The term urbanization is commonly misused. Frequently and mistakenly, urbanization is employed to mean urban growth. When used correctly, however, urbanization refers to the increased degree of urban development within a region or a nation, that is, a defined geographical area, while urban growth, when used in its proper form, relates to the rate at which an urban area or urban population increases within a given time-frame relative to its size at the beginning of that time period.

Furthermore, what makes urbanization different from urban growth is that urbanization has two marked urban features. The first characteristic is that urbanization can be used to describe the proportion of a total area or total population in urban situations such as towns and cities. Second, the term refers to an increased urban proportion during a given timeframe relative to its size at the start of the defined chronological era.

Irrespective of geographical location, the impact and effects of urbanization can be extremely troublesome. In Britain, for instance, although rapid urban growth and urbanization occurred beginning in the late 1800s and continued into the 1900s, its effects were still being felt in the 20th century.

To illustrate this point, by as late as 1945 large parts of British cities contained poor-quality housing within which the laboring population resided, often in cramped conditions with few amenities. Furthermore, problems such as dirt, disease, and social deprivation can be exacerbated by urbanization, and such were the effects of urbanization that by as early as 1842 the British parliament debated its management due to its already perceived threat to national economic development.

Consequently, the British embarked on a process of public health and new, privately built housing so as to make living conditions better. Importantly, by about 1900, this system had not only incorporated slum clearance but had expanded to such a degree as to include the arranging of the urban form, which in Britain became known as "town planning."

One of the largest influences on the increasing degree of urban development in a given place is industrialization, which has to some extent affected all the world's continents. The process of social and economic change that leads a society to shift from a largely agrarian to an industrial nature began in 1700s England and was closely associated with the development of new technologies and business practices, particularly the application of power-driven machinery within factory units.

Although it is not necessary to describe in detail the history and evolution of industrialization, it is necessary to emphasize that it has led to many fundamental changes within societies, including:
  • The rise of manufactured goods.
  • A decline in the significance of the agricultural industrial sector.
  • A rise (per capita) in income.
  • Increased rates of urban growth.
  • Increases in population sizes as a result of changing birth and death rates.
  • Changes in social structures and the erosion of preindustrial social hierarchies.
  • A growth in the influence of towns and cities over their hinterland, that is, the land that borders an urban settlement.
  • The appearance of new lifestyles and attitudes, which may become apparent by influencing the composition of the political system. In many countries political systems have been reshaped as a result of urban development.
  • Environmental degradation in and around urban places, such the hinterland. This can mean the destruction of flora and the death of animals such as fish or woodland creatures due to increased levels of water or air pollution and the clearing of animal habitats to provide new land for urban construction as part of the process of suburbanization.
  • Marked levels of growth of preexisting urban problems, such as waterborne disease.
  • The erection of often large-sized districts of poorquality, overcrowded housing units in proximity to sources of employment. Regardless of the geographical location, a major effect of urbanization is lowering of the environmental quality. Even new housing can become subject to environmental degradation, which in time may in turn lead to its becoming a slum.
With regard to the effects of urbanization, it would be wrong to assume that although the 1900s was a time of much social, cultural, and economic development, the effects of urbanization were less than in prior historic times.

Indeed, in spite of the actual time when urban problems occur, their nature can still be powerful and can have major repercussions for not only the quality of the environment but also the quality of people's lives.

Where problems affect large numbers of people throughout a region or a nation, the potential for social unrest is increased, and consequently those in positions of authority may have to respond to the threat by altering the nature of a nation's political system.

However, it is also important to comprehend that urban difficulties arising from urban growth, especially rapid urban development, may influence the economic, social, and cultural values of a nation as well, and this can be expressed in many distinct ways.

By way of example, the shifting nature of a society due to urbanization may result in both the changing appearance and the urban morphology of existing towns and cities. Furthermore, it may also lead to the swamping of existing administrative structures used to protect the urban environment, as problems like poverty, poor sanitation, dirt, disease, and overcrowding show.

As a consequence of these and other problems, governments at both the local and national levels may be required to quickly establish new means to deal with urban problems so as to help improve the public's quality of life. These effects have also been the source of academic research, and their study has led to the making of many urban study schools, such as the Chicago School of Urban Sociology in the 1930s.

In time, though, the broadening of policies by governments can begin to include wider social and environmental measures, including the protection of land surrounding urban settlements, the establishment of national parks, and the creation of rigid systems of regulation relating to new urban development so that not only can the local ecology be protected but also urban dwellers as a right can enjoy a clean, healthy, and safe living environment, something that was once a privilege of the urban rich only.

Global society has fundamentally changed since the rise of industrialization, which as noted previously first occurred in Britain. One such change has been the altering of patterns of urbanization to such a degree that many of the world's industrial societies are also predominantly urban societies. Urbanization has thus been a major global cultural change following the growth of the manufacturing industry in Europe.

This urban development process has been fueled in many places by other changes, like the development of transportation technologies that have helped increase the distance between home and the workplace, and thus has led to significant increases in the amount of suburbanization occurring throughout the world.

The growth of transportation means like the tram, train, and car have, since the early 1900s, broken traditional relationships that existed between urban space and time as people have over time become increasingly able to commute from one urban district to another.

In addition, government policies relating to the lowering of ticket prices for public transport systems in the metropolitan context have allowed people with less disposable finance to still have the freedom to live and work in places often a great distance from each other.

However, as public transport has become more widely available to all social classes, it has consequently increased the urban sprawl of settlements and therefore the impact of the local place upon its surrounding environments.