Population Distribution: Rural vs. Urban Areas

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  • 0:05 Population Density
  • 0:46 What Are Rural and…
  • 1:45 Rural vs. Urban
  • 3:45 The Explosion of Urban Areas
  • 4:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Cunningham

Margaret has taught many Biology and Environmental Science courses and has Master's degrees in Environmental Science and Education.

The distribution of people varies depending in the type of location. In this lesson, we will explore how people are distributed between rural and urban areas and how these populations have changed over time.

Population Density

If you were to take a road trip across almost any country, you would travel through big cities and long stretches of rural towns. On your trip, you might notice that there are varying numbers of people in these different types of areas. This would be an example of a difference in population density, which is the number of people per unit of land area.

In most cases, the big cities would have more people in a small area of land and would therefore have a high population density. On the other hand, most rural areas would have fewer people over more land area and would have a lower population density.

What Are Rural and Urban Areas?

Before discussing the population trends in rural and urban areas, let's examine these terms. According to the United States Census Bureau, an urban area is a city with a population size of more than 2,500 people, and a rural area has a population of less than 2,500 people. This definition can be tricky because it does not include information about the size of the area or the density of the population.

Due to the vague nature of this definition, function is also considered when differentiating these terms. In general, an area is considered rural if most of the residents survive on agriculture or rely on natural resource-based occupations, such as logging or fishing. On the other hand, an area is considered urban when it has residents that do not directly depend on natural resource-based occupations.

Rural vs. Urban

Now that we have a better understanding of what makes an area rural or urban, let's explore the populations of these areas. Although the population density in urban areas is generally higher than in rural areas, the overall size of the population in each location has fluctuated over time. For the majority of human history, most people have lived in rural areas and have survived by hunting, gathering, fishing, farming or other occupations based on nature.

It wasn't until around 300 years ago, during the Industrial Revolution, that the population began to shift. People began to move to urban areas in search of jobs, food, housing, education, healthcare and more social activities.

Urbanization is the term used to describe the shift from rural to urban living and the increased concentration of the human population in densely populated cities. In the mid 1800s, only 2% of the entire human population lived in urban areas. By the 1950s, the percentage of the human population living in urban areas was up to around 29%, and by 2009, that number had reached 50%. This number is expected to increase rapidly and by 2050, it is predicted that over 70% of the human population will live in urban areas.

Similarly to the overall human population, the percentage of people living in urban areas has also increased in the United States. In the early 1900s, around 21% of the United States population lived in urban areas. This number has increased steadily, and in 2013, around 82% of the United States population lived in urban areas.

The Explosion of Urban Areas

As more people move to urban areas, there has been a population explosion in some cities. For example, in 1900 there were only 13 cities worldwide that had a population of over one million. In 2007, there were over 300 cities with populations over one million, and many of those cities had much higher numbers.

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