An Urbanized World: Should We Put All Our Eggs In The Urban Basket?

Urbanization, the growing share of people living in urban areas, is often used as an argument for tackling societal problems in an urban context (read: cities). Here in Sweden, for instance, 85% of the population is living in urban areas. And although Sweden has an exceptionally high urban population, high rates of urban dwellers are not uncommon, as globally more than half of the people live in urban areas.

Percentage urban and location of urban agglomerations with at least 500,000 inhabitants, 2014. Source: UN | World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights.

Percentage urban and location of urban agglomerations with at least 500,000 inhabitants, 2014. Source: UN | World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights.

So it is not surprising to read things like:

“If the majority of the world’s population is living in cities, and urban dwellers’ activities have such a large environmental impact, doesn’t it stand to reason that it’s in cities where solutions that will improve people’s lives and our relationship with the planet must be sought and implemented?” (Lerner 2015, NY Times)

Normally I’d just continue reading. I have seen this urban-world statement so often that I it has become an undoubted fact, something we hardly reflect upon. In the quote above, Lerner uses the concepts ‘urban’ and ‘city’ almost as synonyms. Something I usually do as well. When I think of an urban place I see a city. But really these two are far from the same.

When I think of an urban place I see a city.

When I think of an urban place I see a city.

Using these two concepts as synonyms is misinformed, since both have widely ranging definitions depending on the country you look at. These can be based on all kinds of parameters. But because we are talking about urban population size, let’s stick to that and ask: when is a place urban?

The Department of Social and Economic Affairs at the UN is a good starting point to answer this question, considering that an influential organization like the UN is a dominant actor in shaping public discourses. Their report 2014 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects states the following:

“The estimates of the proportion of the population that is urban and the size of urban agglomerations presented in World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision are based on national statistics.” (Page 28)

So I took a closer look at the national definitions of “urban” and came across differences so large that I have no idea what we mean when we talk about the world’s urban population. Here an example from the UN report:

Sweden: Refers to "tätort" - places with at least 200 inhabitants and at most 200 meters between buildings (According to the administrative divisions of 2005). Netherlands: municipalities with 20,000 inhabitants or more.

Just for fun, I decided to recalculate Sweden’s urban population using the Dutch definition. Sweden’s national statistics bureau (SCB) made a list of these tätorts and their respective population size back in 2010. I then subtracted the urban areas that had less than 20,000 inhabitants, leaving me with 57 places and 4,768,952 Swedes. The total Swedish population in 2010 was 9,417,000 (SCB). This means that, using the Dutch definition of urban, 50.6% of the Swedish population lived in an urban area back in 2010 (instead of 85.1% using the Swedish). This is less than the world’s average of 54%.

New ways of measuring the urban population of countries are being developed. An example of this is the EU’s ‘A Harmonized Definition of Cities and Rural Areas: the New Degree of Urbanisation’. The UN report I mention in this post also recognizes these new techniques, but writes:

“No attempts have been made to impose consistency in definitions across countries. However, several efforts are underway at different institutions to produce globally consistent estimates of the proportion urban with uniform criteria to define urban areas by relying, for example, on satellite imagery of land cover or night-time lights. Nonetheless, to date, these approaches have not generated the long historical time series of urbanization estimates required for this report” (Page 30)

Statistics are never neutral and by changing definitions we can change our perspective of the world. So why do the Swedes use a definition that makes them look urban? In our time, the process of urbanization seems to be linked to an idea of progress, because cities are perceived to hold the future. In contrast the rural becomes more associated with backwardness. It is the cities where the most highly educated people live, they are the places of innovation, and they are the economic powerhouses that have the ability to compete in a new global world. Being more urbanized can thus give the impression that your country is ahead.

At the same time the urbanized image of Sweden has created a narrative in which the countryside/the rural becomes marginalized. According to that argument, we don’t have to focus that much on this countryside, because it is the urban areas that are dominant and have the future.

What is urban and what is rural is partly just a matter of definition. What is clear though, is that we shouldn’t take for granted that it is the cities, or the urban, or rural areas for that matter, where we have to find all our solutions to societal problems. I love cities, but there is more to the world, and the dichotomization between rural/urban oversimplifies reality.

Written by Sascha Benes. Follow him on Twitter and Linkedin