Our directory of things of interest

Country File: Mapping rural-to-urban migration

  • Written by  Benjamin Hennig
  • Published in Mapping
Country File: Mapping rural-to-urban migration
18 Feb
Benjamin Hennig visualises how the world has moved to the cities, and what will happen next...

Within the next five years rural living will have reached its climax. According to the United Nations World Urbanization Prospects (a biennial publication from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs), rural populations will have reached their absolute high in 2022 with approximately 3.38 billion people. This is only slightly up from the current 3.37 billion people, showing how the number of people not living in cities has flatlined since the turn of the century and comes after a period of continuous growth since the 1950s when only 1.78 billion people lived in the countryside. The current long-term projections see this number going slightly down to 3.2 billion people by 2050.

While the rural population has become a minority globally (at approximately 46 per cent), the majority of those are increasingly concentrated in the poorer parts of the world. Sixty-nine per cent of people in the least developed countries live in rural areas, while this number is at only 20 per cent in higher-income countries.

This month’s cartogram shows how the distribution of rural populations compares in absolute and relative terms. The large, main map shows the countries of the world resized according to the total number of each’s rural population as of 2016. The varying green shades show the proportion of a country’s total population that live in a rural area (see key, bottom left).

East Asia dominates this cartogram with its large overall populations. India and China, as the countries with the largest rural populations, particularly stand out. While India is projected to slowly lose rural populations (six per cent between now and 2050), China is set to do so at a much faster pace (47 per cent). The most significant increase in rural populations, however, takes place almost solely on the African continent, where nine out of ten of the largest growing rural populations are located.

Migration into cities is one major reason for declining rural populations. However, these maps highlight that this affects overall rural population numbers less significantly in some of the poorest parts of the world

The two smaller cartograms look at these developments over a longer time span, showing the absolute changes in rural population between 1950 and 2050. These cartograms are distorted by absolute rural population decline and growth respectively.

Here the above described regional trends become visible in their absolute extent. Most of the absolute decline over that period takes place in countries that today are predominantly urbanised. Only China and mostly Balkan countries in Europe are among the slightly less urbanised countries that are seeing considerable declines in rural populations.

Significant rural population increases, by contrast, are mostly concentrated in those countries that have rural populations of over 50 per cent.

Migration into cities is one major reason for declining rural populations. However, these maps highlight that this affects overall rural population numbers less significantly in some of the poorest parts of the world. Here natural population growth keeps rural regions growing in absolute terms. By contrast, China’s active intervention through the Hukou residence registration system and the one-child policy influenced these developments considerably, making its developments differ from other countries in the region.

Overall, declining rural populations in already very urbanised countries have become a complex governance issue. This is mostly the case in the wealthier parts of the world, especially in Europe. Modern rural flight in the past six decades and its projected continuation well into the 21st century requires rethinking rural development to ensure a balanced economic development between the growing urban and shrinking rural regions.

Benjamin Hennig (@geoviews) is Assistant Professor in Geography at the University of Iceland and Honorary Research Associate in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. He is involved in the Worldmapper project and is author of www.viewsoftheworld.net.

This was published in the February 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

Adventure Canada


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...


NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...


IPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference: Alberta host dresses non-renewable…


Increased carbon dioxide is affecting freshwater ecosystems


The latest laser scanning technology reveals new insights into the…


Deforestation is having an unexpected effect in the Amazon: fewer…


The iconic Douglas fir tree, familiar to fans of the…


Rocky Mountain forests are not regenerating after wildfires


Cape Town is edging closer to ‘Day Zero’, the long-feared…


Ongoing restoration projects are breathing new life into Florida’s Everglades


Despite protests, an experimental pedestrianisation system is proving to be…


National Archives map historian, Rose Mitchell, highlights some of the…


An expedition into the Jordanian desert is helping teachers and…


Trivia fans take note, Mount Hope in the British Antarctic…


An enormous hydropower development in Ethiopia is expected to put…


From nuclear warnings to whether your favourite band will ‘make…


New maps of global reptile distribution reveal significant gaps in…


Indigenous conservation schemes in Peru can be more effective than…


How are the EU member nations faring in the fight…


Violence against women violates human rights, and the lack of…


Deadly heat waves could become more frequent in cities thanks…


These 13 poignant infographics are in the running for the…