Next City : How Many Cities Are in the World? A New Way to Count

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Until recently, there wasn’t any standard definition of a city. Now researchers can finally make comparisons across countries and continents.

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Next City
Join Lucas Grindley, executive director at Next City, where we believe journalists have the power to amplify solutions and spread workable ideas. Each week Lucas will sit down with trailblazers to discuss urban issues that get overlooked. At the end of the day, it's all about focusing the world's attention on the good ideas that we hope will grow. Grab a seat from the bus, subway, light-rail, or whatever your transit-love may be and listen on the go as we spread solutions from one city to the Next City .

Episode transcripts

Straw media. This is Lucas grantlyfrom next city, a show about change
makers and their stories. Truth is, there are solutions to the problems of
pressing people in cities. If you'relistening, I hope it's because you want
to spread good ideas from one cityto the next city. On the show
today let's visit one of the mostpopular articles we've ever published on next city
dot Org. It answers a commonlygoogled question, how many cities are there
in the world? There are lotsof reasons the answer to this question matters,
and it's not just about improving yourtrivia game, even though the author
of this article was once a contestanton jeopardy. How cool is that?
To Help US count up cities anddig into the very real socio economic consequences
around what defines a city, Iasked for some help from our reporter,
Greg Gree scrugs. So, Greg, I don't know if you know this,
but this story that you published forus was one of the most popular
ever on the next city because peoplekeep searching for the question how many cities
are there in the world? Sowhy do you think people are so interested
in how many cities there are inthe world and why is it so hard
to figure out? There's a basichuman curiosity about Trivia type questions of that
nature, and it is a harderquestion to answer than it might seem because
it depends on what one's definition isof a city. And as it turns
out, for a long time everycountry in the world has had a different
definition. And when one country,let's say Denmark, says that people living
near each other as a city,but over in two people institutes a city
in Denmark, in Japan you needat least fifty thou people living reasonably close
together to call it a city.Uh. And so when each one of
those national governments, usually their statisticaloffice, like a census bureau equivalent,
tallies up how many cities there arein country x, we find that we
have this apple's two oranges comparison betweencountries and in fact the numbers, as
they say, you put garbage in, you get garbage out. Uh.
The data that we've been sort ofputting into this global system of tracking the
state of the world cities has actuallynot been terribly accurate for quite some time.
Uh. And there are some researcherswho who said maybe we should do
things a little more empirically. Sohow many cities are there? When the
European Commission and the Organization for EconomicCorporation set out to answer that question,
they first had to take a stepback and answer a different question. What
is a city? No, twocountries had the same way of defining cities,
so they came up with a standard. A city would be defined as
a contiguous geographic area with at leastfifty inhabitants at an average population density of
people per square kilometer. So whenthey did this, there were some assumptions
that have been made about how manypeople live in cities that turned out not
to be true. Like there wasa thing going around that we thought for
the first time in human history ofthe world was majority urban back in two
thousand seven not true. Not True, very popular claim to fame. Not
True. In fact, in twothousand fifteen, only forty percent of humanity
lived in cities according to the degreeof urbanization definition. So where did all
these people go that seem to becaught in the middle, and the answer
is they live in towns. Andone of the innovations of this methodology,
this research project, is to saythere's something in between living in a city
and living in a rural area.Not Everybody is either urban or rural.
There's this thing in the middle calleda town that in English is easily understood,
but in many other languages there's notan equivalent term, and that's why
the Danes, for example, calltheir little two person hamlets cities just as
big as, say, Copenhagen.Well, not not just as big,
but just as city like as Copenhagen, and their definition, because there's apparently
not a good Danish word for town, and the degree of organization. Researchers
argue that urbanization exists on a spectrum. At one end of that spectrum would
be a rural farmer that truly doesnot live near many other people, and
at the other end would be avery dense high rise apartment building or flat,
or perhaps a crowded slum in amega city. And in between there's
all kinds of ranges of ways thathumans live around and near each other.
