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Rural to Urban Migration

Rural to Urban Migration

Chances are, you live in an urban city right now. That's not a wild guess or a mystic insight, it's merely statistics. Today, most people live in cities, but it probably doesn't take much tracing back to past generations to find a time when your family lived in a rural area. Since the onset of the industrial era, migration from rural to urban areas has been taking place across the world. Migration is an important factor influencing population growth and spatial patterns of the population.

Rural-to-urban migration has shifted the concentration of rural and urban populations, and today, more people live in cities than at any previous time in human history. This change is not merely a matter of numbers; a reorganization of space naturally accompanies such a dramatic transfer of population.

Rural-to-urban migration is an inherently spatial phenomenon, so the field of human geography can help to reveal and analyze the causes and consequences of this change.

Rural-to-Urban Migration Definition Geography

People living in rural areas are more likely to migrate than those living in urban cities.1 Cities have developed into centers of industry, commerce, education, and entertainment. The allure of city living and the many opportunities that may come with it have long driven people to uproot and settle in the city.

Rural-to-urban migration is when people move, either temporarily or permanently, from a rural area to an urban city.

Rural-to-urban migration occurs at both the national and international level, but internal or national migration takes place at a higher rate.1 This type of migration is voluntary, meaning that migrants willingly choose to relocate. However, rural-to-urban migration can also be forced in some cases, such as when rural refugees flee to urban areas.

Developing countries characteristically have higher rates of rural-to-urban migration compared to countries with more developed economies.1 This difference is attributed to developing countries having a larger proportion of the population living in rural areas, where they participate in traditional rural economies like agriculture and natural resource management.

Population Geography, rural farmer, rural to urban migration example StudySmarterFig. 1 - A farmer in the rural countryside.

Causes of Rural-to-Urban Migration

While urban cities have been undergoing remarkable transformations through population growth and economic expansion, rural areas have not experienced this same level of development. The discrepancies between rural and urban development are the principal causes of rural-to-urban migration, and they best described through push and pull factors.

A push factor is anything that causes a person to want to leave their current living situation, and a pull factor is anything that attracts a person to move to a different location.

Let's take a look at some important push and pull factors across the environmental, social, and economic reasons that people choose to migrate from rural to urban areas.

Environmental Factors

Rural life is highly integrated with and dependent on the natural environment. Natural disasters are a common factor that pushes rural residents to migrate to urban cities. This includes events that may immediately displace people, such as floods, droughts, wildfires, and intense weather. Forms of environmental degradation operate more slowly, but are still noteworthy push factors. Through processes of desertification, soil loss, pollution, and water scarcity, the profitability of the natural environment and agriculture is reduced. This pushes people to move in pursuit of replacing their economic losses.

Population Geography, drought in Ethiopia, causes of rural-urban migration StudySmarterFig. 2 - Satellite image showing drought index over Ethiopia. Green areas represent higher than average rainfall, and brown areas represent below-average rainfall. Much of Ethiopia is rural, so the drought has affected millions of those whose livelihoods rely on agriculture.

Urban cities offer the promise of a less direct dependence on the natural environment. Environmental pull factors include access to more consistent resources like fresh water and food in cities. Vulnerability to natural disasters and climate change impacts is also reduced when moving from a rural to urban area.

Social Factors

Increased access to quality education and health care facilities are a common pull factor in rural-to-urban migration. Rural areas often lack government services when compared to their urban counterparts. More government spending often goes towards providing public services in cities. Urban cities also offer a plethora of recreation and entertainment options not found in rural areas. From shopping malls to museums, the excitement of city life attracts many rural migrants.

Economic Factors

Employment and educational opportunities are cited as the most common pull factors associated with rural-to-urban migration.1 Poverty, food insecurity, and lack of opportunities in rural areas are a consequence of uneven economic development and push people to urban areas where development has been greater.

