The urban revolution

Urbanisation, as seen from space. Image: Getty.

As years go, 2008 was a bit of a biggie. It was the year that the United States elected its first black president. It was the year the Large Hadron Collider came online, and didn't destroy the universe. And it was the year Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers blew up, taking large chunks of the global economy with them.

But something even more momentous happened that year – something that will, in the long-term, have far greater long-term implications. In 2008, for the first time in history, a majority of humanity lived in cities.

In the west, we've grown so used to the idea that most of us live in urban areas that it's easy to forget quite how radical a change this is. But for most people, during most of history, life was tribe, village or field: the city was exotic and unfamiliar, if not altogether alien. As recently as 1800, just 3% of the world's population lived in cities.

Then the industrial revolution happened. By 1990, 40% of the world's population was urban; by 2008, it was half. Today, most authorities reckon that 53% of the world's population are crammed into roughly 3% of the world's surface. In 2012, there were 3.7 people living in cities – in 1970, there weren’t that many people in the world. All this adds up to nothing less than a revolution in human civilisation.

There are a few other facts about the urban revolution that it's worth highlighting up front.

It's big

Before the twentieth century no more than a handful of cities had ever held a population of more than 1 million. (Exactly how many is a matter of some debate: both records and historical administrative skills are a bit patchy, and one suspects propagandists to have muddied the waters further.)

Today, there are at least 466 cities with populations of over that size. At least 30 of these are ‘megacities’, with populations of 10 million or more.

466 Number of cities with populations of over 1 million

22% Proportion of world population they contain

By far the largest is Tokyo, which has a population of 38 million, more than that of over 150 countries, and which single-handedly generates around 2% of the world’s GDP. (Its unexpected disappearance could thus tip the world into recession, something that comes up in Godzilla movies less than you’d think.) In China, though, there’s talk of a turning the Beijing region into a single, giant megacity containing 130 million people.

Humanity isn't just increasingly urban, it's increasingly metropolitan.

It's everywhere

It's tempting to assume that the urban revolution is actually just a function of shifts in the global economy: a result of the rapid development of Asia, by far the world's most populated continent.

That's true, but also incomplete. In fact, urbanisation is going on in every region...

...and in every income group.

There are over 190 countries in the world. Fewer than 30 of them haven't seen an increase in urbanisation over the past generation.

And it's speeding up

By 2030, the UN predicts, 60% of the world's population will live in a city. By 2050, it'll be 70%. Demographic forecast is a difficult business, requiring a lot of different assumptions about a lot of different variables – but no serious authority expects urbanisation to slow down any time soon. We've seen the future. And the future is urban.


There are many ways in which this will make life better. Urbanisation is both the result, and a driver, of economic development: the agglomeration effect of cities means that companies can grow, and ideas can spread, faster.

More than that, though, they can make the world seem smaller. The psychological distance between New York and Mumbai, the difference in outlooks and life experiences, is far smaller than that between, say, rural Wyoming and Utter Pradesh. Urban life means more opportunities to meet different types of people, experience new cultures or cuisines, or just live however the hell you want to live. In almost any field of human endeavour you can name, the city provides a bigger canvas: there is a reason that no starry-eyed 14 year old dreams of making it big in the Cotswolds.

Set against that, though, you have stress, crime, pollution, and all the other problems that inevitably arise when you try to squeeze ever larger populations into the same basic space. There are questions, too, about whether our legal and governmental institutions will remain effective in an age in which economic power is increasingly concentrated into smaller shares of the globe, and when London competes less with Liverpool than it does with with Lahore. It’s possible that urbanisation could drive inequality, even create a new global class system.

The urban revolution is one of the biggest things ever to happen to humanity. It'll have a profound and lasting impact on almost every area of human endeavour, changing how we live, what we build, where we work, and how we get there.

CityMetric will explore all these topics and more. Working with our partners at Timetric, we'll use data to track the changes in the way humanity lives and works, and make forecasts about how the world is changing. Our writers will report on the challenges facing different cities, and the answers their populations are finding to them. We'll probably end up writing a fair bit about geeky stuff like skyscrapers and metro maps, too.

It's going to be fun. Stick around.

Data sources: World Bank; Demographia World Atlas, May 2014; CityMetric Intelligence.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.