Volume 33 - Article 48 | Pages 1297–1332  

Which transition comes first? Urban and demographic transitions in Belgium and Sweden

By Philippe Bocquier, Rafael Costa


Background: Several theories compete to explain the main drivers of urbanisation, past and present, in relation to both demographic transition and economic development. One hypothesis is that rural-to-urban migration is the driver of urbanisation; another is that urban mortality decline actually triggered urban transition.

Objective: This paper reconsiders the relationship between demographic (vital) migration and urban transitions by analysing the long-term contribution of natural and migratory movements to urban transition. The respective contributions of birth, death, and migration and their timing will indicate whether economic development, through labour force migration, or vital transition mainly determines urban transition.

Methods: After examining the spatial dimension of the demographic transition theory, we use 19th and 20th century series on Sweden and Belgium to better identify the migration component of urban transition through the computation of growth difference between urban and rural areas, accounting for the often neglected reclassification effect.

Results: In both Sweden and Belgium, migration is the direct or indirect (through reclassification) engine of urban transition and its contribution precedes the onset of vital transition, while the vital transition has a secondary, unstable, and negative role in the urban transition.

Conclusions: Changes in the economic sphere are reinstated as the underlying cause of population change, acting through the shift of human capital in space. Methodological consequences are then drawn for analysing vital and urban transitions in an increasingly interdependent world.

Contribution: The paper contributes to the theoretical literature on urban and demographic transitions in relation to economic development. The proposed method evaluates migration contribution without having to measure it.

Author's Affiliation

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