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JRC: 76.5% of world’s population in urban areas as of 2015

More than three-quarters (76%) of the world’s population now live in urban areas, according to the European Commission’s Joint Research Center’s (JRC’s) new Atlas of the Human Planet 2019. The Atlas will be officially launched on Monday at the 10th session of the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi. The JRC is the European Commission’s science and knowledge service.

The focus of the Atlas of the Human Planet 2019 is on key urbanization and human settlements figures and commented global analysis over 40 years’ time (1975 – 2015). With data spanning four decades and 239 countries and territories, the Atlas shows how humans have settled on Earth and urbanized the planet. Main findings include:

  • The human population on Earth has nearly tripled since 1950. In 2015, 76.5% of this global population is accounted in settlements of the urban domain (5.6 billion people). This is up from 69% in 1975.


    World population growth. Source: JRC.

  • Urban centers have almost doubled in number (from more than 6,900 in 1975 to more than 13,100 in 2015) and their population size has also grown.

  • 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.


For most of the globe, urbanization has increased over the past four decades. Source: JRC.

The planet is becoming more and more urbanised due to faster population growth in towns and cities compared to rural areas. However, it’s not the same for all countries and territories. Some, like those in Asia, Africa and Latin America, are seeing particularly fast urbanization.

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

According to the Atlas, the most urbanized EU country is Malta, where 95% of the population live in urban areas. Second and third 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 due 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.

Background. Individual countries collect and interpret urbanization 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 urbanization 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 urbanization statistics across EU member states. The new Atlas puts the urbanization 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 harmonized 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 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the International Labor Organization, and the United Nations Human Settlements Program.


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