The word ‘city’ comes from the Old French word ‘cité’, which itself is taken from the Latin word ‘civitas’, a derivation of ‘civis’ or ‘citizen’ – which is appropriate …

For what is a city, after all, without its citizens? As Edward Glaeser, an American economist, wrote in his 2011 book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier: “Cities aren’t structures; cities are people.”

Overall, cities continue to attract more and more of the world’s people. In 2018, 55% of the global population lived in urban areas, and that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Such an increase – the result of urbanisation combined with the overall growth of the world’s population – could add 2.5 billion more people to cities by 2050, with close to 90% of this growth taking place in Asia and Africa, according to the UN.

It has only been in comparatively recent years, however, that the majority of people have lived in cities. In 1950, for example, less than 30% of the world’s population resided in urban areas. The first year that UN data shows more than half of the global population to be living in cities was only 2010.

Cities, moreover, are rapidly growing ever larger. In 2018, 548 cities worldwide had at least one million residents, up from 371 in 2000. That number is projected to grow to 706 by 2030, according to the UN. Meanwhile, the number of megacities – with populations of 10 million or more – is projected to rise globally from 33 in 2018 to 43 in 2030.

What has led to this recent uptick in urbanisation? After all, cities have been in existence since around 4500 BCE with the founding of Uruk – widely considered the first city in the world – in Mesopotamia, a region that included much of the modern-day Middle East.

“Cities create a virtuous cycle in which employers are attracted by the large pool of potential employees and workers are drawn by the abundance of potential employers … urban scale also makes it easier for workers to move from job to job.”

Edward Glaeser

The first city

For most of history, the growth of cities – both in terms of number and population size – has happened slowly. Rome was the first city to reach one million residents and reigned as the world’s largest for 550 years from 100 BCE to 450 CE, according to a report from the World Economic Forum. For 250 of those years, it also maintained its one-million-strong population.

No other city would achieve the one-million mark until Chang’an in China in 700 CE, and it was not until 1850 that Beijing became the first city with a population exceeding one million.

Population growth in cities, however, began to accelerate during the Industrial Revolution. London quickly overtook Beijing as the world’s largest city from 1850 to 1900, growing from 2.3 million to 6.6 million people during that period, according to the World Economic Forum report. But London in turn was eclipsed by New York City, which became the world’s first megacity in the 1930s.

Job opportunities have always been the main driver of people moving to cities, observes Richard Holt, Head of Global Cities Research at Oxford Economics. “The details will change through time, but the basic story is there, whether you’re looking at ancient Rome or if you’re looking at Venice or you’re looking at cities in the 19th century or modern cities,” he says.

During the Industrial Revolution, for example, people flocked to the cities because of the boom in well-paying manufacturing jobs. “You left the countryside in order to work in the city where you could treble your wage,” Holt says.

That same allure is now fuelling urbanisation in developing countries towards cities such as Mexico City, Mumbai and Nairobi, he remarks: “People move to the city because they believe that they will have more chances of getting a job or a much higher wage.”

As Glaeser explained in Triumph of the City, urban areas are a natural magnet for jobs: “The cities create a virtuous cycle in which employers are attracted by the large pool of potential employees and workers are drawn by the abundance of potential employers … urban scale also makes it easier for workers to move from job to job. In highly entrepreneurial industries, workers get ahead by hopping from firm to firm.”

Cities also offer employment opportunities for the long term, Holt adds: “It’s not just the immediate job, it’s the career prospects over your whole life.” In the short term, people who move to cities may find that the higher wages they earn do not compensate for the higher living costs. “But in the long term, their wages rise much more than they would if they remained wherever they started,” he says.

“You’re regarded as a success if you move to a job in the big city.”

Richard Holt

The secret of success

Strong career prospects and higher wages lend a sense of prestige to living and working in the city, Holt says: “You’re regarded as a success if you move to a job in the big city.”

Of course, the allure of cities is more than just jobs. “Employers misunderstand what motivates people to move to a city and stay there – human and social factors are actually more important than money and work factors,” consulting firm Mercer noted in a 2018 report, People First: Driving growth in emerging megacities. These human and social factors include overall life satisfaction; proximity to family and friends; and culture, access to theatres, restaurants, and music and social life.

“Over the past thirty years, London and San Francisco and Paris have all boomed, in part, because people have increasingly found them fun places to live,” Glaeser observed in Triumph of the City. “Cities enable us to find friends with common interests, and the disproportionately single population in cities are marriage markets that make it easier to find a mate. Today successful cities, old or young, attract smart entrepreneurial people, in part, by being urban theme parks.”

Ultimately, the greatest advantage of living in cities is the opportunity to make connections, whether on a personal or professional level. In the world’s ever-growing cities, the opportunities to do so will continue to multiply with the rising number of people who choose to reside in them.

EVELYN LEE has lived or worked in cities for most of her life, including New York City, her birthplace and favourite city. She currently lives in another amazing city, London, which she relocated to in 2018. Evelyn is an editor at PERE, which covers the private equity real estate industry globally.