EU Science Hub

How our planet became more urbanised than ever

The JRC analyses satellite data to track human settlements across the planet
The JRC analyses satellite data to track human settlements across the planet
Feb 07 2020

Over three-quarters of the world’s population now live in urban areas, according to the JRC’s new Atlas of the Human Planet.

The Atlas will be officially launched on Monday at the 10th session of the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi.

With data spanning four decades and nearly 240 countries and territories, the Atlas shows how humans have settled on Earth and urbanised the planet.

From 1975-2015, the share of people living in urban areas has increased from 69% to 76%.

Across the globe, the number of countries and territories with less than 50% of total population living in urban areas has fallen from 48 in 1975 to 36 in 2015.

Over the same period, the number of countries with more than 90% of their population in urban areas doubled from 16 to 32.

The planet is becoming more and more urbanised due to faster population growth in towns and cities compared to rural areas.

For most of the globe, urbanisation has increased over the past four decades.
For most of the globe, urbanisation has increased over the past four decades.

©EU 2020

However, it’s not the same for all countries and territories. Some, like those in Asia, Africa and Latin America, are seeing particularly fast urbanisation.

Others, especially in Eastern Europe, are even ‘de-urbanising’, with a general decline in population hitting urban areas harder than rural ones.

According to the Atlas, the most urbanised EU country is Malta, where 95% of the population live in urban areas. Second and third (according to data which was collated before the UK’s withdrawal from the EU) are the United Kingdom (85%) and the Netherlands (82%).

The Atlas includes a country brief for all these countries and territories and over 200 more, so that the different trajectories of urbanisation across the globe can be compared.

The comparison is possible thanks to the application of the European definition of urban and rural areas to the JRC’s Global Human Settlement Layer data.

The definition distinguishes cities, towns, suburbs and rural areas based on population density and population size. Under the definition, a human settlement becomes ‘urban’ as it reaches 5,000 inhabitants.

This is the fourth edition of the Atlas of the Human Planet series. Previous editions of the Atlas focused on cities, exposure to natural hazards and mapping human settlements from space.

With an ever-increasing global population and the volatile impacts of climate change, providing these insights can help in making well-informed decisions about where to build new settlements and possibly even relocate settlements most at risk of things like floods, fires, sea level rises and droughts.

Background

Individual countries collect and interpret urbanisation in myriad ways, which can make it difficult to compare and get a global picture. By simplifying the definition of an urban area to one variable – population density – the Atlas will complement national figures with new, comparable data.

To achieve this, experts used Artificial Intelligence to process several terabytes of satellite data (the JRC’s own symbolic machine learning classifier for satellite data).

Institutions that address urbanisation at the regional and global level have all been involved in co-designing the methodology, and are now using the resulting datasets.

The methodology was initially designed to compare urbanisation statistics across EU member states. The new Atlas puts the urbanisation in Europe in the context of developments in other continents.

The JRC is also providing the knowledge base to an international consortium committed to developing a harmonised global definition of urban and rural areas. The consortium will present a proposed definition for endorsement at the United Nations Statistical Commission in March this year.

The consortium includes the European Commission, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the International Labour Organisation, and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme.