The history of urbanization

January 2, 2017 • 1:30 pm

From Metrocosm, and now on YouTube, we have a cool animation of the growth of the world’s cities starting with Eridu, which had attained “city” status by about 3000 BC.

For each city, this map shows the date of the earliest recorded population figure, which is not necessarily the date when the city was founded. The size of each dot corresponds to its population at that time.

By 2030, 75 percent of the world’s population is expected to be living in cities. Today, about 54 percent of us do. In 1960, only 34 percent of the world lived in cities.

Urbanization didn’t begin in the 1960’s. But until recently, tracking its history much further back than that was a challenging task. The most comprehensive collection of urban population data available, U.N. World Urbanization Prospects, goes back only to 1950. But thanks to a report released last week by a Yale-led team of researchers, it’s now possible to analyze the history of cities over a much longer time frame.

The researchers compiled the data by digitizing, geocoding, and standardizing information from past research published about historical urban populations. The result is a clean, accessible dataset of cities, their locations, and their populations over time, going as far back as 3700 B.C.

As the authors of acknowledge, the data has a number of limitations and is “far from comprehensive.” Certain parts of world are better represented than others, and some well known cities do not appear until centuries after they were founded. That said, for such an ambitious project (the historical populations of every city ever built anywhere in the world), I think they managed to piece together an impressive amount of data.

Note the huge explosion of urbanization around 1900 AD:

h/t: Matthew Cobb

56 thoughts on “The history of urbanization

  1. how long before monolithic cities consisting of 4km cubes will offer sufficient economies of scale to be built?

    1. World population growth will flatten this century so I expect that 4km cubes will not materialise – especially not in the locations of current population centres which are mostly on [or close to] vulnerable coastlines &/or in geologically active zones

      Rational design & engineering: Not cubes – they’re not a smart shape – something more like a forest of Eiffel towers connected horizontally makes more sense, but the bottom 1 km [or more] would be nearly all structural. Difficult to see how this makes economic sense until we can create bio-materials that can grow themselves in situ from air as trees do in fact. These artificial trees would need a lot of leafage for energy & carbon extraction thus very little natural light would penetrate to the inhabitants. Like the Amazonian forests it would be very gloomy below the top cover!

      Also many cities have height restrictions – I can’t imagine London or Paris for example evolving into a cube for that would neutralise the point of being in location with a particular ‘feel’ & look to it

      WMD: One very small nuclear weapon would atomise the entire population of tens [or hundreds?] of millions of people. A virus would spread very quickly too.

      1. Oh yes, I forgot about disease control. I wouldn’t want to be one of the militia charged with shooting people trying to leave when the rumour of a plague starts. And the rumour will start. I simply don’t believe that terrorist groups are not trying to obtain or weaponise disease. If I were inclined to mass murder and terror, it would be high on my “to do” list.

        1. For this arcology to work you’d have to throw away our [silly] concepts of what constitutes a good life – commuting, cars, shops, money, jobs etc – or you’d have a cube that’s nothing but roads, tracks, lifts & imagine the pipework to supply power, water, food…

          We’d have to become some sort of almost arboreal primate again. The ‘city tree’ structure being a living thing growing & continuous self-repair. Food & water for the inhabitants would be delivered as ‘fruits’ & sap water [a 4km climb by natural means for the nutrients is a challenge though!]

          Might make an ideal space habitat as per Larry Niven’s Integral Trees. I don’t believe we’ll ever live in space without bringing a version of our Earth biosphere with us.

          I think incidentally that explains the Fermi ‘paradox’ [it ain’t a paradox actually] – no smart E.T. has arisen that’s capable of doing without their biosphere for extended periods & no E.T. has figured out a way of packaging it & taking it with them thus no interstellar colonisation at all. Even a Mars colonisation is daunting & it will fail unless we send water & lichen first & wait x centuries.

          1. Mars colonisation is, IMHO, a red herring. Venus would probably be a lot easier to terraform.
            How to carry our ecosystem with us? Hollow out an asteroid into a roughly cylindrical living space ; seal to tight against vacuum ; ensure approx 10 tonnes of radiation shielding (regolith, water ice, whatever) above any square metre of the living space cylinder ; spin for gravity ; propel. Internally – build a balanced ecology (now that’s a bit hand-wavey ; it will probably take centuries to get “right”. But to start with, you’ll be able to bring in or excrete chemicals as needed. There’s no reason to believe it’s “impossible” because at least one planet has done it without any modelling software for about a half billion years without significant changes. Voilá : a portable biosphere. Stick a decent power source (i.e. fusion plant) on one end (probably the leading end – CR shielding) and a high power laser (the Kzinti Lesson) whose axis passes through the centre of mass of the vessel and at an acceleration of a half Earth-gravity, you’ll get to Proxima centauri in about 66 years.
            Any practical scheme for terraforming any planet in the solar system will require many workers (far more robots, it’s true, but still many workers) living in space for millennia. Just delivering sufficient volatiles to Mars to make an summit-of Everest (a.k.a. “the Death Zone”) will take several millennia (where did I put those calculations …) and if you try to deliver it faster, the impacts strip off the existing atmosphere, as well as making any habitat not built like a nuclear survival bunker fatal while delivering the atmosphere. So, even if terraforming, you’re going to have to build space habitats. So why bother with living at the bottom of a gravitational well?

