causes effects and solutions for urbanization

Did you know that over half of the people on Earth are living in a city right now? Urbanization is the runaway trend for human habitation, with people abandoning rural life and flocking to cities. But with city life comes city problems, and urbanization is increasingly identified as the driver of many environmental and social concerns.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the causes, effects, and solutions for urbanization, including a breakdown of the sustainable cities strategy and how future current and future generations might implement this.

What is urbanization?

Urbanization is the phenomenon of the sustained mass movement of people from the rural areas of a country or region to cities and suburbs.

What is an urban area?

The US Census defines an urban area as a continuously built-up region with a population of 50,000 or more. These towns and cities usually have a central built-up area with a surrounding densely settled urban fringe.

an aerial view of an urban area
A view of the common urban area

The urbanization phenomenon

Due to this massive population shift to cities, their size had grown, leading to an increasing proportion of land being requisitioned and developed for housing and amenities for an expanding urbanized population. Conversely, rural populations have gradually declined as more and more people leave for the cities.

Urbanization is taking place all over the world. It is as common in more economically developed countries as it is in lesser economically developed countries. According to the World Bank, more than 56% of the world’s population lives in cities. This means that more than 4.4 billion people call some part of a city their home. The urbanization trend is set to continue, with a peak of over 70% of people living in urbanized environments by 2050.

The scale of the urbanization issue

Urbanization is a global issue that has led to a marked change in how people work and live.

Here are some urbanization trends statistics:

  • According to Our World in Data, urbanization is greatest in the world’s wealthiest regions, with North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia having up to 80% of the population living in cities.
  • Middle-income regions, including Eastern Europe, South America, and Southern Africa, have between 50 and 80% of their population living in cities.
  • Only 1.5% of all land on Earth is urbanized!
  • But 1.5% of the Earth’s land (cities) is responsible for more than 50% of global productivity.
  • Up to 50% of people in the Americas, Puerto Rico, Israel, and Japan live in urban agglomerations that consist of defined cities and metropolitan areas connected by large areas of urban sprawl.

But this is changing quickly. By clicking on any country shown in the World Data map, you can see how urbanization rates change with time. For many countries, you see a rapid migration of populations into towns and cities.

It’s all about people

Urbanization is primarily about the movement of people rather than the buildings and infrastructure that they inhabit. This phenomenon is really about people leaving to seek better living conditions, work and opportunities, and an environment that appears to offer them.

Money moves to cities, too

The expectation of a better life by moving to cities is understandable, as more than 80% of global GDP is generated in cities. Urbanization is a key characteristic of global economic development. Wealth and productivity are concentrated in cities, leading to an uplift in the per capita level of income for residents and trickle-down rises in the standard of living.

Cities are hubs of regional infrastructure, often with industrialized districts where manufacturing and other productive activity take place. This industrialization of economies was historically the primary driver of net migration from rural communities to cities, as plentiful work was available.

In countries with a service-based economy, the industry is not the primary pull, but the migration for job opportunities has continued.

What are the causes of urbanization?

There are significant drivers of urbanization that are similar throughout the world. Here are the leading identified causes for the population shift to towns and cities:

1. The industrialization of economies

The 18th-century industrial revolution that was born in Great Britain has been gradually exported around the world. As countries industrialize their economies, they build infrastructure to process raw materials and manufacture various goods for domestic use and export.

brown and white factory building during night time
Urban areas are often formed around an industrial facility

This necessitates the creation of jobs to supply the manpower for factories and other industrial facilities. Industrial workers also need nearby housing and amenities, drawing other workers to establish urban communities.

The industrial district also develops infrastructure related to the movement of goods, trade, and commerce. This catalyzes the development of towns and cities around areas of industry.

2. Employment opportunities

A city is a man-made ecosystem that is driven by human activity. Continuous labor is required for every aspect of urban existence, with jobs spanning administration to waste management. This means plentiful job opportunities enable incomers to establish themselves quickly in cities.

Urban jobs typically pay a regular wage that is usually higher than can be earned in the countryside. This is a powerful draw for people living a physically demanding rural lifestyle, which is seasonal and often has unpredictable earnings.

