Asia’s Urbanization ‘Just Beginning’

Asia’s Urbanization ‘Just Beginning’
Asia’s Urbanization ‘Just Beginning’

Asia’s urbanization may only be just beginning, despite almost 200 million people moving to its cities in the first decade of the 21st century, according to the World Bank.

The mass movement of people to East Asia’s cities was the equivalent size of the world’s sixth-largest country, the Washington-based institution said in a report released on January 26.

Importantly for the region’s economic potential, the overall proportion of urbanites rose only slightly, increasing from 29 percent to 36% over the same period. This shows the potential for “more decades of urban growth to come,” spurring the continued growth of Asia’s emerging middle class due to the “direct link between urbanization and income growth,” says an article by Anthony Fensom in

East Asia’s total urban population increased from 579 million in 2000 to 778 million in 2010, more than two times greater than second-largest Europe. According to the report, it took more than 50 years for the same number of people to become urbanized in Europe, indicating Asia’s rapid growth.

The region’s cities have also become more densely populated, rising from 5,400 to 5,800 people per sq km as of 2010, led by Hong Kong’s 32,000 people per sq km. Overall, East Asia’s population density grew to more than 1.5 times the average for the world’s urban areas and more than 50 times the average density in the United States.

Yet while East Asia’s urban land area expanded from 106,400 to 134,800 sq km over the same period, less than 1% of the region’s total land area remains urbanized.

 Urban Land Growth

China accounted for two-thirds of the growth in urban land and more than 80% of urban expansion in the region, with its 477 million urban inhabitants in 2010 larger than the rest of the region combined. Japan had the second-highest total amount of urban land and the third-largest urban population, but showed slow rates of expansion overall, except for the extra 4 million Tokyoites over the decade.

The report said the fastest annual rates of urban expansion were in the developing economies of Laos and Cambodia (7.3% and 4.3%, respectively), followed by China (3.1%) and Vietnam (2.8%).

China’s Pearl River Delta, encompassing the cities of Dongguan, Foshan, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, grew to encompass 42 million people – larger than the population of countries such as Australia and Malaysia, and overtaking Tokyo as the largest urban area in the world based on size and population.

The Pearl River Delta was among eight megacities of more than 10 million people in East Asia, including China’s Beijing (17m) and Shanghai (24m), Japan’s Osaka-Kobe (12m) and Tokyo (32m), and the cities of Jakarta (23m), Manila (16.5m) and Seoul (16m).

However, despite the rise of the megacities, two-thirds of the region’s urban areas are comprised of 100,000 to 500,000 people, with the biggest growth in urban population occurring in medium-sized areas. This has resulted in increasing metropolitan fragmentation, with almost 350 urban areas spilling over local administrative boundaries.

 Reducing Inequalities

While the report said East Asia’s urbanization had largely been driven by market forces, it said policymakers had an important role in facilitating land access and ensuring economic efficiencies, while reducing income inequalities.

According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), while the region has halved the number of people living in extreme poverty and increased average per capita income by about 6% from 1990 to 2010, the larger economies have seen a “widening divide between the rich and the poor.”

“In two decades of spectacular economic growth and poverty reduction, Asia has nonetheless seen income inequality rising by more than 20% – a growth pattern that cannot be considered inclusive,” the ADB’s Vinod Thomas said. “A shift to more inclusive growth that taps the contribution of people at all income levels, not just the better-off, would not only be socially desirable but also help sustain growth itself.”