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Contemporary Internal Migration and Urbanization

in Historical Perspective

Michael J. Greenwood
University of Colorado

Prepared for the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People,
Quaderni Universitari, July, 2009.

Urbanization is a relatively recent development in the history of mankind. In the

world’s economically advanced countries, it has been closely associated with
industrialization, but in less-developed countries the association between industrialization
and urbanization has been more tenuous. Although many less-developed countries have
experienced very rapid urbanization along with industrialization (e.g., Korea and
Taiwan), others (e.g., Thailand and Malaysia) have experienced urbanization without
significant industrialization (Kojima, 1996). In both economically advanced and in less-
developed countries, and both historically and in the contemporary world, internal
migration from rural to urban areas has been a major force underlying urbanization. This
paper provides a brief survey of the process of urbanization from both historical and
contemporary perspectives. Because current (and likely future) urbanization is far more
likely to characterize the less-developed world, an important distinction is drawn between
more-developed and less-developed countries.
Although the first cities probably appeared 5,500 (and perhaps as many as 7,000)
years ago, urbanized society represents a new and fundamental step in the social
development of mankind. Before 1850, no nation was urbanized. As recently as 1900,
only one country was (Britain). In 1800 less than 2% of the world’s population resided in
cities of 100,000 or more; by 1850 this percentage was still only about 2.3%. By 1900 the
percentage had reached 5.5%, and by 1950 it had grown to 13.0%. In 1800, 20 cities had
a population of 100,000 or more, and, with the possible exception of Peking, China, no
city had a population of 1 million.1 By 1950, 900 cities had populations of over 100,000
and 50 had populations in excess of 1 million; by 2009, 476 cities had a population in
excess of one million. In 1950, only one metropolitan area (New York at 12.3 million)
could be categorized as a mega-metropolitan area (with a population of 10 million or
more based on the United Nation’s definition). By 1975, five metropolitan areas had
reached 10 million (Tokyo, New York, Shanghai, Mexico City, and São Paulo), and by
2000 the number of mega-metropolitan areas had grown to 16 (Table 1).
Perhaps the most authoritative work on the historical populations of cities, including ancient cities, is
Chandler and Fox (1974). Their estimate of Peking’s population in 1800 is 1.1 million.
Error! Not a valid link. Sources: Chandler and Fox (1974) and GeoHive.

The remarkable extent of urban growth during the twentieth century is reflected in
Table 1, where the 25 largest metropolitan areas are ranked according to their 2000
estimated populations along with their estimated populations in 1800, 1900, and 1950.2
Tokyo is presently judged to be the world’s largest metropolitan area with a population of
26.4 million in 2000.3 During the twentieth century Tokyo’s population grew by a factor
The Chandler and Fox estimates underlie the 1800, 1900, and 1950 populations of the cities reported in
Table 1. The reader should be aware that earlier estimates embody greater uncertainty.
Even the comparability of contemporary population estimates entails some uncertainty due mainly to
differences in the geographic area covered. These areas are rarely defined, and they are almost never
adjusted to reflect the earlier populations of areas that are more recently included in the spatial definition of
the urban area. Frequently, population projections are reported as if they were actual population counts.
Consequently, for any specific metropolitan area, a number of alternative population estimates are
of 17.7. Over the same period, Mexico City, currently the second largest metropolitan
area, grew by a factor of 52.5. Several metropolitan areas had extremely high growth
factors. For example, Dhaka, Bangladesh (139.1), Karachi, Pakistan (88.0), and Manila,
Philippines (52.4) grew from small or modestly sized cities to very large metropolitan
areas. On the other hand, London, which was the world’s largest metropolitan area in
1900, had a twentieth century growth factor of only 1.2 with absolute decline between
1950 and 2000. New York’s growth factor for the twentieth century was 3.9 and Paris’s
was 2.9, but during the nineteenth century the respective growth factors of these three
metropolitan areas were 7.5, 67.3, and 6.0.
As shown in Table 1, much of the growth of most major metropolitan areas
occurred after 1950. The most obvious exceptions are New York, Paris, and London for
which much growth occurred between 1850 and 1950. Clearly, for much of the world, the
twentieth century and especially the latter half of the century, was a period of rapid urban
growth. World-wide urbanization has grown in tandem with urban growth. In 2007, for
the first time in human history, half the world’s estimated population of 6.6 billion was
estimated to have been living in urban areas.
Urban Growth versus Urbanization
Let us more formally define exactly what the term “urbanization” refers to and
how urbanization differs from urban growth. Let U represent a country’s urban
population, R its rural population, and T its total population, where T = U + R; U/T
measures the country’s degree of urbanization. Although the categorization is somewhat

