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The coastline is heavily urbanised; most of the land not built up with golf courses has been developed with small residential areas.
Marbella is bordered on the north by the municipalities of Istán and Ojén, on the northwest by Benahavís, on the west by Estepona and on the northeast by Mijas. The Sierra Blanca is most centrally located in the province, looming over the old village.
Between 19 the population grew by 897%, with the decade of the 1960s having the highest relative increase, at 141%.
In 2001, only 26.2% of Marbella's population had been born there, 15.9% were foreign-born, and those born in other towns in Spain made up the difference.
The use of "marbellí" as a gentilic was popularised by the writer and journalist Victor de la Serna (1896–1958), who wrote a series of documentary articles on "The Navy of Andalucía"; in his research he had come upon the Historia de Málaga y Su Provincia (History of Málaga and the Province) by Francisco Guillén Robles, who used the plural word "marbellíes" to designate the Muslim inhabitants of Marbella.
Archaeological excavations have been made in the mountains around Marbella which point to human habitation in Paleolithic and Neolithic times.
The coast is generally low and sandy beaches that are more extensive further east, between the fishing port and the Cabopino.
The irregularity of rainfall has resulted in intermittent rivers that often run dry in summer; most of the many streams that cross the city have been bridged.
The La Concepción reservoir supplies the population with drinking water; apart from this there are other reservoirs like El Viejo and El Nuevo (the Old and the New) that irrigated the old agricultural colony of El Ángel, and Las Medranas and Llano de la Leche that watered the plantations of the colony of San Pedro de Alcántara.
According to a study by the Association of Municipalities of the Costa del Sol, based on the production of solid waste in 2003, Marbella had a population of about 246,000 inhabitants, almost twice that of the population census of 2008.
From the estimated volume of municipal waste in 2010, the City calculates the population during the summer months at around 400,000 people, while official police sources estimated it at about 500,000, with a peak of up to 700,000 people.