Rural and Urban Settlements: Definition, Differences, Classification

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Rural and urban settlements are terms used to describe two settlements different from one the other in terms of population size, density, location, life style, social activities and development. Rural settlement is basically a function of past and present economic, cultural, physical historical and ecological factors. A settlement can be classified as rural in one country and urban in another country; different places have different classification of both rural and urban settlement. However, there are certain criteria for classifying an urban settlement which include: population layout, formal plan/layout, secondary and primary activities. Also see the relationships that exist between rural and urban settlements

Urban Settlement Definition

A rural settlement is a settlement where the population is very high and has the features of a built environment. The common types of urban settlements are towns and cities; the first towns probably developed in the river Euphrates, Indus and other sub-tropical rivers. These towns grew from the need of the people to live together for security reasons and trade. A town today is often a center for administration, banking, commerce and education and it is intimately connected with the region surrounding it.

Rural Settlement Definition

Rural settlement is dispersed or village type of settlements whose inhabitants are mainly engaged in agriculture lumbering and mining, the rate of urbanization is very slow in this settlement. These settlements are relatively small areas with socially homogenous people that know themselves very well and share the same cultural background. The common types of rural settlements include village, hamlet and homestead.

Classification of Rural Settlements

Morphology– geographers have become recently interested in the morphology of settlements i.e, the pattern or shape of settlements in the rural areas. Although village shapes vary spatially in Britain and across the world. It has been traditionally possible to identify seven types

Isolated settlement – This refers to an individual building usually found in an area of extreme physical difficulty where the natural resources are insufficient to maintain more than a few inhabitants. For instance, the Amazon rainforests where the tribes live in a communal home called Maloca. Isolated houses may also be found in planned pioneer areas such as on the Canadian Prairies where the land was divided into small squares each with its own farm buildings.

Dispersed settlement– A settlement is described as dispersed when there are a scattered farms and individual houses across an area; there are either no nucleation present or they are so small that they consist only about two or three buildings forming a hamlet. 2 or 3km of open space or farmland may separate each farm or hamlet from one another. Some communities consist of crofts spaced out alongside a road or raised beach. Hamlets are common in rural areas of northern Britain, on German Plain where their name Urweiler means (primaeval hamlet) and in sub-Saharan Africa.

Nucleated settlement– a nucleated settlement is common in many rural parts of the world where buildings have been grouped closely together for economic, social or defensive purposes. In Britain, where recent evidence suggests that nucleation only took place after the year 1000, villages were surrounded by their farmland where the inhabitants grew crops and grazed animals in order to be self-sufficient; this led to an unplanned and variable spacing of villages, usually 3 to 5km away. Some villages grew around crossroads and at T-junctions, as it is the case of many villages in India. However, many border villages in Britain, hilltop settlements around the Mediterranean Sea and Kampongs in Malaysia became nucleated for defensive reasons.

Loose-knitsettlements– these are similar to nucleated settlements except that the buildings are mere spread out, possibly due to space taken up by individual farms which are still found within the village itself.

Linear settlement or ribbon settlement– where the buildings are strung out along a main line of communication or along a confined river valley. The settlement is described as linear. Street villages and planned linear villages are common in England. Unplanned linear settlements also developed on long narrow, flood avoidance sites for example, along the raised beaches of Western Scotland and on river terraces as in London. Later, unplanned settlements grew up along the floors of the narrow coalmining valleys of South Wales and on main roads leading out of Britains urban areas following the increase in private car ownership and the development of public transport. In the Netherlands, Malaysia and Thailand, houses have been built along canals and waterways.

Rings and green villages– rings villages are found in many parts of sub Saharan Africa and Amazon rainforest. Houses were built around a central area which was left open for tribal meetings and communal life. In Kenya, the Maasai built their houses around an area into which their cattle were driven for protection during most nights. In England, many villages have been built around a central green.

Planned settlements– although many early settlements were planned (for example Pompeii, York), the apparently random shape of many British villages appear to suggest that they were not. More recently, villages surrounding large urban areas in Britain and in Netherlands for instance, have expanded and have become suburbanised, having small and often crescent-shaped es

Difference between rural and urban settlements

  1. Population size: there is a wide discrepancy of views over the minimum size of population required to enable settlement to be termed a town for example in Denmark, a town is considered to be 250 people, in Ireland 500, in France 2000, in the USA 2500, in Spain 10,000 and in Japan30, 000. In India where villages are larger than British towns, a figure of less than 25% engaged in agriculture is considered to be the dividing point.
  2. Economic: rural settlements have traditionally been defined as places where most of the workforce are farmers or are engaged in other primary activities (mining and forestry). In contrast, most of the workforces in urban areas are employed in secondary and service industries. However, many rural areas have now become commuters/dormitory settlements for people working in adjacent urban areas or even more recently, a location for smaller footloose industries such as high-tech industries.
  3. Services– the provision of services such as schools, hospitals, shops, public transport and banks is usually limited at times in rural areas but in abundant in the urban areas, however, settlements are often packed closely together and within towns there is a greater mixture of land use with residential, industrial, services and open space provision.
  4. Social: rural settlement especially those in more remote areas tend to have more inhabitants in the over 65years-age group, whereas the highest proportion in urban areas lies within the economically active age group or those under secondary school age. It has become increasingly more difficult to differentiate between villages and towns especially where urban areas have spread outwards into the rural fringe. It is therefore more realistic to talk about a transition zone from strongly rural to urban.
  5. Land use: In rural areas, settlements are widely spaced with open land between adjacent village and within each village; there may be individual farmers as well as residential areas and if possible small-scale industry.


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