            1. Asteroid shell sounds like a place you could grow to love. I expect that everyone will wear virtual reality contacts so it won’t matter that you can’t actually see the stars from the inside. As long as you have one foot in the soil…

              1. I expect that everyone will wear virtual reality contacts so it won’t matter that you can’t actually see the stars from the inside.

                Want to see stars, there’s going to be no shortage of telescopes (vessel approach, communications laser aiming) and no shortage of EVA potential. Hell, if you want your “Moon and June” moment, try adding clipping wings onto your SO’s arms and legs, then flying up to a viewing dome near the spin axis. I forget if that’s a Heinlein image, or ACCC, or the Good doctor, or all of the above.
                People will adapt.

    2. Is a building 4km tall (1) possible and (2) useful? No matter how “monolithic” – in contrast to tower-like, as I assume you mean.
      The normal term for such things – at least in SF-dom – is an “arcology“.
      No matter how “wide” your arcology is, as you build it taller, you have to devote increasing proportions of the lower floors to columns to support the upper floors. At some point – dependent on the mean compressive strength to weight ratio of your materials – your building is going to become an inefficient use of materials. With less tower-like consructions, you don’t need to consider (so much) the torsional stiffness of your materials, so recent advances (carbon-fibre reinforced epoxy, for example) are not particularly relevant. Which would leave us, on cost terms, with (foamed) reinforced concrete.
      The fire-control and evacuation issues of a 4km cube of living space frighten me. Not because I don’t think the issues are unmanageable, but because I don’t trust the behaviour of humanity in such bulk.

  2. It has St. Louis forming prior to the European discovery of the Americas. I wonder if there was an earlier Native American settlement prior to this. I doubt it had the same name though 🙂

        1. And if Cahokia…that would be East St. Louis. Getting across the Mississippi back then would have been difficult.

          1. I think you could get across the Mississippi without being pushed too far south north of present day St, Louis where the Missouri joins in. The Big River gets too big past that point.

            1. Yes. but Cahokia is on the east side and a bit south. 10 or 12 thousand years ago or even 5 or 6, what kind of boat could have crossed that river?

              1. Native Americans traveled on large bodies of water frequently. Remember… the Caribbean Islands were well populated when Europeans arrived.

              2. what kind of boat could have crossed that river?

                You can ask exactly the same question – with different dates – about the Straights of Dover, of Gibralter, the Bosphorus, Straights of Hormuz, of Aden, the Timor Sea …
                In practical terms, all humans who have left Africa have been competent mariners and only relatively small numbers have forgotten it. Concerning, for example, the perennially interesting (to Americans) question of the peopling of the Americas, I personally suspect that it took place by coastal migration island-hopping along the Aleutians, and that the evidence of this migration is at diveable depths (≤ ± 50m).

  3. This is really cool!

    I’m disappointed that events like Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt were included as “historical” markers.

        1. “I’m just saying man is naturally a mythopoeic creature.”
          “What’s that mean?” said the Senior Wrangler.
          “Means we make things up as we go along,” said the Dean, not looking up.” (Terry Pratchett, Hogfather)

          Some Dark Age / Archaic Greeks also sent their mythic ancestors to spend some time in Egypt (the myths of Io and the Danaids). As the only surviving civilization in the region, Egypt must have been an equivalent of the Ivy League.

          The Hebrews likely had a different motivation, such as not to admit that the Egyptians came and subjugated them on the very Promised Land.

          1. As the only surviving civilization in the region, Egypt must have been an equivalent of the Ivy League.

            Thermopylae? Marathon? Issus?

            1. I referred to earlier times.

              “In 1177 B.C., marauding groups known only as the “Sea Peoples” invaded Egypt. The pharaoh’s army and navy managed to defeat them, but the victory so weakened Egypt that it soon slid into decline… After centuries of brilliance, the civilized world of the Bronze Age came to an abrupt and cataclysmic end… No more Minoans or Mycenaeans. No more Trojans, Hittites, or Babylonians. The thriving economy and cultures of the late second millennium B.C., which had stretched from Greece to Egypt and Mesopotamia, suddenly ceased to exist, along with writing systems, technology, and monumental architecture.”


              1. But the Egyptians did rise again after the incursions of the “Sea Peoples”. As did the Acheans (Greeks), Assyrians and Hittites (I forget their relative order) …
                Now trying to remember if the “Sea Peoples” had any recorded effect on the Etruscans.

              2. Egypt survived relatively well. Assyria, let’s say, recovered. Hittites never did. Iron Age Greece had very little to do with Bronze Age Greece (almost everyone was surprised when it turned out that the Mycenaean scripts were in Greek). After passing through a period of illiteracy, I regard it as a new culture. It was born from the collapse of the Mycenaean culture, the Trojan War as the defining event. Etruscans developed as a nation after the Bronze Age Collapse.