It is not uncommon for rural residents to abandon agricultural lifestyles when their land becomes degraded, affected by natural disasters, or otherwise unprofitable. When paired with job loss through the mechanization and commercialization of agriculture, rural unemployment becomes a major push factor.

The Green Revolution occurred in the 1960s and included the mechanization of agriculture and the use of synthetic fertilizers. This coincides with a massive shift to rural-to-urban migration in developing countries. Rural unemployment increased, as less labor was needed in food production.

Advantages of Rural-to-Urban Migration

The most prominent advantages of rural-to-urban migration are the increased educational and employment opportunities provided to migrants. With increased access to government services like health care, higher education, and basic infrastructure, a rural migrant's standard of living can dramatically improve.

From the city level perspective, the availability of labor is increased through rural-to-urban migration. This population growth promotes further economic development and the accumulation of capital within industries.

Disadvantages of Rural-to-Urban Migration

The loss in population experienced by rural areas disrupts the rural labor market and can deepen the rural and urban development divide. This can hinder agricultural productivity in areas where commercial agriculture is not prevalent, and it impacts city residents who rely on rural food production. In addition, once land is sold as migrants leave for the city, it can often be acquired by large corporations for industrial agriculture or intensive natural resource harvesting. Often, this land use intensification can further degrade the environment.

Brain drain is another disadvantage of rural-to-urban migration, as those who could contribute to the development of rural economies choose to remain permanently in the city. This can also result in the loss of family ties and a reduction in rural social cohesion.

Lastly, the promise of urban opportunities is not always kept, as many cities struggle to keep up with their population growth. High rates of unemployment and lack of affordable housing often lead to the formation of squatter settlements on the periphery of megacities. Rural poverty then takes on an urban form, and the standard of living can decrease.

Solutions for Rural-to-Urban Migration

Solutions to rural-to-urban migration center around the revitalization of rural economies.2 Rural development efforts should be concentrated on incorporating the pull factors of cities into rural areas and reducing the factors that push people to migrate away.

This is achieved through providing increased government services in higher and vocational education, which prevents rural brain drain and fosters economic growth and entrepreneurship.2 Industrialization can also offer greater employment opportunities. Urban pull factors like entertainment and recreation can be supplemented with the establishment of these infrastructures in rural spaces. In addition, public transportation investments can allow rural residents to more easily travel to and from city centers.

To ensure that the traditional rural economies of agriculture and natural resource management are viable options, governments can work to improve land tenure rights and subsidize food production costs. Increasing loan opportunities for rural residents can support new land buyers and small businesses. In some regions, the development of a rural ecotourism economy can further offer rural employment opportunities in sectors such as hospitality and land stewardship.

Examples of Rural-to-Urban Migration

Rural-to-urban migration rates are consistently higher than urban-to-rural migration rates. However, different social, political, and economic factors contribute to the unique push and pull factors causing this migration.

South Sudan

The urban city of Juba, located along the Nile River in the Republic of South Sudan, has undergone rapid population growth and economic development in recent decades. The surrounding agricultural lands of the city have provided a steady source of rural-to-urban migrants settling in Juba.

Population Geography, aerial view of Juba, rural to urban migration example StudySmarterFig. 3 - Aerial view of the city of Juba.

A 2017 study found that the primary pull factors from rural-to-urban migrants are the greater education and employment opportunities offered by Juba.3 The underlying push factors were related to issues of land tenure rights and climate change impacts on agriculture and animal husbandry. The city of Juba has struggled to meet the demands of its growing population, and several squatter settlements have formed as a result.


China's population is thought to have seen the largest rural-to-urban migration flows in history.4 Since the 1980s, national economic reforms have increased taxes related to food production and increased the scarcity of available farmland.4 These push factors have driven rural residents to take up temporary or permanent employment in urban centers, where much of their income is returned to family members who do not migrate.

This example of mass rural-to-urban migration has had many consequences on the remaining rural population. Often, children are left to work and live with grandparents, while parents seek employment away in cities. Issues of child neglect and under education have grown as a result. The disruption of family ties is directly caused by partial migration, where only a portion of the family moves to the city. The cascading social and cultural effects demand increased attention to rural revitalization.

