31 July 2019

Europe, North America and South America are the most urbanised continents on the globe, with 74 per cent, 82 per cent and 84 per cent of people respectively living in cities, towns and other urban settlements; while Africa is around 42 per cent and Asia 49 percent urbanised. Each continent displays very different patterns of urbanisation, reflecting diverse histories, cultures and geographic constraints. However, these figures reflect differences in what types of settlements and density levels are considered urban by the public authorities in the different nations and regions of the world. For example,while the density threshold for urban areas in Europe is relatively low at 314 people per square kilometre (pp/km2), in Africa the threshold is much higher at 1,019 pp/km2. In rapidly urbanising countries in Asia, density thresholds are even higher: 1,433 pp/km2 in China and 4,128 pp/km2 in India.

To more accurately compare settlement structures globally, the following maps compare density levels between four regions – Africa, South and East Asia, Europe and South America – highlighting in red areas with densities over 1,000 pp/km2, rather than applying regional thresholds. In these maps, land is coloured on a spectrum based on population density, where light grey represents areas of the lowest densities and red the highest, up to 170,000 pp/km2. In addition to the maps, bar charts illustrate the density range inhabited by proportions of the population in each of the global regions.


Africa, the largest of the four regions, is experiencing a period of intense growth. While the urbanisation level is the lowest of the four at 42 per cent, this is set to rise dramatically. Despite low urbanisation levels, the percentage of the population living at the highest densities (over 10,000pp/km2) is 16 per cent – not far behind South and East Asia (18.3 per cent) and over three times that of Europe (4.9 per cent).Though the largest share of the population in Africa lives at high density (35.1 percent at 1,000–10,000 pp/km2), this is low in comparison to the other world regions, where nearly half of the population lives at an equivalent density (with South and East Asia at 45.2 per cent; Europe at 46.2 per cent; South America at 49.4 per cent). In Africa, there are fewer higher-density areas, with concentrations around major cities such as Lagos, Cairo, Johannesburg, Khartoum, Nairobi and Addis Ababa. The percentage of the population living at low densities is the highest in Africa, with 18.6 per cent living at levels under 100 pp/km2, compared to 6.9 percent in South and East Asia, 14.2 per cent in Europe and 13.8 per cent in South America.


South and East Asia feature far higher population densities across vast territories, as well as the emerging presence of large urban agglomerations such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Kolkata in addition to the established mega-cities of Tokyo, Shanghai, Jakarta, Delhi and Seoul. There are extensive concentrations of higher-density areas that are transforming from agricultural to urban economies in the regions stretching from Hong Kong to Guangzhou in the Pearl River Delta and along the River Ganges from Lahore in Pakistan to Dhaka in Bangladesh. Over 90 per cent of the population live above 100 pp/km2, as indicated by dark grey areas. Rapid demographic and economic growth account for South and East Asia’s high density levels, with the smallest proportion of the population living at the lowest densities and less than half the share of the population than in Europe living at densities under 10 pp/km2 (6.9 per cent vs 14.2 percent). South and East Asia’s urbanisation level of 44 per cent does not reflect the reality of high-density living in the region, as much of South and East Asia is considered rural where equivalent densities would be considered urban in Europe (314 pp/km2).


In Europe, there is a more decentralised form of urbanisation, with over half (51.1 per cent) of Europe’s residents occupying densities over 1,000 pp/km2, but only 4.9 percent of the population living at the highest levels of density (over 10,000 pp/km2) – a third of that in Africa. Europe also contains a greater concentration of cities with over 500,000 people and a large number of highly connected smaller cities and towns across parts of western Europe, reflecting its unique history founded on the power and autonomy of relatively small city-states,regions and nations.


South America features the largest proportion of the population at the highest density levels, with 74.4 per cent of the population living at densities over 1,000 pp/km2, including the largest global share of densities over 10,000 pp/km2 (25.0per cent). High-density areas are clustered around large cities such as São Paulo, Lima, Buenos Aires and Bogotá, located along continental edges known as the ‘populated rim’. Though the Andes mountains and the Amazon in central parts of South America limit urbanisation, the expansion of slums into valleys and along steep slopes, followed by waves of incremental upgrading and formal service provision, has seen cities overcome topographic constraints. South America features significantly fewer people living at the mid-range density of 100–1,000pp/km2 (11.89 per cent), nearly a third of the proportion seen in the other world regions.