3. Infrastructure and amenities

Another cause of urbanization is the attraction of the advanced infrastructure that urban areas contain. Towns and cities are developed environments where sustained investment has created robust networks of roads, telecommunications, power, fresh water access, sanitation, and sophisticated supply chains for the products and services that city dwellers require.

city railway station
Urban areas attract people with their developed infrastructure

People want to move to cities to take advantage of these services that may not be available in many rural parts of the world. Urban areas provide residents with access to key amenities like schools, hospitals, shops, and entertainment and recreational facilities that can provide residents with a better quality of life.

4. Centralization of commerce

Through industrialization and the manufacture and trade of goods, cities quickly become commercial centers, with people heading into them to buy and sell. The high and concentrated population increases the demand for goods and services which can be delivered to the population for profit.

The high level of financial transactions in cities and towns necessitates the presence of banks and other financial institutions that concentrate wealth. Many cities even have their own stock exchange or markets for the large-scale trading of commodities and other investments.

5. Centralization of education, culture, and government

Urbanization has offered people a massive uplift in their quality of life, enabling them to pursue pursuits beyond subsistence living. Cities are often well-designed and government, making them centers of political power.

United States Capital Building in Washington D
Big cities usually become financial and political centers

In addition, leading academic institutions use the infrastructure and amenities to educate the population and attract the leading thinkers within a nation. Entertainment venues like theaters, bars, and sports facilities shape a cohesive identity and culture for a city’s inhabitants. These factors make the concept of a city aspiration to many people.

6. Modernization

Urban areas are also attractive because they are associated with a modern way of life. Cities attract a highly literate, savvy, and well-informed population with access to the most advanced technology a nation can offer its people. New fashions, political ideas, and creativity often come from urban districts, which may be more liberal due to their wealth and opportunity.

Cities absorb large numbers of people who want to live an urbanized lifestyle. Many people are even prepared to endure living in slum-dwellings for many years to escape rural poverty, and to obtain the chance for social advancement.

7. Displacement of peoples

People do not always voluntarily find themselves living in urban areas. Throughout history, the displacement and concentration of people have been associated with war, famine, land grabs, and slavery.

Tents for homeless people nearby the city
People do not always voluntarily choose to move to the city

As people disperse from rural areas, the agricultural and natural resource potential of rural areas is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. The world’s five biggest landowners, including the Roman Catholic Church, Australian mining magnate Gina Rinehart, and Mudanjiang City Mega Farm own nation-sized quantities of land.

8. Natural resource exploitation

Previously underdeveloped rural areas can be rapidly transformed into urbanized communities through the discovery of valuable natural resources like precious metals, minerals, or oil. Resource exploitation requires massive investment infrastructure that attracts workers and their dependents.

The increased productivity and wealth creation of mining towns can lead to them becoming cities, with diversified real estate, like commercial buildings and shops, and robust transport links (road, rail) to other urban areas.

9. Population increases

Global population growth accelerated in the second half of the 20th century and currently stands at over 7.8 billion people. Many nations house most of their population in urban areas because it offers the opportunity for high-density housing that can accommodate large numbers of people in a relatively small area rather than lower-density rural housing.

The key effects of urbanization

Towns and cities attract people because of their opportunities and convenience. But urbanization has numerous advantages, and the disadvantages of rapid and often unplanned urban growth. are increasingly recognized. Here are some of the most important effects of urbanization:

An uplift in living standards for many

Cities can significantly uplift living standards for larger populations of people than rural areas. This is primarily because of the centralization of a region’s economic and human resources, driving wealth creation and innovation.

Cities provide ready access to essential services like education and healthcare. In particular, studies have shown that infant mortality is significantly reduced in urban areas because of quick access to health services.

Authorities and private companies can also easily provide cheaper access to fresh water, sanitation, and utilities in the city than in expansive underdeveloped rural areas.

The development of slums and squatter settlements

One of urbanization’s most important negative effects is the development of slum districts. These are unofficial extensions to towns and cities that offer the cheapest housing opportunities for poor people who have migrated to an urban area.

slums on the river bank
Slums are characterized by weak build quality and poor living conditions

Slums are found worldwide but are most concentrated in developing countries. The UN has suggested that up to a third of urban inhabitants live in slums. These urban districts are characterized by the following:

  • Poor housing is often erected using discarded materials.
  • Overcrowded high-density neighborhoods.
  • Few utilities and amenities as the neighborhoods are informally erected or squatter communities.
  • No waste disposal or sanitation facilities, leading to disease outbreaks.
  • Few public services creating impoverished, segregated communities with little hope of improving their circumstances.