arbitrary, a country is said to be “urbanized” if at least half its population resides in urban
areas, or (U/T) ≥ 0.5. Urban growth refers to an increase in U, or in the absolute number
of people living in areas categorized as urban, whereas urbanization refers to an increase
in U/T, or in the fraction of a nation’s population living in such areas.
Urban growth may occur without urbanization if U grows, but R grows faster.
Thus, urbanization requires that U grow faster than R. During the last 150 years, as
urbanization has increased dramatically following the industrial revolution of the
nineteenth century, the growth of the urban population (U) and urbanization (U/T) have
occurred together. However, because the fraction urban is bounded by 1.0, at some point
in time a nation’s degree of urbanization ceases to increase, whereas its urban population
continues to grow. Thus, the process of urbanization has a beginning and an end. Many
economically advanced countries are today characterized by an end or a near end to their
urbanization, but of course many of their cities continue to grow due to natural increase
and migration from other urban areas. Given the fact that many economically advanced
countries have reached or nearly reached their peak levels of urbanization, much of the
world’s contemporary urbanization is due to less-developed countries. Moreover, future
increases in the world’s urbanization will come almost exclusively from less-developed
countries, a fact that will be discussed in more detail below.
A prerequisite for urbanization is that the rural population must be sufficiently
productive to feed the urban population. Historically, before the industrial revolution
occurred in England, an agricultural revolution had to occur. Significant technological
developments occurred in agriculture about 20 years before the advent of the industrial
revolution. These developments were: (1) the enclosure movement, which allowed
landowners to achieve scale economies and force redundant labor off of the land; (2) the
invention of harvesting devices like the reaper, which were critical because the harvest
was a major bottleneck in the food-supply chain; and (3) innovations in seeds and
fertilizers. This agricultural revolution had at least two important consequences: (1) it
resulted in significantly increased agricultural productivity that allowed the rural
population to feed the urban population; and (2) it freed the rural population to move to
the cities where industrial labor was in demand.

Where did the tremendous surge in the urban population that characterized the
world during the late nineteenth century and the entire twentieth century come from? The
urban population has three and only three possible sources: (1) rural settlements grow
larger and are reclassified as urban with the original rural residents now classified as
urban; (2) the rate of natural increase, or the excess of births over deaths, favors urban
areas; and (3) migration from rural to urban areas. Let us consider each possibility in
Historically, the first reason was never important, although today in some
countries such as China it may be of some importance due to major reclassifications of
what constitutes urban (Goldstein, 1990). This is not to say that substantial growth has
not subsequently occurred in reclassified areas, but rather that significant numbers of
individuals did not live in the areas before reclassification and therefore without moving
had their classification changed from rural to urban.
Nevertheless, the definition of “urban” in any given country is important.
Consider the United States, for example. According to the 1980 Census, 73.7% of U.S.
population resided in urban places, which could have included the population of places as
small as 2,500 or less. However, only 64.2% resided in Standard Metropolitan Statistical
Areas (SMSAs) and 61.4% in “urbanized areas.” Thus, the land area that constitutes
“urban” is of some importance. In various countries around the world, the definition of
urban is not necessarily uniform, so the corresponding measures are not necessarily
comparable (Arriaga, 1982).
The second possibility also did not hold historically, for the rate of natural
increase strongly favored rural areas. In general, this situation continues to hold today,
although historically this difference was greater than it is now. For example, in the United
States in 1910 the number of children under 5 years of age per 1,000 rural white women
15-44 was 772, but for urban women of the same ages the number was 469. By 1970, the
gap had narrowed to 407 compared to 357, respectively, still a substantial difference of
50 children favoring rural areas.
The United Nations (1973, p. 197) reports crude birth and death rates (i.e., births
and deaths per thousand population) for urban and rural areas of both more-developed
and less-developed countries around 1960: more developed—urban birth rate 19.8 (per

