Journal Article

Global harmonization of urbanization measures: Proceed with care

By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to be living in cities and towns, a marked increase from today’s level of 55 percent. If the general trend is unmistakable, efforts to measure it precisely have been beset with difficulties: the criteria defining urban areas, cities and towns differ from one country to the next and can also change over time for any given country. The past decade has seen great progress toward the long-awaited goal of scientifically comparable urbanization measures, thanks to the combined efforts of multiple disciplines. These efforts have been organized around what is termed the “statistical urbanization” concept, whereby urban areas are defined by population density, contiguity and total population size. Data derived from remote-sensing methods can now supply a variety of spatial proxies for urban areas defined in this way. However, it remains to be understood how such proxies complement, or depart from, meaningful country-specific alternatives. In this paper, we investigate finely resolved population census and satellite-derived data for the United States, Mexico and India, three countries with widely varying conceptions of urban places and long histories of debate and refinement of their national criteria. At the extremes of the urban–rural continuum, we find evidence of generally good agreement between the national and remote sensing-derived measures (albeit with variation by country), but identify significant disagreements in the middle ranges where today’s urban policies are often focused.