Where we live

Patterns of urbanisation are usually captured by a key demographic indicator – the Urbanisation Index – that tells us, for example, that Europe, South and North America are the most urbanised continents on the globe, with 73%, 83% and 82% of people respectively living in cities, towns and other urban settlements; while Africa is around 40% and Asia 48%, and growing. What these figures disguise is an inconsistency in methodology as to what is considered urban and what is considered rural by the public authorities that collect data in the different nations and regions of the world.

LSE Cities has developed a simple yet innovative methodology to try to capture the subtle variations in patterns of urban and rural habitats amongst four regions of the world: Europe, India, Sub-Saharan Africa and China. The maps displayed on the following pages are based on the combination of two datasets: the urbanisation level for each world region/country published in the UN DESA World Urbanisation Prospect, and the ambient population density drawn from LandScan 2010 data, which assigns for each square kilometre of the world’s land surface a figure which is equivalent to its average population over a 24-hour period.

In these maps, different land ‘parcels’ are assigned the ‘urban’ (red) or ‘rural’ (grey) category on the basis of the threshold level of ambient population density – which differs from region to region, and nation to nation – for which the total population of all land parcels above that density equates to the total urban population in each region. For example, while the density threshold in Europe is relatively low at 314 people/km2, in India the threshold is much higher at 4,128 people/km2. The innovative dimension of the mapping technique is to base the distribution of rural/urban areas on ambient population density (rather than local or regional designations), providing a more universal parameter to compare the distinct distribution of urban and rural settlements while taking account of regional differences in urbanisation levels.

In Europe, there is a more decentralised form of urbanisation that reflects the culture, history and geography of the region. Even though 73% of Europeans live in urban areas – the most urbanised of the four global regions – the urbanisation density threshold is low, meaning that areas with more than 314 people/km2 are considered urban, contrasting with India where this threshold is over ten times higher. Europe’s urban residents occupy just 3% of the total land area of the geographic region, and a third of the total land area remains unpopulated (shown in white on the maps) consisting mostly of large bodies of water and mountains. It also contains a greater number of cities with over 500,000 people (128) with a very large number of highly-connected smaller cities and towns across parts of Germany, the Netherlands and Benelux countries, and Northern Italy.

India stands out for the far higher population densities in rural areas across vast territories such as the Ganga valley, as well as the emerging presence of large cities like Calcutta, Hyderabad, Bangalore Mumbai and Delhi. The dark grey areas in Northern India reflect the preponderance of high-density rural areas which, by European standards, would be considered urban. While India has an urbanisation level of 32% , its urban areas represent only 1% of the total land surface of the country, but only 5% of the country is unpopulated – a much lower percentage the other three global regions. In India, the urbanisation density threshold is by far the highest of the four regions, at 4,128 people/km2.

Sub-Saharan Africa is by far the largest of the four regions and is experiencing a period of intense demographic growth. While only 37% of the population live in urban areas today, that percentage is set to rise dramatically, much of it through informal growth. While urbanisation levels are below that of the other global regions, just 0.4% of the total land area in this part of the continent is urban, while just over a third of the total land area (32%) remains unpopulated. There are fewer, higher density rural areas than in China or Asia, with concentrations around Lagos, Kigali, Nairobi and Addis Ababa. The urbanisation density threshold is 1,019 people/km2.

Just over half China’s population (54%) live in urban areas, which represent just 2% of the total geographic footprint of the nation, with largely unpopulated regions making up 39% of the total land surface area. With its rapid demographic and economic growth, urbanisation levels are approximately two-thirds that of Europe. As in India, there are extensive concentrations of higher density rural areas in the regions stretching from Beijing to Shanghai, and around the Chongqing, Chengdu and Nanchong districts, all areas which are experiencing a rapid transformation from agricultural to urban economies. China has an urbanisation density threshold of 1,433 people/km2.