And towns are this sort of chunkin the middle that have been largely ignored
by demographers. But in fact agood chunk of humanity lives in towns and,
more importantly, towns are the world'sfuture cities, because towns grow and
as they grow they eventually take onthe density and thus is sort of the
characteristics of urban area. Not everyoneis happy to have a standard definition of
a city. It turns out governmentshave all kinds of reasons to call a
place to city or to pretend itisn't one. Yeah, I mean there's
lots of reasons why this stuff matters. Demography and our sense of where people
live helps us determine how to allocatevery large sums of money that go towards
all kinds of development needs. Wheredo we invest in new infrastructure, new
schools, new hospitals, New PublicTransit Lines? A national government might,
you know, under its constitution.Egypt is a good example. Here,
have some UH, some rules orsome laws that you know, once you
are a city, once you area certain size, then the government's required
to provide basic municipal services like educationand healthcare. But when places on official
maps are still listed as rural agriculturalsettlements, then the government's off the hook.
They're they're they're not legally obligated toprovide this uh. And yet there
are scholars and researchers who have beento places with as many as two seventy
five thousand people in Egypt. Youwould think you might want a school or
two in a place that large.But on paper it's a rural agricultural settlement
because these, you know, thesesort of jurisdictional administrative boundaries haven't changed.
But of course the data doesn't lie, satellite imagery doesn't lie, and you
can you can see in point offact, that a lot of people live
on what nominally is a rural agriculturalsettlement. Wow, that's stunning. A
place where two people live is onpaper called a rural location, and then
you don't have to build schools andcore houses and things. That's really red
tape. Yeah, but, but, but this is also why this,
what seems innocuous right some, someresearchers using satellite data doing a nerdy technical
research project, has very serious politicalramifications, and so it's it's touchy convincing
governments to adopt this definition. Justbecause it's more accurate doesn't mean it necessarily
serves whoever's in powers interest. Ifthey realize, Gee, if we use
this definition, we're going to beon the hook to provide lots of urban
services in places that we've historically ignored, for whatever the reason may be.
So the answer you've all been waitingfor. How many cities are there in
the world? After the break wewill talk with the lead researcher who answered
a question that actually has lots ofconsequences. Welcome back to next city on
the show today. How many citiesare there in the world? To find
the answer, we caught up withLewis Stikestra from Brussels in Belgium, as
the head of economic analysis. Heis the European Commission's lead researcher on the
project that finally answered this big question. The number is are you ready for
it? Well, I'll let himtell you. So let's start with the
big question for people, which isso, why is it important to know
how many cities there are in theworld? It's a very good question.
Well, we're trying to figure outhow to make cities better places and how
to help people who live in citieshave better lives. Useful to know how
many people live in cities right andto know how many people live in cities,
you need to know how many theyare and where are they starting,
where they stopped? So why didn'twe know how many there were before.
Well, we asked countries how manypeople live in in an urban area,
and then the countries are like,well, what's a Herban an area?
And we said, well, youfigure it out because it's kind of hard.
And so every country has one tothree, four definitions of what is
an urban area, Um. Anddifferent departments or ministries have different definitions.
Sometimes different regions within the same countryor different states have different definitions, and
it was never very specifical what thecity was. Um. So urban in
some countries can include small towns.In other countries it really only includes the
largest cities in the country and ignoresall the rest. So you had a
total confusion about where, and saythe settlement hierarchy, urban stopped and rural
started. And so we tried tosolve that and say, okay, we
want to have a city with atleast fifty thousand inhabitants, and then we
also came up with a simple methodto really define. Okay, what is
a city? How do you knowthere's fifty thousand people there? And it's
basically little squares that have a lotof people in that are continued add up
to fifts density square kilometer and cellsof one by one kilometer. All continues
and together they have to have soglobally there's about ten thousand cities. These
ten thousand cities contain almost half theglobal population while covering only about half a
percent of the world's land. Thatis really, yeah, an important discovery.
