UN urbanization figures could be wrong

New research by the European Commission has found that the widely accepted UN numbers on urban population growth are wrong. This could have major implications for development aid and public services for billions of people.

Researchers at the European Commission have used geospatial technology based on high-resolution satellite images to determine the number of people living in a given area. According to them, 84 per cent of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, markedly higher than the UN estimate of 55 per cent.

“Everything we’ve heard about global urbanization turns out to be wrong,” lead researcher Lewis Dijkstra said in a Thomson Reuters Foundation article.

This is particularly the case for Asia and Africa: the new research puts them at 90 per cent and 80 per cent urban respectively, roughly double the UN estimates of 50 per cent and 40 per cent.

“If this is true, the impact is going to be massive,” Dijkstra said. “A lot of development aid was geared toward rural.”

According to Dijkstra, the errors come down to the fact that countries self-report their demographic statistics to the UN using widely different standards. For instance, the US classifies a settlement as urban when it exceeds a population threshold of 2,500, for Egypt the threshold is 100,000. The European Commission for its part defines an urban centre as any contiguous stretch with at least 50,000 people and a population density of 1,500 per square kilometre.

Another problem is that when a city is defined according to its boundary line, this fails to take into account real economic and demographic patterns, such as commuters who live outside of the central city but work downtown and avail themselves of city services.

But the European approach has its critics. According to Anjali Mahendra, cities research director at the World Resources Institute, population density might not tell the whole story: “A lot of these satellite-image based definitions of urban miss informal settlements.”

Image credit: UN Photo/Kibae Park

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