Populations of the world: Urbanizing (and shrinking in the west)

UNICEF put out a great interactive graphic – a bubble for each nation of the world that’s projected to have 100,000 people or more who, in 2050, live in cities.  It’s not static, but shows small bubbles in 1950 which grow and change until the timeline reaches 2050.

Map of urban populations
UNICEF site for graph

The world is becoming much more urban.

In 2010, none of the countries of Europe or the Americas had 25% or fewer people in non-urban areas. In fact, almost all the under-25%-urban countries were African or island nations.  By 2050, nearly all of these have entered the 25-50% range.  I still think of Argentina as an exporter of beef – but more than 90% of its population already lives in an area defined as urban.

The world population has grown dramatically in the last 60 years

The bubbles are quite small – even for China and India – in the 1950 graph.  The scale is needed to so that modern India and China can fit into the graph.  The US population also rapidly expands, as do most nations of the world, in the 1950 to 2010 frame.  The slowing of China’s growth is noticeable.

The hidden trend: stable or shrinking urban populations

A country’s name appears in the chart when its urban population reaches 60 million.  In 1950, only 3 nations are named: the USA, China, and India.  The Russian Federation (USSR at the time) comes on in 1960; Japan, Indonesia, Brazil and others join in. Eleven nations are named in the 2010 graph; Great Britain joins in the projections.

But as the timeline moves into the projected phase, the size of some bubbles begins to decline. While China and India continue to grow – their current populations are relatively young – the urban population of Russia is shrinking consistently; Japan’s and Germany likewise start to shrink.  Other nations in the developed world also show shrinking urban populations.

This highlights the demographic trend missed by the casual observer. While the world population continues to grow, most developed nations are on a path towards a shrinking – and aging – population. With birth rates below 2.1 children per woman, each generation is smaller than the one before – yet has to produce food, goods, and taxes sufficient for the needs of the nation – including the grand-parent and great-grandparent generations. For these nations, the population in cities grows not so much with working-age adults and their children but with retired adults who are living much longer in the city to which they moved in their youth.  As sociologist Mark Regnerus wryly describes in in the film Demographic Winter

It’s not that we’re breeding like rabbits. It’s that we’ve stopped dying like flies.

I would be interested to see UNICEF – remember, the C stands for children! – put out a similar graph showing the number and the percentage of a nation’s population that is under the age of 18.

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