By Floyd Norris, The New York Times, July 11, 2014
REALLY big cities used to be primarily in rich countries. But as the world has urbanized, that has changed.
The United Nations this week released its estimates of population in the largest cities — or “urban agglomerations” as the organization calls them because the areas do not necessarily conform to city boundaries — and found that just eight of the 30 largest cities were in countries that the World Bank defines as high income.
That compares with 20 of the top 30 in 1950, the first year for which the United Nations has data. By 2030, the organization projected, only four of the 30 largest cities will be in nations now viewed as high income. Those are Tokyo and Osaka in Japan and New York and Los Angeles in the United States. Of those, only one, Tokyo, will be in the Top 10. That area, which now has 37.8 million people, is expected to remain the world’s largest, but to decline to 37.2 million by then.
“Many countries are urbanizing at lower levels of development” than in the past, said John R. Wilmoth, the director of the population division of the United Nations. As people leave the countryside because of decreasing need for agricultural workers, he said, the important question will be whether cities have an industrial economy that can provide jobs and an infrastructure that can allow the new residents to live in acceptable conditions.
He said that it was easier and less expensive to provide such services as housing, health care, education, electricity and clean water to urban residents than to a similar number of people living in rural areas. But, noting the slums surrounding some cities in poor countries, he added that it was much more difficult to accomplish that after those slums grow.
“It is much better if the planning takes place before they arrive,” he said. “Hopefully, this report is something of a wake-up call.”
New York, which in 1950 was the largest urban area in the world, with 12.3 million residents, now has 18.6 million but ranks only ninth. In 1950, New York and Tokyo, with 11.3 million people, were the only areas with more than 10 million people. Now, there are 28 such areas, many of them in developing countries.
Two of them — Dhaka in Bangladesh and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo — are in countries that the World Bank considers to be low income, meaning that the country’s gross national product is less than $1,046 per person. Eight more are in countries with per capita figures under $4,126, making them lower-middle income according to the World Bank. Those eight include three from India and one each from Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines.
As recently as 1980, areas with more than a million people accounted for 13 percent of the world’s population. Now, the figure is 22 percent, and the United Nations forecasts that will rise to 27 percent by 2030.
The increasing urbanization has meant that a greater proportion of those living in large urban agglomerations are in the tropics, including 11 of the 30 largest areas in the world. Of the 1.5 billion people who now live in areas with at least one million people, 35 percent are in the tropics — defined as being between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. In 1970, when only 406 million people were concentrated in areas with more than a million people, just one-fifth of them were in the tropics.
That calculation does not count São Paulo, Brazil, the fifth largest urban area in the world, as being in the tropics, because its center is just south of the Tropic of Capricorn. But much of the population of the region lies north of the line, and the Brazilian government classifies the region as tropical. If São Paulo were counted as tropical, the tropical share this year would rise to 36 percent.