Rural-to-Urban Migration - Key takeaways

  • Rural-to-urban migration is primarily caused by the allure of greater education and employment opportunities in urban cities.
  • Uneven rural and urban development has resulted in cities having greater economic growth and government services, which attracts rural migrants.
  • Rural-to-urban migration can have negative consequences on rural economies like agriculture and natural resource management, as the labor force can be drastically reduced.
  • Natural disasters and environmental degradation reduce the profitability of rural land and push migrants to urban cities.
  • Increasing education and employment opportunities in rural areas are the first steps to revitalizing rural economies and reducing rural-to-urban migration.


  1. H. Selod, F. Shilpi. Rural-urban migration in developing countries: Lessons from the literature, Regional Science and Urban Economics, Volume 91, 2021, 103713, ISSN 0166-0462, (
  2. Shamshad. (2012). Rural to Urban Migration: Remedies to Control. Golden Research Thoughts. 2. 40-45. (
  3. Lomoro Alfred Babi Moses et al. 2017. Causes and consequences of rural-urban migration: The case of Juba Metropolitan, Republic of South Sudan. IOP Conf. Ser.: Earth Environ. Sci. 81 012130. (doi :10.1088/1755-1315/81/1/012130)
  4. Zhao, Y. (1999). Leaving the countryside: rural-to-urban migration decisions in China. American Economic Review, 89(2), 281-286.
  5. Figure 1: Farmer in the Rural Countryside ( by Saiful Khandaker licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
  6. Figure 3: Growing City of Juba ( by D Chol licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (

Frequently Asked Questions about Rural to Urban Migration

Rural-to-urban migration is when people move, either temporarily or permanently, from a rural to an urban area. 

The primary cause of rural-to-urban migration is the uneven development between rural and urban areas, resulting in more education and employment opportunities available in urban cities.

Rural-to-urban migration can be a problem when cities cannot keep up with their population growth. Migration can overwhelm a city’s employment opportunities, ability to provide government services, and supply of affordable housing. 

Rural-to-urban migration can be balanced by revitalizing rural economies with more employment opportunities and increasing government services like education and health care. 

The population growth in China’s major cities is an example of rural-to-urban migration. Rural residents have been leaving the countryside for the increased opportunities that China’s cities offer, and as a result, the country’s population concentration has been shifting from rural to urban. 

Final Rural to Urban Migration Quiz


What type of migration is rural-to-urban migration (most often)?

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Voluntary migration

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Why do developing countries experience higher rates of rural-to-urban migration?

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Because they have a larger portion of their population living in rural areas. 

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How is the formation of squatter settlements related to rural-to-urban migration?

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Squatter settlements form when rural migrants cannot find employment or affordable housing in growing cities. 

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Describe the most common push factors in rural-to-urban migration.

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  • Lack of employment opportunities
  • Poor education in rural areas
  • Natural disasters and environmental degradation
  • Lack of healthcare infrastructure 

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Describe the most common pull factors in rural-to-urban migration. 

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  • Greater employment opportunities
  • Higher quality education
  • Less vulnerability to natural disasters and environmental degradation
  • Access to health care and government services

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How can increasing rural loan opportunities help reduce rural-to-urban migration?

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Loans can be used to purchase land and farming equipment for food production. This can increase the profitability of rural land and revitalize rural economies. 

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Which country has seen the highest rates of rural-to-urban migration?

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True or False? Ecotourism increases rural-to-urban migration.

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False. Ecotourism is a solution for preventing and reducing rural-to-urban migration. 

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How can rural-to-urban migration be a problem in cities?

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Rural-to-urban migration can overwhelm a city’s employment opportunities, ability to provide government services, and supply of affordable housing. 

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True or False? Rural-to-urban migration is always permanent. 

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False. In some cases, rural migrants may find temporary work or return after leaving for educational opportunities.

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