Increased demand for water and sanitation

Though access to water and sanitation is one of the key benefits of urbanization, the rate of urbanization can outstrip these essential resources. Many poorer countries not only have to provide water to metropolitan areas but also have to meet rising demand from slums and other informal urbanized settlements.

A continuous rise in urban population leads to a massive increase in the demand for water, stressing reservoir and groundwater supplies. In addition, municipal authorities have the challenge of dealing with the wastewater generated by a large and concentrated population. Many developing countries have little to no sewage infrastructure in place.

Providing sanitation infrastructure for slums is difficult because the neighborhoods are unplanned and heterogeneous. Any pit latrines or septic tanks that are installed are often inadequate and can become a health risk, contaminating freshwater supplies or overflowing and spreading disease.

clean water pouring onto a person's hand
Urbanization requires a greater demand for clean water

Generation of waste and pollution

The concentrated human population in urban areas negatively affects the surrounding environment significantly. This is not because of the people themselves but because of how they live. Urban lifestyles consume natural resources and generate waste and pollution. Negative effects include:

  • Air pollution: Traffic in urban areas is often congested, leading to increased air pollution and a sustained deterioration in air quality in urban centers. Air quality is also degraded by burning wood for heat and cooking, and exhaust fumes from industrial activity.
  • Water pollution: In many developing countries, surface water and watercourses in urban areas become open sewers and polluted with solid waste. Without regulation and enforcement, businesses will also discharge pollutants into waterways, leading to long-term contamination of surface and groundwater supplies
  • Municipal solid waste: The waste generated by urban populations needs to be carefully managed, or it will pollute the environment. Many urban areas and slums are affected by the open dumping or burning of waste. This releases pollutants that are extremely hazardous to human health. 

Damage to human health

Though people in towns and cities often have ready access to healthcare facilities, urbanization can have devastating long-term effects on human health. The main adverse health effects of urbanization come from the pollution and waste that is generated by the artificially concentrated population.

Poor urban inhabitants face the health challenges that come with degraded living conditions and limited clean water and sanitation. But poor air quality or waterborne disease outbreaks can affect city-dwellers of all socioeconomic levels. Sadly, the youngest and most vulnerable members of urbanized communities are often affected most.

Pressure on food supplies

The massive movement of people to cities places pressure on the supply and distribution of food. People living in cities are no longer producers of their own food. As consumers, they are reliant on purchased food that needs to be brought into the city.

Food security in urban areas is vulnerable to the market prices for different foods. As demand rises, food can become expensive, especially as the availability of agricultural land is increasingly eroded by urban sprawl. Freshwater pollution can also harm fish stocks that urban communities may rely on for food.

a shopper holding an apple at the farmers market
The city population must rely on the food to be brought into the city

Social problems

Urban environments can also foment entrenched social problems, often driven by socioeconomic deprivation and slum proliferation. Built-up urban environments that are not properly managed and secured can allow criminal activity like drug abuse and prostitution to proliferate and dominate specific parts of a town or city.

Poorer residents of cities may find themselves working long hours, leading to strain on family and community relations. Overcrowding and poor living conditions deteriorate the quality of life, health, and prospects of younger urban dwellers. In developing countries, neglected children may become street children missing out on education.

Are there solutions for urbanization?

Organizations like the World Bank and the UN have partnered with governments and stakeholders to investigate and develop solutions for urbanization. The current consensus is that a new type of urban environment known as a sustainable city should be developed.

What is a sustainable city?

Sustainable cities and communities are a reimagined form of urbanization with environments that have been deliberately created to be environmentally and resource sustainable. Governments have the aspiration that sustainable cities will be resilient and productive environments with impeccable green credentials.

