UN says half the world's population will live in urban areas by end of 2008

UNITED NATIONS: Half the world's population will live in urban areas by the end of this year and about 70 percent will be city dwellers by 2050, with cities and towns in Asia and Africa registering the biggest growth, according to new U.N. projections released Tuesday.

The report predicts that there will be 27 "megacities" with at least 10 million population by mid-century compared to 19 today, but it forecasts that at least half the urban growth in the coming decades will be in the many smaller cities with less than 500,000 people.

According to the latest U.N. estimate last year, world population is expected to increase from 6.7 billion in 2007 to 9.2 billion in 2050. During the same time period, the new report said, the population living in urban areas is projected to rise from 3.3 billion to 6.4 billion.

"Thus, the urban areas of the world are expected to absorb all the population growth expected over the next four decades while at the same time drawing in some of the rural population," the report said. "As a result, the world rural population is projected to start decreasing in about a decade, and 600 million fewer rural inhabitants are expected in 2050 than today."

The report stresses that these projections will take place only if the number of children in families in the developing world continues to decline, especially in Africa and Asia.

At a news conference launching the 2007 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects, Hania Zlotnik, head of the U.N. Population Division, expressed hope that increasing urbanization "will go hand in hand with economic growth."

She said more than 70 percent of the population in Europe, North America, and many other richer developed countries already live in urban areas.

But only 39 percent of Africans and 41 percent of Asians lived in urban areas last year — and these regions and other less developed countries are going to experience the most population growth in their cities and towns in the coming decades, the report said.

"During 2008, for the first time in history, the proportion of the population living in urban areas will reach 50 percent," it said.

"Globally, the level of urbanization is expected to rise from 50 percent in 2008 to 70 percent in 2050," the report said.

By mid-century, Asia is projected to see its urban population increase by 1.8 billion, Africa by 900 million, and Latin America and the Caribbean by 200 million, it said.

"While in the more developed regions, the proportion urban was already nearly 53 percent in 1950, in the less developed regions the 50 percent level will likely be reached around 2019," the report said.

Zlotnik said the U.N. expects Africa to reach the 50 percent mark between 2045 and 2050.

"Asia, if it continues to urbanize as rapidly as it's doing now, especially because of the rapid urbanized in China, is expected to become 50 percent urbanized around 2020-2025," she said.

China, the world's most populous nation, at this moment is 40 percent urban, Zlotnik said. The U.N. expects its urban population to reach more than 70 percent by 2050 — increasing from more than 500 million now to slightly more than 1 billion at mid-century, she said.

By contrast, the world's second most populous nation, India, currently has just over 300 million urban residents, or 29 percent of its population living in urban areas, Zlotnik said, and by 2050 it is expected to have only 55 percent of its population, about 900 million, in cities.

"So India is expected to urbanize much less than China, and therefore it is expected to remain the country with the largest rural population during most of the future decades," Zlotnik.

She stressed that most of the world's urban population is concentrated in relatively few countries.

"Twenty five countries account today for 75 percent of the urban population of the world. In 2050 we will need only 28 countries to account for that 75 percent," Zlotnik said.

She added that there are great disparities in levels of urbanization today and there will still be disparities at mid-century.

Burundi and Papua New Guinea, for example, only have 10 percent of their populations living in urban areas today, while small city states like Singapore, Hong Kong and Macao are 100 percent urban, Zlotnik said.

She said the greatest contrast is in Oceania, the Pacific group of nations, where Australia has almost 90 percent of its population in urban areas today while Papua New Guinea only has 12 percent.

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