Study Notes

Global urbanisation patterns and the growth of urban areas

GCSE, AS, A Level, IB
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB, Eduqas

The world passed a landmark statistic sometime in 2014, when it was estimated that for the first time in human history over 50% of the world’s population was living in urban areas. What is happening to where we live, and why?

For urbanisation to happen, people need to move into cities rather than be born in them. The end result is a growth in the size of urban spaces, which could also be called ‘built environments’.

Urban populations grow as a result of:

  • Rural-urban migration (voluntary): urban ‘Pull factors’ predominate as people anticipate an improved quality of life in a city together with enhanced future prospects for themselves and their family.
  • Rural-urban migration (forced): rural ‘Push factors’ predominate as a result of environmental pressures in rural areas (floods/drought), food shortages and/or political conflict (violent insurgent groups such as Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria). More directly, government policy of moving rural inhabitants to cities may take any choice away from the migration. China’s bureaucratic relocation involved in the ‘National New-type Urbanisation Plan 2014-2020’ foresees moving over 260m people to cities in an attempt to modernise social and economic systems – an easier prospect when people are gathered rather than dispersed.
  • Assimilation: as urban areas expand they may incorporate nearby smaller towns and villages into expansive conurbations. The term ‘urban sprawl’ denotes the rapid spatial expansion of an urban area that is likely to surround and incorporate previously separate settlements.

Rapid suburbanisation took place as mass-housebuilding occurred in the decade after the Second World War. Rebuilding bomb-damaged cities and providing higher quality housing became a priority for the Labour government after 1945, and continued through successive governments. In order to prevent urban sprawl that had been a feature of the 1930s, much development was focused on the New Town programme (Milton Keynes, Telford etc.) and designating Green Belt land around major cities to, among other priorities, prevent cities merging into unbroken urban development.

Global patterns or urbanisation

North America, Europe and Oceania underwent their fastest urbanisation rates well before 1945 – in the 19th century. South and central America urbanised rapidly during the 1960s-80s, while the industrialisation and economic ‘take-off’ of many Asian countries in the 1980s to the present day (and continuing) has been accompanied by rapid urbanisation. This is likely to continue into the coming decades as economic growth continues and while there are still so many potential urban migrants living in rural areas. The continent that is presently starting to see rapid urbanisation occurring is Africa, with cities such as: Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) due to grow by 85% between 2010-2025; Nairobi (Kenya, 77%); Kinshasa (DRC, 72%) and the continent’s largest city – Lagos (Nigeria, 50%).

Emergence of megacities, world cities and their role in global and regional economies


  • Megacities are defined by their size (over 10m inhabitants) rather than their global significance. It may be one city (metropolitan area) such as Cairo, Egypt or a merging of a number of cities into a continuous built-up area (Tokyo-Yokohama, Japan).
  • They have doubled over the past two decades, from 14 in 1995 to 29 in 2016.
  • Their development is more likely where rapid economic growth is concentrated in a limited number of locations within a country. Mass rural-urban migration tends to be focused on these core urban areas rather than dispersed between a wider set of optional cities that migrants may select from, with different decisions made.
  • Megacities can benefit from more efficient infrastructure, such as mass transport systems and economically with both horizontal and vertical industrial integration. However, urban problems may be magnified in megacities (congestion, waste disposal, air pollution, lack of housing) and prove more problematic to solve.
  • Megacities are frequently major global hubs of manufacturing and export (Shenzhen, China and Delhi, India) in which goods are produced efficiently and at low cost and exported to the major world markets. They are also key markets, themselves for basic raw materials, components and energy resources.

World cities:

  • These are cities that have particular influence on global economic, cultural and political systems. They may be megacities (New York, Tokyo) but aren’t necessarily (London, Moscow, Paris, Berlin). They are seen to function as global hubs.
  • Key global financial networks are influenced by their concentration of major banks and commercial HQs, stock markets and politico-economic influence and include New York, London and Tokyo. Decisions taken there have global significance.
  • World cities may display the full range of key influences, or be distinctive for their dominance in certain ones rather than others (Paris: culture, fashion, art and media).

Many of the fastest developing cities in Asia combine a number of economic functions but are dominated by the service economy. Hyderabad, in India, is fast becoming an economic hub dominating the tertiary and quaternary sector in India. As well as being the financial and economic capital of the state of Telangana it is experiencing rapid growth as a city of Information Technology. Its call centres employ many university graduates who are in surplus to jobs available, the highest qualified of whom have led to it hosting major firms such as IBM, Dell, Oracle and General Electric. The city is aiming to become they key location for the Microsoft Development Centre in India and a prestige township development- HITEC City – has attracted a number of start-up IT and IT Enabled Services (ITES) allowing remote working.

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