mark was passed in the United States almost a century before that–between 1910 and 1920.Demographers expect urbanization trends to continue at roughly the same rate through at least 2030. Every city since the dawn of mankind is an example of increasing urbanization, but two examples are 19th-century London and modern-day Zhangzhou.

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