Human populations have tended to increase over time. As more people were born, small groups of individuals found reasons to come together to form groups and, with the advent of agriculture, small sedentary communities. A small number of these settlements grew into what we now call cities. This kind of growth often corresponds with a shift from one way of organizing labor to another.

The world population has grown significantly, and our economies have become more industrialized over the past few hundred years, and as a result many more people have moved into cities. This process is known as urbanization. Even after cities emerged, however, a large majority of people lived and worked in rural areas. It was not until large-scale industrialization began in the eighteenth century that cities really began to boom. Nearly half of all people now live in urban areas. They are attracted by jobs in manufacturing and the professions, as well as by increased opportunities for education and entertainment.

Urbanization is often discussed in reference to countries that are currently in the process of industrializing and urbanizing, but all industrialized nations have experienced urbanization at some point in their history. Moreover, urbanization is on the rise all over the globe.

One effect of this huge increase in people living in urban areas is the rise of the megacity, which is a city that has more than 10 million inhabitants. There are now cities with even more than that. Tokyo, Japan, for example, has nearly 40 million residents. Another effect of urbanization is urban sprawl. Urban sprawl is when the population of a city becomes dispersed over an increasingly large geographical area. This movement from higher density urban cores to lower density suburbs means that as cities expand, they often begin to take up significant tracts of land formerly used for agriculture. Sprawl also increases the need for travel infrastructure, such as roads, because people’s homes are likely to be farther away from where they work and the amenities they enjoy.

As we move forward in the 21st century, the global population is likely to continue growing. Urban areas will continue to grow with the population. This continual growth presents complex challenges as we prepare for the cities of the future. How we choose to manage urbanization will have consequences for our world for many years to come.



With more than 40 million residents, Tokyo, Japan, is a megacity. Another effect of urbanization is urban sprawl.


the art and science of cultivating land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).


large settlement with a high population density.


growth of machine production and factories.


urban area of more than 10 million people characterized by rapid growth, unpredictable population distribution, formal and informal economies, and high levels of social fragmentation.


total number of people or organisms in a particular area.


having to do with country life, or areas with few residents.


having to do with city life.


process in which there is an increase in the number of people living and working in a city or metropolitan area.

urban sprawl

unplanned low-density development surrounding an urban area that often starts as rural land. Also called suburban sprawl.