I wonder what it is that youtake from that discovery, though,
like what what are the implications ofknowing that? Well, urban density and
city density is a heavily debated topic. Some people say, Oh, you
need to have a certain density,there's there's an ideal density, and other
people say, well, you know, you let people drive as far as
they want and leave them as bigas a house as they want and just
have to make it easier for themto drive further out, and so densities
will drop them. That's fine,um, but this debate has large leaden
um done in a vacuum, anempirical vacuum, with a lot of assumptions
very little empirical data inside this debate. And this is where the research intersects
with another heated topic. Where dowe build more housing? There is a
housing shortage in the United States.No matter where you live. You've heard
debate about the traffic or environmental damagethat is alleged to come with almost any
proposed construction. One group in Connecticutopposed developing affordable housing because they said the
new building would interrupt the scenic viewscapewhen driving along the nearby highway. Either
way, they won. The buildinghad to be made smaller. With this
research, we finally have data aboutwhat kind of density is normal. What
I really take away from this isthat there are very many different situations.
The have cities that are dense anddedensifying, the cities that are dense and
are densified. The density as suchdoesn't necessary tell you whether it's a good
place to live or not. Reallywhat makes it a good place to live
is that you have enough room tolive in, that you know don't live
in a crowded dwelling, they haveenough room at your work and that you
can get easily from it to beand in a safe and, ideally,
in a environmentally sustainable manner. Sowhat we now more argue is that if
you have a very high density,it makes sense to to reduce the density
a little bit and that won't havea big impact on, say, the
amount of investments that you needed oramount of greenhouse gas emissions that produce as
a city. For the population thatyou have, you have very low densities,
it's going to be very difficult toprovide efficient public transport. So you're
going to be looking at a veryhigh car share. So in some cases
it would make sense to try andbecome a little denser, but far from
all. Um and the last thingsalso it's important to cluster population around public
transport stops you so that you reallyif you're going to encourage density or if
you're going to maintain density. It'sespecially important to do that along public transport
corridor. So in many ways it'sit's a mixed, mixed story. You
know, you want the right kindof density, the density that still allow
people to have a good accessibility butalso a high quality of life. So
it's trying to strike the balance right. You know, at least in the
US, we're talking about density,which is really a word that covers a
lot of heated arguments. That happenedright about zoning and whether there should be
a big building nearby and uh,I wonder if you have any advice on
those conversations from your work. Iknow the US quite well. I did
my PhD there my wife's Americans,so I spent some time there. Um,
it's very difficult to take this stingout of those debates because a lot
of people come to those debates withstrong assumptions. The first thing I would
say is it Um don't necessarily equatehigher dense city with a reduction in your
quality of life and don't necessarily assumethat higher density living is automatically low income
living. Um, I think higherdensity living can be incredibly attractive and very
appealing and I've seen various bits ofresearch about the US and actually one bit
of research showed that, in relationto what people want, when you know
they get to pick between different typesof locations, the US actually underprovides the
type of mixed use, moderate densityliving that a lot of people express an
interest in. So the US isquite unique in the sense that it's very
extreme in the tendency for everybody tolive a single family house, you know,
fully detached with a yard, whichmakes it very difficult for people to
actually have a choice in terms ofmodel split. They don't have a choice
in the sense it's impossible to provideefficient public transport. Most destinations are too
far to walk. So I thinkin some places in the US you can
find very attractive, moderate density,mixed use neighborhoods that are incredibly appealing and
I think the US could use alot more of those Um but it's important
to emphasize that this won't necessarily leadto lower property values and more congestion or
more crime. I think the keything is to make sure that people can
have an alternative mode. If youdo provide people the opportunity of walking to
school or walking to a restaurant orcycling to a shop, you know,
the impact on traffic is going tobe much lower and, as a result,
you will also have a more attractiveor more lively streetscape, again,
which has a plus, you know. And so I think if I look
around in the US, I seequite a few neighborhoods that have succeeded in
becoming both high in terms of qualityof life but also moderate in terms of
its density, and I think thatmore people want to live in those locations,
which means we need to build moreof them right, right now.