  4. The industrial revolution and the railroads helped to cause that explosion. Out here in the rural areas, such as Iowa, the movement to the cities from the 1920/30s to now was felt by everyone living in it. Just look at the populations go down by county in the rural parts of the state. The population of the county I currently live in peaked in 1920. It has been going down steadily since then. So even if the town or small city hangs on, it will be doomed in time because the country side around the town is empty. This is the dilemma for all of these small cities, 5 to 10 thousand all over the state. Much of this was caused by the huge farm era and the movement to the big cities. It cannot be stopped, at least there has been no stopping it since the 1920s.

    1. Japan is having the same problem.
      I read today that greater Tokyo now contains almost one quarter the population of Japan, even as Japan’s overall population shrinks
      People are moving out of Japan’s rural communities into the cities, especially the young.

      Outlying train routes are closing due to lack of customers while the large cities are building ever faster trains to serve ever more commuters from the outlying areas and close by cities. This is happening even as Japan’s demographics are pointing to a plunging population, unless they start bringing in lots more immigration or start making babies like crazy. The latter is unlikely, they have one of the lowest marriage rates and the lowest birth rate in the world.

    2. The Romans were complaining about the same effect in Republican times. Of course, the flight from the countryside to the cities was less visible then since the mortality associated with living in a city reduced their growth rates. But cities have been sucking the youth out of their rural hinterlands for … a very long time.
      sorry, I’m just having a mental image of a Cato or a Scipio meeting a modern “Republican”. Anyone willing to give odds on the meeting ending with a running through by the sword?

  5. I don’t know if it is the first “city” but it looks like the first permanent place with a temple (discovered so far) is in current day Turkey – Göbekli Tepe.

    It is about 12,000 years old. There is a movement afoot to change our calendar and make this the year 12,017 – setting year 0 to the start of the Human era. You can read about it and see a video here:

    1. I appreciate the general idea, but (1) while Göbekli Tepe obviously hosted considerable numbers of people, it’s a lot less clear whether this was a permanent population, or people coming in intermittently from a hinterland (research continues – literally they’re still digging the place up) ; and (2) anatomically modern humans have been around for more like 100000 years – 12000 years would be more like the start of the “Urban Age”.

  6. That video reminds us that we’re living on the knee of exponential growth. The culture that seems (or has seemed until recently) to be relatively stable year to year, if not generation to generation, is expanding and diversifying at an explosive chain-reaction rate. Events are becoming more unpredictable, sometimes favorable and sometimes not, but according to the Second Law, the unfavorable outcomes vastly outnumber the favorable ones. Our descendants are in for a rough ride.

    1. Our descendants are in for a rough ride.

      Only for those who choose to have descendants.
      A contact was commenting on her Xmas with the In-Laws a couple of days ago, and suggested that the present of robotic R2D2 toys suggested that “mum had finally understood the idea that we are child free”.

  7. I couldn’t help imagining – I’d enjoy using a time machine to go back and warn some people about their future. Maybe I’d like to play god.

    1. If you could, with a vial of vaccinia virus in your pocket, go back to America shortly before Europeans discovered it, you could possibly save millions! (Provided that you convince the population to follow your instructions.)

      1. [Searches for some Petri dishes, to modify Vaccinia to become “bison pox” with the useful properties of “cow pox”.]
        I know smallpox was a big deal, but I think there were honourable mentions on the germ-warfare score cards for measles, TB, and typhus. It wasn’t a one-disease hecatomb. (No, I’m not going to call it a decimation.)

          1. I know there is some evidence for a (South) American origin for syphilis, but that would suggest a likely “native” tolerance to the organism, for which I know of no evidence. I’m not convinced.

            1. I guess, nobody cared about the toll native Americans paid to syphilis.

              I looked at some papers about the origin of syphilis after I read Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel. He insists very much to root syphilis in the Old World, because he thinks its New World origin would undermine his theory. Articles I’ve browsed are for New World origin, e.g.
              (plus the opinion of my colleague who does research on yaws).

              It is amusing how the far-left ideas of Diamond make his description of pre-Columbian American societies oscillate between “as advanced as Europeans” and “noble savages unable to support a serious endemic infection”; and how he takes for granted that domesticated animals are very rich at pathogens, while wild animals and human ancestors have practically none.

              1. Yeah, I see where you’re coming from on Diamond’s excessive optimism about non-domesticated animal parasitism. Mind you, since he’s done his (ornithology) fieldwork in PNG, he’s probably well aware of the facts himself, but oversimplified it for his book.

  8. Otherwise great, but: “1200 BC, Moses leads Israelites out of Egypt.” Please — Exodus is not history.

  9. The PLO, Hamas, UNSC, Obama, and Kerry are not going to like:

    “1000 BC: Kingdom of Israel established”

    Expect push-back on this if Islamic scholars see this animation.

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