Nature and Scope of Urban Geography: An Overview

Urban Geography is the study and analysis of urban systems with reference to their geographical environment. Broadly speaking, the subject matter includes the origin of towns, their growth and devel­opment, their functions in and around their surroundings.

What is  an Urban Place:

It is one of the most essential and immediate  to decide ‘what is urban?’ How does it differ from its counterpart, i.e., rural? In everyday life we are aware that the difference between rural and urban depends upon their nature of work – the former being engaged in primary economic activities and the latter in non-primary economic activities.

  ‘An urban place’ has been defined differ­ently by different scholars and agencies. Even the United Nations Demographic Year Book (UN, 1990) has given a wide range of examples covering the various countries defining demographically.

UNO defines a permanent settlement with a minimum population of 20,000 as an urban place. But several countries have their own minimum such as Botswana (5,000), Ethiopia (2,000), Argentina (2,000), Israel (2,000), Czechoslo­vakia (5,000), Iceland (200), Norway (200), Portugal (10,000), Japan (50,000), Australia (1,000), India (5,000), etc.

But, the UN Demographic Year Book concludes: “There is no point in the continuum from large agglomerations to small clusters or scattered dwellings where urbanity disappears and rurality begins the division between urban and rural popula­tions is necessarily arbitrary.” A review of the problems of rural and urban centres as revealed by the Census Reports of various countries identifies a few bases for reckoning a place as urban.

These are:

(1) A place designated by administrative status;

(2) A minimum population;

(3) A minimum population density;

(4) A concept of contiguity to include or exclude under suburban area or loosely scattered settlement;

(5) A proportion engaged in non-agricultural occupations; and

(6) A functional character.

In the case of our country (India), the census of 1981 has identified the following places as urban:

(1) Centres having Municipality, City Board, Cantonment Board/Notified Town Area;

(2) A minimum population of 5,000;

(3) 75 per cent of males engaged in non-agricultural activities;

(4) A minimum population density of 400 persons per square km or 1,000 persons per square mile; and

(5) Centres defined by urban amenities prescribed by the Director, Provincial Census.

Two important facts must be borne in mind before accepting the meaning of urban and rural. One is the fact that it is rather impossible now to identify a dividing line between the rural and urban – the two being merged to create a sort of diffusion and present a landscape which is neither purely agricultural nor engaged wholly in tertiary activities.

Industrial­ization has brought into being a large number of settlements which are not certainly villages but are nucleated settlements of the agricultural population. Another problem is about the concept of what is urban, which is not static and is subject to change with time as well as with space.

The proportion of the population engaged in primary economic activities is the most effective measure. But capitalization of agriculture in modern times and rural depopulation by commuting urban workers have made the criterion of proportion irrelevant.

Thus, to conclude the discussion one reaches to the point that with the changing nature of both rurality and urbanity, there has developed the functional overlap between the two. Therefore, the distinction between what is urban and what is rural has lost its meaning in reality.

Attributes of a Town:

What are the attributes or characteristics qualifying a town?

Several qualities of a city or town may be summarized as:

(a) Town is a kind of settlement having a social organization of much greater scope than a simple rural establishment.

(b) It does not represent a mere greater number of people agglomerated in a vast area. But it represents a stage of civilization quite different from a locality expressing a rural way of life.

(c) Cities and towns have their historical origin Blache pointed out that cities characteristically possess mythical halo surrounding their genesis (ritual, eponymous hero, etc.).

(d) Towns and cities are creatures of commerce, and politics accompanying the earliest developments such as Babylon, Athens, London, Paris, Delhi, etc.

Scope of Urban Studies and Definitions:

Urban geography studies urban centre in the context of geographical factors. The factors operate spatially to explain processes – economic, socio-cultural and also political. But the subject of urban geography has its limited scope in the sense that it deals with these processes in relation to only one phenomenon, i.e., town or city. Some of the general principles on which a town is based form the subject-matter.

Commonly, it includes in the very beginning, consideration of the origin of an urban place. The genesis about a town is invariably related to its history. Who is behind its origin? What is that which makes a town to take its root where it is, and why it is there? Town site or the ground on which it is sited has some specific and geographic attributes. These need an explanation to bring forth the personality of a town.

Another point which has been emphasized by D. Stamp to cover the scope of urban geography is the study of the actual town itself, i.e., the town as an entity. He further has added that influence of the town on its surrounding area also forms a signif­icant aspect of the study. This means that ‘townscape’ and also hinterland including ‘umland’ are vital issues for studying urban geography.

One of the pioneer scholars in urban studies in India, R.L. Singh has stressed on three broad categories under the scope, viz.

(a) The physical structure of the city,

(b) The stage of its historical development, and

(c) The process influencing the structure.