thousand) and death rate 9.0 for a difference of 10.8 and rural birth rate 23.1 and death
rate 9.5 for a difference of 13.6; less developed—urban birth rate 38.0 and death rate 15.3
for a difference of 22.7 and rural birth rate 44.1 and death rate 21.6 for a difference of
22.5. Thus, in the more-developed countries, rural birth rates exceeded urban rates by 3.3
per thousand, whereas in the less-developed countries the corresponding difference was
6.1 per thousand. The respective differences in death rates were 0.5 for more-developed
countries and 6.3 for less-developed countries.
In today’s less-developed countries, rural-urban differences in rates of natural
increase are substantial. For example, the 2006 crude birth rates for rural versus urban
areas were, respectively, 26.6 and 24.0 for Egypt, 23.4 and 12.2 for Costa Rica, 21.0 and

19.0 for Panama, 21.7 and 17.8 for Bangladesh, 25.6 and 19.1 for India, and 18.3 and
17.9 for Iran.4 For many European countries, however, urban birth rates are greater than
rural rates. Over time, both rural and urban birth rates have fallen, which to some extent
has reduced the potential for rural-to-urban migration by keeping rural populations at
lower levels than they would be otherwise. Age-selective out-migration from rural areas
has had the same effect because the out-migrants tend to be young adults in their child-
bearing years.
Thus, the primary historical force underlying urbanization must have been
internal migration from rural to urban areas. Of course, in countries that experienced
substantial immigration, such as the United States before 1915 or even at the present
time, international migrants importantly contributed to urbanization because they had a
strong tendency to settle in cities. In many instances, international migration redistributed
the rural population of one country (often European) to urban areas of another country
(often in the New World).
However, a substantial fraction of recent urban growth is due to natural increase.
When a large percentage of a nation’s population already lives in urban areas, a
correspondingly large fraction of population growth must originate in the urban areas
themselves through natural increase. For many countries, specifically distinguishing the
contributions of reclassification, natural increase, and net migration is difficult or

impossible. Nevertheless, Todaro (1984) has used census data for 29 less developed
countries to conclude that over the 1960-1970 period migration and reclassification
accounted for 41.4% of urban population growth. On an annual basis, natural population
growth contributed 2.53% and migration plus reclassification contributed 1.79% to
overall urban population growth for the period. In a sense, these calculations
underestimate the contributions of migration because the migrants have a strong tendency
to be in their prime child-bearing years. Thus, some fraction of natural increase is due to
migrants who have their children in urban rather than rural communities.
United Nations (2008), Table 9. Some care must be taken in comparing crude birth and death rates for
rural and urban areas. Due in part to the age selectivity of migration, urban areas tend to have higher
percentages of their populations in the child-bearing years, and thus they tend to have more births. Those
left behind in rural areas tend to very young and not in their child-bearing years and older adults who tend
to experience more mortality. Thus, death rates tend to be higher in rural areas.
Chen, Valente, and Zlotnik (1998) provide more recent estimates of the
contributions of natural increase and migration/reclassification to urban growth, and they
do so for the 1960s, the 1970s, and the 1980s, as well as for several specific countries in
Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The mean percentages attributable to internal migration/
reclassification tended to fall slightly over time (41.8% based on 36 countries for the
1960s, 40.5% based on 41 countries for the 1970s, and 39.0% based on 27 countries for
the 1980s), which is expected. Moreover, substantial differences in these percentages are
evident across the different regions of the world and, within regions, across countries. For
example, in Asia, for the 1980s China (71.9%) and Indonesia (58.8%) had much higher
percentages attributable to migration/reclassification than Iran (29.6%) and Iraq (25.0%).
Similarly, in Africa, Botswana (63.7%) had a percentage considerably higher than that of
Egypt (8.4%) or Ivory Coast (24.5%). In general, Latin America is relatively highly
urbanized, but still large differences are apparent between countries in the contributions
of internal migration/reclassification (e.g., Bolivia at 47.3% and Chile at 6.6%). Thus,
although the contributions of internal migration and reclassification are less now than
they were historically, and although these contributions will continue to fall, they remain
substantial, especially in Asia and Africa.
Causes and Consequences of Rural-to-Urban Migration