According to the Energy and Environmental Building Alliance, sustainable cities have the following characteristics, which each serves as solutions to the problems caused by urbanization: 

  1. A safe and accessible public transportation network with city-wide coverage encourages people to leave their cars at home.
  2. Neighborhoods that are easily biked or walked, for a reduction in short car journeys, which are the most polluting. 
  3. A network of electric car charging stations to increase the adoption of electric vehicles in urban environments.
  4. Integration of renewable energy sources.
  5. Development of energy-efficient, sustainable architecture that features living roofs, solar panels, insulation, and smart building management technology.
  6. Infrastructure to maximize the recycling of waste.
  7. Access to green spaces and community gardens for the cultivation of food.

In line with the UN’s sustainable development goals, sustainable cities will be inclusive, going a long way to ending the extreme poverty that still affects many parts of the world. Organizations are currently investing and lending money to kickstart the creation of these cities, with the World Bank funding over 230 projects with $33.9 billion in loans and investment project financing.

How sustainable cities are being created

The transition towards sustainable urban environments is already underway. Many of the Sustainable Development Goals are currently being integrated into governmental policy and legislation with little public consultation. However, here are the strategies that are currently being used to develop sustainable cities:

1. Develop new planning policies

A key driver of sustainable cities will be the planning policies used to create and shape them. Urbanization problems like sprawl and slums have arisen because of an absence of urban planning, zoning, or governance.

The movement for sustainable cities is therefore targeting municipal authorities with training, white papers, and diagnostic tools that can help them make better-informed planning decisions. With strengthened planning systems, cities can manage their assets better and develop the sustainable urban environments of the future.

2. Release funding for sustainable development projects

Transforming existing urban environments into sustainable cities and developing new ones will require trillions of dollars, far beyond most countries’ GDP, including the US. This means that financial resources for these cities will have to be raised through borrowing money from banks like the IMF and World Bank. 

The financing costs for sustainable urbanization are estimated to cost more than $5 trillion per year, especially if efforts are made to develop low-emission infrastructure. Developing countries will require the most funding, which could lead to them becoming indebted if they do not derive an economic advantage from the development.

3. Build infrastructure to connect regions and distribute wealth

The centralization of wealth, administration, and governance has long been a feature of cities. However, to ensure that the economic uplift of sustainable cities benefits an entire nation, infrastructure should promote interconnectivity between settled regions.

Strategists specializing in territorial and spatial development advise that infrastructure should level up inequalities within cities and lagging regions to accelerate growth and make jobs accessible to workers without migrating over long distances. By harnessing agglomerations, nations can leverage the productivity of key cities to boost economic growth!

bird's eye view of the highway between cities
To leverage all the benefits of a sustainable city – urban areas must be interconnected

4. Build for environmental resilience

Cities in many parts of the world are vulnerable to the damaging effects of natural disasters like tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Developing countries are most affected, with natural disasters costing their economies at least 1% of their GDP annually.

Sustainable cities will feature architectural design and engineering that can withstand disaster conditions. City authorities also have to upgrade their building regulations to ensure they are built in line with the most advanced construction standards.  

The hazardous environments and precarious housing conditions of slums mean that they suffer the most damage if a natural disaster occurs. Urban housing development needs to consider slum communities and embrace an inclusive home-building approach.

5. Invest in the poorest and most marginalized communities

Tackling marginalization is key to creating more productive and inclusive urban environments. Stakeholders are keen to target investment at eradicating entrenched urban poverty and slums. Architects and designers will be required to develop safe and secure housing that can accommodate people who will be displaced as slum neighborhoods are redeveloped.

City district with old buildings and shops
Investing in slums can help these areas lift themselves out of poverty

An important issue has been the lack of service access and connectivity access that slum and informal settlement communities face. By investing in internet access, and other services, these city residents can participate in the digital economy and find opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty.

Another area where inclusivity will be integrated into sustainable cities is accessibility for people with visible and hidden disabilities, maximizing participation by everyone in these innovative urban environments.

In conclusion

The urbanization trend shows no sign of slowing down. As cities become the predominant setting for human life and activity, these built-up environments need to change to be safe, and sanitary and lessen their environmental impact.

However, countries are likely to become heavily indebted to international banks to achieve the sustainable cities proposed as the solution for urbanization. Without a reasonable return on investment, through economic growth and shared prosperity, sustainable cities cannot be sustained.

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