Dickinson defines urban geography as the study of a city commanding the surrounding region. He describes the city as a king among the surrounding towns. His trait for cities of all ages has been institutional supremacy for their surrounding territory.

Their existence depends upon the resources of the surrounding areas, and also, by virtue of their interaction through their physical, social and economic infrastructure. Their interdependence with their surrounding regions is the spatial reality.

Raymond E. Murphy points out the dual role of the urban geographer, i.e.,

(i) To analyze cities as entities in terms of locations, characters, growth, and relations to the surrounding countryside, as well as,

(ii) To discuss patterns of the city’s interior – land use, social and cultural patterns, patterns of circulation, and above all, natural patterns of the environment – all as they exist in interrelation and interaction in the urban area.

Harold Carter opined that since the geographer is concerned with the analysis of the variable character of the earth’s surface, and thus, “the populations and the buildings agglomerated together to make up towns constitute the special interest of the urban geographer”. Since a considerable population of the world live in towns, and the problems of the urban environment are paramount, the study of urban geography is important and its relevance to applied geography needs no further stress.

Towns and cities have a wide impact on human life and activities. The overall growth rate of the city population has been faster during the last two-three decades. It is only after the Second World War that the study of urban geography got due recognition in the universities in India and abroad. Prior to that period, it was taught as a theme within human geography where its scope was restricted to the description of site-situation of towns including their description as a part of settlements.

Since the publication of the major work of Doxiadis, urban geography has made much headway in and outside India. Brian J.L. Berry also encouraged urban studies by intro­ducing urban systems as consequences of economic development. In the present circumstances, the scope of urban studies has reached far-flung areas and is not restricted to its site-situation structural approach.

The ICSSR Report of the Fourth Survey of Research in Geography, covering the period 1976-82 in India has pointed out various themes of urban phenomena bringing into light the scope of the subject. These include trends and patterns of urbanization; rural-urban migration; urban systems and hierarchical orders; morphology; economic base; land use; functional housing classification; slums and squatter settlements; rural-urban fringe, surrounding areas of influence, Umland and interaction between a city and surrounding settlements; urban environment; pollution; poverty; crime and quality of life; urban services and amenities; urban politics and administration; tourism; urban planning and problems including urban metropolises.

N. Baransky, the founder of Soviet economic geography, has pointed out that study of cities has a wide scope in the sense that it has now become the subject matter of historians, geogra­phers, statisticians, economists and sociologists. Similarly, planners and plan designers are interacted in cities, each in their own way, as well as architects, financial specialists and represen­tatives of a number of special fields.

He further advocates that the studies of cities may vary in terms of their territorial scope and can be studied in a global context, in the context of a country, or in the context of an individual region. One may carry out comparative studies of cities belonging to a particular category.

Finally, one may engage in a geographical study of a particular city constituting the subject of a monograph. Baransky stresses that from an economic-geographic point of view a city together with its network of roads constitutes the skeleton on which everything else hangs that defines the relevant territory, and endows it with a specific configuration. About planning, Baransky has opined that cities may be viewed as applied urban micro-geography.

Bases and Concepts:

Cooley, in his treatise on transportation, made it clear – “why is a town there, where it is?” He has pointed out the geographical qualities which govern the site of a town is ‘binary’. On the one hand, it is bountiful with respect to its resources and facilities of production, while on the other, it is equipped with transportation facilities.

Site-Situation Concept:

Taylor’s various classes and types of cities are the product of their natural site like hills; cuestas; mountain-corridors; passes; plateaux; eroded domes; ports, including fiords, rias, river-estuaries, and roadsteads; rivers, falls, meanders, terraces, deltas, fans, valleys, islands; lakes, etc. All of these are ‘controlled’ primarily by the topography of sites.

Dickinson’s point of view about a city is that of a natural beginning. But with the passage of time, the town’s natural setting is changed by its utilization of the available resources and its adaptability with the locality and the surrounding region. Its growth and expansion sometimes diffuse natural site to the extent to make it beyond recognition. In this context, there was little scope for the development of true urban geography.

The aim was restricted and, hardly it was possible to explain a complex economic function and social system. Crowe, writing on methodology, pointed out that treatment of towns as “indicative of the inability of geographers to penetrate beyond the superficial”.

He further stressed that the application of the ‘site and situation’ formula was meaningless “where the site had nothing but the historical interest as the situation was viewed in terms of routes and not currents of movement”. Such state of affairs rejected the stereotyped concept of ‘site and situation’.

Link(s) and Source(s):


Second Urbanisation In India

An Overview of Urban Geography


About Rashid Faridi

I am Rashid Aziz Faridi ,Writer, Teacher and a Voracious Reader.
This entry was posted in Class Notes, earth, urban morphology, Urban Studies. Bookmark the permalink.

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