Why has rural-to-urban migration occurred? Historically, the “demographic
transition,” which occurred in many western countries starting around 1800 and gathering
momentum during roughly the mid- to late nineteenth century, certainly was important.
The demographic transition refers a period when a country’s death rate falls rapidly due
in large part to medical advances that lessened the impacts of traditionally deadly
diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, and malaria and to technological advances like
delivery systems for clean water and sanitation systems that also improved the health
especially of urban residents. However, the country’s birth rate remains high for some
years (perhaps as many as 50) after the death rate falls. These developments were at least
in part the result of rising incomes that were a consequence of industrialization. The
timing and rate of change of the death and birth rates differed considerably across
countries and especially across regions of the world, but the ultimate outcome was much
the same—a rapid increase in the rate of natural increase that persisted for many years.
Since most of the population was concentrated in rural areas, rural areas
experienced the sharpest population increases. At about the same time, the industrial
revolution was exerting itself in urban areas where employment opportunities and wages
were growing relatively rapidly. Thus, an almost perfect coincidence of excess labor
demand in cities and excess labor supply in the rural hinterlands caused migrants to move
from their rural homes to cities in their own countries, as well abroad to rapidly growing
urban areas in countries that had an excess demand for labor—countries like the United
States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Using a similar argument and referring
roughly to the last half of the twentieth century, Preston (1982) concludes that the single
most important determinant of city growth was national population growth. However, at
some point in time, as birth rates fall to levels comparable to death rates, the rate of
population growth also falls.
In the contemporary context, much has been written on the topic of rural-to-urban
migration in less-developed countries (Todaro, 1976; Yap, 1977; Mazumdar, 1987;
Williamson, 1989; and Lucas, 1997). Although some early writers speculated that the
bright lights of the city attracted migrants from the rural hinterlands, the most widely
accepted explanation is that the push of poor living conditions (relatively low wages and
lack of employment opportunities) in rural areas caused in large part by rapid population

growth and the consequent excess labor supply and the pull of better living conditions in
cities (higher wages, better employment opportunities, and superior social services) are
major economic reasons for the rural-to-urban migration. These are essentially the same
reasons offered by Ravenstein (1885) in his famous paper regarding internal migration
during the industrializing phase in the United Kingdom before 1881. Ravenstein leaves
little doubt that he believed employment and wage opportunities were the major
“determinants” of migration: “In most instances it will be found that they did so (leave
their homes) in search of work of a more remunerative or attractive kind than that
afforded by the places of their birth” (1885, p. 181) (parentheses are mine). Later he
wrote that “…the call for labour in our centres of industry and commerce is the prime
cause of these currents of migration” (p. 198). Ravenstein does, however, recognize that
the motives for migration are “various.”
The costs of migration also are important. In general, these costs work against
migration, and especially against migration over great distances. Less is known about
opportunities in more distant places, the costs of moving to them are greater, and
frequently social, cultural, and religious differences are more significant. However,
migration is often characterized by a sort of cumulative causation, and the forces that
underlie this phenomenon tend to reduce the costs of migrating from one place to
another. Almost certainly this type of causation also characterizes much rural-to-urban
migration around the world. Prior migrants from one place to another not only provide
information about employment and wage opportunities in their new places of residence to
those who remain behind, but also they may provide miniature social-security benefits to
the newcomers in the form of food and clothing, as well as a place to live, for their
relatives and friends until the newcomers can find a job. Moreover, the prior migrants
provide a linguistic, cultural, and religious social setting that makes the new migrants feel
more “at home.” Thus, prior migrants reduce the cost of current migration, and current
migrants thus tend to move to the places to which their relatives and friends have moved
in the past, which of course means from their former rural homes to the city of their
current residence, often a nearby city.
Some Possible Urban Advantages

