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Population Distribution and Urbanization

Liberia's average population density in 1974 of 36 persons per square mile had risen by 1984 to an etimated 49 persons per square mile. That density remained lower than those of neighboring states on the West African coast, all of which are larger and marked by more varied terrain and climate. Within the country, variation in densities has been substantial. In 1974 rural areas ranged from fewer than five persons per square mile, e.g., in parts of Lofa and Grand Gedeh counties, to well over 100 per square mile in areas near the coastal towns and in the northern Nimba County (see fig. 5). Large portions of the least densely settled areas were devoted to national forests or were otherwise heavily wooded. It was estimated in the late 1970s that at least one?third of the total population lived in Montserrado County, which contained not only the national capital and its environs but also several of the more important industrial or agro?industrial complexes in Liberia.

According to the 1974 census, 29.1 percent of the population lived in urban localities, defined mainly as having 2,000 or more inhabitants. In 1981 the Liberian government estimated the urban population to be a very high 37.1 percent of the total; other sources thought it to be about 30 to 35 percent. In 1974 only 15 percent of the country's urban dwellers lived in the 23 localities that had fewer than 5, 000 people, whereas about 70 percent lived in the seven largest towns?those having more than 10,000 inhabitants. The 15 urban centers that had between 5,000 and 10,000 inhabitants included about 25 percent of all urban dwellers (see table 1, Appendix).

Although there were trading centers in some places on the coast and in the interior, there were no large towns before the arrival of the nineteenth?century settlers (later called AmericoLiberians) who established their urban communities on the coast, rarely venturing inland. Some of the towns these settlers established, e.g., Harper, have remained relatively unaffected by twentieth-century industrial and commercial developments. Others have emerged in the second and third quarters of the twentieth century, mainly as large agglomerations of workers and their families engaged in a specific enterprise. In effect, they are company towns associated with rubber plantations or iron mining and are often clearly labeled as such. These towns, dependent as they are on a single enterprise, have been subject to wide variations in population. For example, in 1962 Harbel (established in 1926 by the Firestone Plantations Company) had nearly three times the population it had in 1974. By contrast, Yekepa (formerly called Lamco) had more than five times more people in 1974 than it had in 1962. Buchanan, an old port town, became much more inportant upon the completion in 1963 of the railroad from Yekepa (near the iron mines of the Nimba Range) to the coast; its population nearly doubled between the two censuses.

Greater Monrovia, the capital city and its environs, continued to be the largest growing urban area. Monrovia proper, the only city of any size, more than doubled in population between the two censuses and may well have reached 200,000 by the mid-1980s. In 1974 the population of Greater Monrovia already exceeded that figure.

Some of its larger components had grown even more rapidly than Monrovia proper. Paynesville more than tripled in size between 1962 and 1974; Gardensville grew from a community of a few hundred people to a town of more than 6,500 in 12 years; and Congo Town, which did not exist as such in 1962, was the third largest town in Liberia by 1974.

The 1962 and 1974 censuses were de jure enumerations, i.e., people were counted as belonging to their presumed permanent places of residence. It was not altogether clear, however, that all of those counted as urban inhabitants in the two censuses were permanently so. Many returned to their rural homes at certain points in the agricultural season, and others did so to retire. That pattern may change as urban populations become sexually more balanced.

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