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Will You Live in a Megacity?

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On October 31, 2011, between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m., a baby born in India—or it may have been in Somalia or the United States, no one really knows—became the seven billionth person on Earth. The milestone was major, especially when you consider that just one billion people existed 150 years ago, and only a few million people several centuries prior.

Demographers are in the business of knowing where those people live and where they’re going. One clear trend is toward mass urbanization. By 2030, nearly 1 in 10 people will live in large cities, called “megacities” to account for populations of more than 10 million. Twenty-nine megacities already exist—none bigger than Tokyo with 38 million people, followed by Delhi, Seoul, and Shanghai. The biggest ones, clearly, are in Asia. But America has two: New York and Los Angeles.

A decade and a half from now, the United Nations expects the number of megacities to increase from 29 to 41. That means another billion people or more. Where will the biggest growth be?

Asia, again. Bangkok, Thailand; Chengdu, China; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, will become megacities in the next 10 years. India alone will have eight of those 41 megacities, adding Chennai, Hyderabad, and Ahmadabad. The western Hemisphere will lag behind with only two cities—Bogota, Columbia, and Lima, Peru—earning megacity status. The U.S. won’t add any.

Demographers are also tasked with explaining these trends. Rapid industrialization of undeveloped countries can account for most population growth, according to the U.N. People in rural areas are finding quicker access to jobs, social services, and general upward mobility in cities. That’ll continue. But birth rates are the real cause for changes in population and migration. Births peaked in the 1960s at 2.1 percent growth per year. Now, growing at 1.1 percent per year, the population is still rising because there are more woman having babies, even if they’re having fewer than their mothers.

Where human population will top out? Some projections say 8.7 billion will be humanity’s high water mark by 2055. Others say nine billion or more with constant growth until 2100. Population is tightly tethered to economic growth, and no one can accurately predict how markets will change over decades. Far more certain, however, is what more megacities will bring: booming real estate markets, smaller living quarters, and improved public transportation to accommodate far more people.