Why have cities become places where wages are higher and employment
opportunities are better? Cities are more productive places to work due to various
“economies” that accrue to firms in spatially concentrated areas. These economies
include (1) scale economies that accrue within firms due to their larger size, (2)
localization economies that accrue within industries due to the clustering of related firms
that employ similar inputs and use the same infrastructural facilities, (3) agglomeration
economies that accrue to all firms in an urban area due to reduced production and
shipping costs, access to skilled labor and know-how, and proximity to markets, and (4)
comparative advantage that results from certain locational advantages such as harbors
and transshipment points that characterize many of the world’s major cities. At least to a
point, as population grows, the cost of human interactions falls. Information becomes less
costly to exchange, and face-to-face contacts also become easier and less costly, which
contribute to cities being incubators of inventive and innovative ideas.
Cities tend to attract economically more productive workers, who further
contribute to city productivity, to city growth, and to the urban economic advantage. Two
aspects of city-bound migrants especially stand out. They tend to be young adults and to
be relatively well-educated (Greenwood, 1997). Thus, the migrants have many
economically productive years to work in urban endeavors, with their productivity
growing with their experience and with the duration of their residence in the city.
Moreover, by virtue of their higher levels of education (relative to the populations from
which they have been drawn and perhaps even relative to the populations of the receiving
areas), their productivity tends to be higher. These factors contribute to lower dependency
ratios in cities (i.e., ratios of dependents, especially young dependents, to workers). The
selectivity of migration has been a key element in urban growth (Greenwood, 1981).
Since about 1850, urban growth, urbanization, and industrialization have for the
most part progressed together, first in the earliest countries to advance economically, then
in those that advanced later during the twentieth century, and finally in many countries
that remain less-developed today, although some of the latter have urbanized without
appreciable industrialization. Industrialization generally has been an urban phenomenon.
For the reasons noted above, manufacturing activities tend to cluster. In some cases, the
clusters occurred near raw material sites, in others closer to markets, and in still others at

transshipment points. Because workers were attracted by the growing employment
opportunities, markets also grew and the natural outcome was the development and
growth of cities.
Much has been written about the nature of urban employment in less-developed
countries. If they are able to find a job at all, rural-to-urban migrants are seen as often
finding low-paying, frequently self-employment jobs in the informal service-sector. This
type of service employment differs considerably from the manufacturing jobs that
attracted migrants from rural areas to cities in countries that developed earlier. Such
differences led some experts to conclude that many less-developed countries were “over-
urbanized,” not only in the sense that urbanization may have more rapid in them than in
those countries that urbanized earlier (a debatable proposition), but also in the sense that
their fractions of employment accounted for by manufacturing were much lower than
those experienced at a comparable stage in the cases of early industrialization.
Some experts, such as Todaro (1976), argue that migrants are attracted to cities in
spite of their suffering unemployment or lower wages than those they would have
received in their rural homes because they expect higher future wages when they are able
to find a job in the urban formal sector. Others take the position that the migrants more or
less immediately do better in the city than they would have done in their rural homes
(Yap, 1976).
Many economists believe that an “urban bias” brought about due to the intended
and sometimes unintended consequences of public policies has importantly contributed to
city growth in less-developed countries (Kelley and Williamson, 1984). The urban bias
generally concerns policies that promote industrialization at the expense of agricultural
development. Policies that have promoted import substitution in less-developed countries
combined with trade liberalization in more-developed countries have resulted in an
increased demand for manufactured goods, which tend to be produced in urban areas (of
both developed and developing countries), and have encouraged unbalanced productivity
growth favoring urban agglomerations.
In much of the developed world, the potential for further urbanization is largely
exhausted because levels of urbanization are already high and approaching 1.0, and