You know, the housing crisis inthe US, in terms of affordability,
is massive and if we were toallow people to replace some of those single
family homes with a multi family dwelling. It will help a lot uh to
to to respond to that crisis.And then the last thing I would say
is that, yeah, single familyhousing was designed with this idea that we
all are part of a nuclear family, you know, two parents kids,
and the truth of the matter is, of course a lot of households still
look like that, but a growingnumber of households don't, and you know
they might be two seniors or asingle person or you know, a couple
without kids, and they're often don't. They're not looking for a large location,
they're not looking for a large house. They're much better off in a
condom and with a nice terrace wherethey can easily walk to nearby amenities,
and I think that really is anexcellent quality of life which is not available
or difficult to find in many Americancities. And so I think if you
look throughout your life and the lifeof your friends, you can easily see
that a lot of people would actuallyprefer not to live in a very suburban
setting. When we come back,these studies are allowing researchers to compare the
world cities to each other accurately forthe first time. What have they discovered
new insights on how people in citieslive in what they need? After the
break, welcome back to next cityon the show today. How many cities
are there in the world? Asresearchers sought the answer to this question,
they found many more questions. Hereagain is Lewis Tistra MHM. We created
this definition to help cities learn fromeach other. Because we have this definition
and this boundary, we can nowsay, okay, in which city is
it easier to walk to a busstop or a tramp stop, and why
is that easier? What makes iteasier? And what cities can you easily
walk to green space? And theseare sustainable development goals, indicators with harmonized
definitions of how to calculate that.But now we also have a harmonized definition
for the boundaries. So a cityin Africa compare itself to city in Asia
or Latin America or Europe, andso that really opens a lot of boards
and in a way I'm an urbanplanner and I would argue that a lot
of urban planning started with stories.You know, this is what happened in
this city, this is what happenedin that city. There were interesting stories
you could learn a lot from them. But now we're also able to match
those stories with numbers and understand whyin some cities it works better. And
so see if that what can welearn from that? Can we replicate that
somewhere else? How can we makecity life more attractive? What's an example
of something that we've learned so farin those comparisons between cities? But when
it comes for density, for example, we've we've learned that if you have
a low density in your city,saying a thousand inhabitants per square kilometer,
inhabitants of square kilometer, if youwant to provide public transport to say of
the population living there, it's goingto be very expensive to do so because
you're going to need a lot oftram lines, a lot of bus lines,
you're gonna need a lot of stops, they're going to have to drive
for long distances and it's not goingto be very easy for a lot of
people to walk there. So thebenefit of moving to a not moderate density,
say for the six thousand inhabits persquare kilometers, are substantial. You
really make a massive reduction in theamount of lines that you need, the
length of those lines and so youcan have higher frequency on the lines that
you do. So there you seea big game. Um, moving from
six to ten thousand inhabitants from squarekilometer doesn't really add a lot. It
produces lengths a little bit, butit doesn't really represent a massive game.
So there is a bit of asweet spot. The smaller cities walking the
cycling can really easily cover a largeshare of the trips within that city because
distances tend to be relatively short.But the key thing there is it's not
just about the distance, it's alsoabout the experience and and the safety of
that experience. Traffic Safety is abig issue Um and pedestrians and cyclists are
not surrounded by a whole junk ofmetal, so they're at higher risk if
they get hit by a car.So if you want to make sure that
walking the cycling is popular, youhave to make it attractive, you have
to make it safer and this canhelp. This can help easily and smaller
cities, but even a medium sizecities and cities with around a million,
you have a lot of places thatare very attractive for walking the cycling to
nearby destinations and and and convince alarge share of the population to do so
happily and safely. So that's anotherthing that we can learn from each other.
