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Urban development

Growing urbanisation is associated with increasing life expectancy and falling birth rates. However, city-dwellers do not have equal access to local service and supply infrastructure. In order to ensure equity, and make local planning evidence-based, municipal authorities must refer to disaggregated population data and adapt to demographic changes.

Urbanisation and a country’s social and economic development are closely linked

Worldwide, the birth rate is lower in urban than in rural areas. Life expectancy as a rule is also higher in urban areas. Both of these developments are conditioned by the broader range of options available to city-dwellers. These include more education and employment opportunities, particularly for women, greater gender equity and more comprehensive healthcare. Cities also offer more opportunities for political and economic participation and act as hubs for trade and transport including across national borders. From this perspective, urbanisation can have a positive impact on a potential demographic dividend.

The Berlin Institute for Population and Development predicts that many parts of the world will benefit from a stabilising effect once an urbanisation rate of around 70% has been reached. However, cities must be able to provide adequate services for their inhabitants, including in rapidly growing informal settlements. Furthermore, they must structure urban life so that it functions in an orderly manner and residents can both involve themselves and share in sustainable urban development.

Many people still live in urban slums

There are still, however, important discrepancies within urban agglomerations. In a situation of fast-paced and uncontrolled urbanisation, infrastructure cannot keep up with the growing needs of the population. As a result, large urban areas remain undersupplied, leading to precarious living conditions for a considerable proportion of the urban population. In such areas both mortality and birth rates remain high.

In 2014, about 30% of developing countries’ urban population lived in slums, and in sub-Saharan Africa, the average was as high as 56% (UN HABITAT, 2016). While the percentage of urban slum dwellers in developing countries fell by more than 15% between 1990 and 2014, their absolute number increased by some 200 million in this period.

Inequities are more pronounced among city dwellers than in rural regions

While in rural areas inequity is related to excessive distance from services, in urban areas it is caused primarily by financial barriers to access. Households living in extreme poverty in the urban areas of developing countries spend more than 50% of their available resources on food (World Bank, 2012).

The need to buy food rather than being able to grow it (as in rural areas) makes the urban population, especially women, particularly vulnerable to income and food price shocks. The consequences are food and nutrition insecurity as well as undernourishment and malnutrition. Therefore strategies for the integrated development of cities and their rural surroundings are advantageous for reducing supply bottlenecks and barriers to access for both the urban and the rural population.

Planning for equitable urban development depends on reliable population data

For policy makers and administrators to be able to prepare for the growth and expansion of urban agglomerations and the consequent changes in needs, locally collected data are required. Demographic information, e.g. on birth rates, emigration and immigration, as well as on changes in the age structure, is of vital importance for policy planning. Such a solid database can, for example, enable structurally weak regions to benefit from special economic promotion measures, or disadvantaged population segments to receive targeted support.

For more information on the interlinkages of urban development with population dynamics, please refer to Chapter 4.8 of the handbook.

How can urban development factor in population dynamics?

To address these challenges and opportunities, stakeholders can:

  • Focus on rapidly growing urban areas that are difficult of access so that their inhabitants living in poverty are not left behind, for example by: 
    • expanding the range of services including education and health facilities 
    • expanding urban infrastructure, e.g. for public transport, water and electricity supply, and sewerage and waste management. 
  • Encourage the preparation and implementation of national urban development policies. 
  • Promote integrated development of cities and their surrounding areas in order to improve prospects for the population beyond political and administrative boundaries and to make use of interfaces, e.g. by:
    • implementing joint infrastructure plans for mobility and social services 
    • coordinating production and purchase of agricultural produce. 
  • Provide particular support to small and medium-sized towns to achieve sustainable growth in harmony with their surrounding countryside and to prevent development of slums in the growing cities. 
  • Establish and expand the registration of births, deaths and marriages and promote the use of population data in the context of urban development and regional planning.


  • The World Urbanization Prospects of the UN Population Division routinely present data on global and national urbanisation trends. 
  • UN HABITAT publishes data on the development of countries and cities.

© GIZ/Michael Tsegaye
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