relatively few inhabitants remain in rural areas, removing the potential for significant
additional rural-to-urban migration. Substantial urban growth may still occur, but its
primary source will be natural population increase. The developing world is, however,
another matter. The greatest potential for urban population growth and for urbanization
during the twenty-first century is in Africa and Asia. Table 2 shows that, in 2005, 51.3%
of the world’s population resided in rural areas with 48.7% residing in urban areas. As
noted above, this balance worldwide is estimated to have tipped in favor of urban areas in
2007. However, whereas relatively small fractions of North American (19.3%), South
American (18.4%), and European (27.8%) populations resided in rural areas, African and
Asian populations were a different matter. The majority of Africans (61.7%) and Asians
(60.2%) continued to reside in rural areas. Thus, the large populations of Africa and Asia
provide tremendous potential for urban growth and urbanization during the twenty-first
century due to the continued potential for rural-to-urban migration.
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The United Nations (2005) predicts that by 2030 urban areas of Africa and Asia
alone will double their populations relative to 2000 levels with a total increase of 1.7
billion. By the same year, the UN expects urban population world-wide to reach 5 billion,
or about 60% of the world’s population.
When much of the world’s population lived in rural areas, high unemployment,
under-employment, and poverty were common in rural communities. Such problems
continue to characterize rural areas of less-developed countries, and in Africa and Asia
differences between urban and rural poverty frequently are dramatic. During the late
1980s and the 1990s, based on national poverty lines, some specific examples of urban-
rural poverty differences are as follows: Ghana—22% in urban areas versus 34%
in rural areas (1992); Kenya—29% and 46% (1992); Nigeria—30% and 36% (1992-93);
Sierra Leone—53% and 76% (1989); Tanzania—24% and 50% (1993); and Zambia—
46% and 88% (1991). Similar large differences are evident in Asia: Bangladesh—14%
and 40% (1995-96); Cambodia—21% and 40% (1997); India—30% and 37% (1994);
Laos—24% and 53% (1993); Pakistan—28% and 37% (1991); Philippines—21% and

51% (1997); and Vietnam—26% and 57% (1993).5 Such differences will continue to
provide a major incentive for residents of rural areas to move to the cities of Africa and
With the significant shift of population to urban areas, the same types of problems
that continue to characterize rural areas will now also characterize urban areas where
their very concentration may increase their intensity, and their intensity probably will
become far worse in the relatively near future. Todaro (1997) argues that about one-third
of the urban population of less-developed countries lives in shantytowns and various
types of makeshift dwellings, which is to say, in slum settlements. He further argues that
during the late 1980s, worldwide, about 72 of every 100 new (or mainly migrant)
households in urban areas of less-developed countries resided in such settlements. In
Africa, 92% of the new households lived in slums. He cites metropolitan Cairo as an
example of the type of city characterized by inadequate services. Cairo, he argues, had a
population of 10 million, but a water and sanitation system designed for a population of 2
million. This same type of situation characterizes the urban infrastructure of many of the
world’s major urban agglomerations, especially in less-developed countries.
In addition to unemployment and poverty, a number of related problems that now
characterize urban areas will likely intensify. These problems include pollution,
congestion, poor sanitation, poor housing, limited water of questionable quality, poor
health, relatively low life expectancy, high crime rates, violence, limited access to
education and to public health facilities, tremendous stress on the urban infrastructure and
on urban public finances, and political and social instability. In many cities around the
world, urban public officials are poorly equipped to deal with such problems and in many
cases will exacerbate them. In spite of such problems and their associated costs, some
experts (e.g., Glaeser, 1998) believe that cities will continue to enjoy many of the
advantages that have characterized them in the past, but not necessarily as centers of
manufacturing activities.
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