Okay, what does it take?It's not just about making sure origins
and destinations are relatively close, butit's also about making sure that you have
the right infrastructure. Have you beenable to learn anything about the differences in
income equality as it relates to densityin a city or shown anything, any
interesting insights about inequities that might existwhen it comes to inequalities? You have
a variety of ways of looking thatyou have into personal inequalities when it comes
to income. You also have spatialinequalities between different neighborhoods and to a large
part, you know they overlap,but they are distinct Um. And so,
for example, if you have aslum or favela, you'll find a
large concentration of very poor people livingthere, with with or tenure rights,
etcetera, and there you get astrong overlap of, you know, individual
personal poverty and the spatial concentration ofpoverty. Spatial concentration of poverty can have
a number of negative effects in thesense that they may not be able to
have as good access to services orcrime might be higher or public space might
be absent. Um Part of thisis a market mechanism that directs poor people
to the poorest houses, which areoften in locations that are less desirable.
But the interesting thing about where poorpeople live is that it's Um highly variable.
Take, for example, many UScities you have a high concentration of
the poor in the inner city,or in the first ring of inner city
suburbs, if you will, andthen in other cities you'll have an extremely
affluent city center and the poor willlive on the outscourt. So there is
no predefined location of the poor andit really depends on the quality of the
environment, the alternatives, the accessibility, the safety. For example, in
South Africa you have a lot oftownships are located on the edge of the
city, often in a location whichis very far from the city center,
with poor public transport, and sothat's very difficult for them then to go
and find a job in its verytime consuming because they're located very far away.
So what can we learn from this? I mean I think it's key
to consider both the cost of housingtogether with its location. Knowing where people
live, knowing where the poor peopleand knowing where the public transport is and
learning about how to improve that isreally critical. One thing, together with
this definition of the city, that'sreally important, is to understand the distribution
of population within a city, andespecially by income, because obviously that will
determine to a large degree what typeof motor transport they can afford. So
the last thing I'll ask you isjust we have a lot of people who
listen to this podcast who work incities. Is there anything that they could
be doing to help you? Isthere anything you want them to do?
Well, one of the things II try and convey, and I think
I need some help there, isthat city living is green living. For
me, living in the city meansthat you can have a car, but
you don't necessarily have to use itall the time. You live in a
house. It doesn't have to bea massive house, you know, and
as a result, I think ifwe want to live more sustainably, living
in the city should be an appealingoption. But we shouldn't price people out.
Right now, the most sustainable placeswe can live in often are the
most expensive places to live in,and that's wrong. And furthermore, they
also tend to be some of themost productive locations in them. People can't
live in the cities where their jobsare the most productive and where living is,
from an energy point interview, themost efficient. So my plea really
out there, is to think ofcity living as something that needs to be
promoted, needs to be embraced andneeds to be inclusive. It shouldn't be
a realm just for the super rich, nor should it be a get over
just for the super poor. Itshould be appealing and democratic, open to
everybody, and that's what I wouldplead that more city planners should spread that
message, because I don't think alot of people realize that the benefits of
urban living for for for individuals,but also for societies and the environment.
Yeah, cities can be good forthe planet. Absolutely. We hope you
enjoyed this episode of next city,the show about change makers and their stories.
Together we can spread good ideas fromone city to the next city.
Thank you for listening this week.Thank you to Greg scruggs, who first
reported this story for next city.Thank you to everyone who googled the story
and found it. Thank you toour guests. Louis D Ekstra, the
lead researcher with the degree of UrbanizationProject at the European Commission. Our audio
producer is Silvana Alcala, our scriptwriteris Francesca Mamelin. Our executive producers are
Tyler Nielsen and Ryan Tillotson, andI'm Lucas greenly, executive director for next
city. By the way, nextcity is a news organization with a nonprofit
model. If you like what we'redoing here, please consider pitching in to
support our work. visit next citydot org slash membership to make a donation.
We would love any feedback from ourlisteners. Please feel free to email
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