Cities in the World Webinar


Remarks by Angel Gurría

OECD Secretary-General

16 June 2020 - OECD, France

(As prepared for delivery)




Dear Commissioner Ferreira, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to launch the Cities in the World: A New Perspective on Urbanisation report. This very exciting project, that the OECD and the European Commission have been jointly undertaking, provides a new, ground-breaking perspective on cities and global urbanisation.

In our world, profoundly shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, cities have an important role to play in tackling the crisis. They are better equipped to respond to challenges due to their well-developed health care facilities. However, they are also densely populated places where people live and gather, thus at greater risk of spreading the virus.

Two years ago, when we kicked-off this project together, we all agreed on one fundamental idea: we cannot talk about cities and provide adequate policy responses to the challenges they face without accurate and comparable data at a global scale. This is doubly important in the current context.


Making progress on definitions and comparable data

As Commissioner Ferreira has just highlighted, we now have a new set of definitions approved by the UN Statistical Commission and comparable data on cities, metropolitan, urban and rural areas. With these new definitions, we are also able to move away from the traditional urban-rural dichotomy, by considering a novel category: towns and semi-dense areas, which are halfway between urban and rural areas. This innovation constitutes, together with the focus on “functional” areas, a new way of thinking.

Indeed, since 2010, the OECD has adopted a harmonised definition of cities backed by governments, called “functional urban areas”. This was done in collaboration with the European Commission and has led to a unique database that allows us to make meaningful comparisons between metropolitan areas in different OECD countries on trends related to demographics, income, air quality and a range of other topics through the more than 50 indicators available. We have now extended this approach on a global scale.
What have we learned by applying our new global definitions? Let me highlight three main findings of the report.


Cities in the World: Main Findings

First, the global urbanisation process is uneven. Large metropolitan areas grow fastest, while many small and mid-sized metropolitan areas are shrinking. Since 2000, across the world, large metropolitan areas with more than one million inhabitants have grown by more than 400 million people. This has created formidable policy challenges for public transport, affordable housing and public service provision.

Towns are also growing and turning into cities and metropolitan areas, principally in Africa and South Asia. Around 4,000 new metropolitan areas emerged between 1975 and 2015, accounting for one third of all metropolitan areas in the world.

At the same time, one fifth of metropolitan areas are shrinking globally, mostly in East Asia and Europe, where population is stagnating or has started declining. In these countries, policymakers will have to ensure that public services such as education and health facilities remain accessible to residents. All this while facing tough budgetary pressures.

Second: the shape and form of many cities is changing. Cities around the world are not only growing but have tended to become denser, rather than sprawling. Since 1975, 70% of population growth in cities on average has occurred through densification, which means population has grown within old city borders. This result is rather surprising because the a priori is that cities tend to sprawl out of their historical boundaries.

Cities are densifying at different rates in different parts of the world. In lower income countries, densification grew at four times the rate of higher income countries.

This fast growth and increasing population density of cities raises many new challenges and accentuates old ones. This includes affordable housing, congestion, pollution and transport. In short, it poses questions about what sustainable development should be about, an issue that is now more pressing than ever.

In this context, climate change and particularly the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate the vulnerability of accepting the status quo. We need to rethink and adapt cities to achieve greater resilience and enhance sustainable development around the world.

And third: cities still offer a higher quality of life than other areas in many respects. For the first time, we have a comprehensive assessment of differences in quality of life among different areas across the globe.

In most countries, city residents are on average more likely to be satisfied with their lives. They also tend to suffer less from health problems, enjoy more economic opportunities, and have greater access to services and technology.


Ladies and Gentlemen, 

The report we are launching today sets the bar on how we analyse cities, metropolitan areas, and rural areas going forward. It is also a reminder of the important role that cities have in tackling the coronavirus pandemic.

The OECD stands ready to continue working with policymakers across the world and ensure that, with these new data, we are able to shape better policies for better cities, and better lives. Thank you.



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