This week marks the United Nations' annual observance of World Population Day (Wednesday July 11th)  -- focusing attention on issues surrounding population growth worldwide. The annual event comes on the heels of a U.N. report that says the world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history. VOA's Robert Raffaele has more.

The U.N. report offers some daunting statistics. By 2008, more than half of the world's population  -- 3.3 billion people -- will be living in urban areas.

By the year 2030, that number is expected to grow to almost five billion, or 60 percent of the world population. The urban populations of Africa and Asia are projected to double during the same period.

The report emphasizes that poor people will continue to comprise much of the urban population. More than 90 percent of slum dwellers today are in the developing world.

South Asia has the largest share, followed by Eastern Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

Thoraya Obaid is the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund.

"Policy makers and officials need to ensure that there is good urban landscape planning, so that there is good housing that does not turn into slums and that there are also the necessary social services that will allow people to have a decent life," she says. 

Lawrence Smith, Junior is the president of the Population Institute, a non-profit group in Washington, D.C. that seeks to reduce rapid population growth.

Smith says one problem is that many developing countries do not  have job training and other programs to help new, unskilled labor -- especially the young -- join the workforce.

"If you could get the investment climate to have businesses, have manufacturing facilities where they could draw and absorb those people into the workforce, but often times they have to be trained and educated in order to get to the point where they can be useful and fit into it. But when there's no opportunity structure, as I mentioned, there's no place for them to go" says Smith. 

Another big concern is the health and education of women, and creating better lives for mothers and their children.

The U.N.'s theme for this year's World Population Day is "Men as Partners in Maternal Health."  "The more a man can be involved in seeing that the child is looked after or the wife is looked after, the mother is looked after, the greater the success, the greater the overall picture of the family health"  says Smith.

He says encouraging greater male involvement will require a shift in attitudes about gender equality. "You'll find that in many countries, women basically do seven times the work that the man does to rear the children.  Women we know do two-thirds of the world's work, they earn 10 percent of the world's income, and they only have one percent of the world's property." 

Smith says giving women more input into decisions about family planning is just one step toward making men in developing countries treat women with more respect.  "And then taking the men, not just to court when he is involved in crimes of violence toward his spouse, but more or less making men see the issue that they have, and I think when this happens, I think this will be a better condition for many women"

The U.N. report says urban planners must implement immediate plans to address the rapidly expanding population.

Those plans must address shelter and services for the poor, while responding to environmental and other concerns of existing residents.