Q and A: Has the world's population distribution changed much over time?

Surprisingly, no. During the last two centuries most of the world's people lived in Asia, while relatively few lived in Latin America, North America, and Oceania. Europe ranks second to Asia, but its share is decreasing while Africa's share is increasing.

Prior to 1800, Asia's population represented roughly two-thirds of the world total. Europe and Africa fluctuated, each usually holding between 15 percent and 20 percent of the world population. The remaining few people were scattered in Latin America, North America, and Oceania, with Latin America having the largest number.

By 1800, the Industrial Revolution began in Europe and its share of global population increased. Asia maintained two-thirds of the world's people and Africa's share declined. Less than 5 percent resided in the Americas and Oceania combined (see "World Population Distribution by Region, 1800-2050").

World Population Distribution by Region, 1800–2050

Source: United Nations Population Division, Briefing Packet, 1998 Revision of World Population Prospects; and World Population Prospects, The 2006 Revision.

By 1900, Asia's share of the world population declined to 57 percent of the global total, as Europe, North America, and Latin America grew rapidly.

Since rates of population growth are currently highest in the less developed regions, their share of world population will increase. In 2000, Asia's population rose again to account for 60 percent of the world total; Africa's share increased to exceed Europe's portion.

If current trends continue, Asia’s population will decrease slightly to 57 percent of the world total in 2050, Africa's share of the world's population will rise to about 20 percent, and Europe's share will drop below Latin America's.

Over time, the distribution of population changes because of variations in the rate of natural increase and net migration. In the United States between 60 percent and 70 percent of annual population growth is from natural increase and the rest is driven by international migration.

Rural-to-urban migration, combined with natural increase, is leading to a disproportionate increase in urban population, especially in less developed countries. A century ago, only 10 percent of the world's population lived in urban areas. By 1950, the urban share had risen to 29 percent, and today it is 49 percent. By the year 2030, 60 percent of the world's population is projected to live in urban areas, ranging from market towns to megacities. Urban areas are getting larger. In 1950, only the Tokyo and New York urban areas had over 10 million people. By 2025, there could be more than 25 urban areas with over 10 million people. Eight of these urban areas would hold over 20 million people each. Only two of the 10 largest urban areas projected for 2025 are expected to be in the more developed countries (see table, "Population of Cities With 10 Million Inhabitants or More, 1950, 2007, and 2025").

Population of Cities With 10 Million Inhabitants or More, 1950, 2007, and 2025

In millions

1950 2007 2025
1. New York-Newark, USA 12.3 1. Tokyo, Japan 35.7 1. Tokyo, Japan 36.4
2. Tokyo, Japan 11.3 2. New York-Newark, USA 19 2. Bombay, India 26.4
    3. Mexico City, Mexico 19 3. Delhi, India 22.5
    4. Bombay, India 19 4. Dhaka, Bangladesh 22
    5. São Paulo, Brazil 18.8 5. São Paulo, Brazil 21.4
    6. Delhi, India 15.9 6. Mexico City, Mexico 21
    7. Shanghai, China 15 7. New York-Newark, USA 20.6
    8. Calcutta, India 14.8 8. Calcutta, India 20.6
    9. Dhaka, Bangladesh 13.5 9. Shanghai, China 19.4
    10. Buenos Aires, Argentina 12.8 10. Karachi, Pakistan 19.1
  11. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, USA 12.5 11. Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo 16.8
    12. Karachi, Pakistan 12.1 12. Lagos, Nigeria 15.8
    13. Cairo, Eqypt 11.9 13. Cairo, Egypt 15.6
    14. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 11.7 14. Manila, Philippines 14.8
    15. Osaka-Kobe, Japan 11.3 15. Beijing, China 14.5
    16. Beijing, China 11.1 16. Buenos Aires, Argentina 13.8
  17. Manila, Philippines 11.1 17. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, USA 13.7
    18. Moscow, Russian Federation 10.5 18. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 13.4
    19. Istanbul, Turkey 10.1 19. Jakarta, Indonesia 12.4
        20. Istanbul, Turkey 12.1
      21. Guangzhou, Guangdong, China 11.8
        22. Osaka-Kobe, Japan 11.4
        23. Moscow, Russian Federation 10.5
        24. Lahore, Pakistan 10.5
        25. Shenzen, China 10.2
        26. Madras, India 10.1
        27. Paris, France 10

Source: United Nations Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects, The 2007 Revision.


Growth rate: The number of persons added to (or subtracted from) a population in a year due to natural increase and net migration; expressed as a percentage of the population at the beginning of the time period.

Less developed countries: Less developed countries include all countries in Africa, Asia (excluding Japan), and Latin America and the Caribbean, and the regions of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.

More developed countries: More developed countries include all countries in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.

Net migration: The net effect of immigration and emigration on an area's population in a given time period, expressed as an increase or decrease.

Rate of natural increase: The birth rate minus the death rate, implying the annual rate of population growth without regard for migration. Expressed as a percentage.

Urban: Percentage of the total population living in areas termed urban by that country. Typically, the population living in towns of 2,000 or more or in national and provincial capitals is classified as urban.