The variety of urban environments

Characteristics of urban settlements

A settlement is defined as place where people live. Settlements are grouped according to their specific characteristics, depending on their population size, function, features, hierarchy etc. The focus of this topic is on urban settlements, that is a settlement with over 5000 residents which provides high-order functions in the hierarchy of settlements. The characteristics of urban settlements can be classified under:

1. Site

This refers to the actual ground on which a settlement is located; it is also known as the absolute location of a place, usually indicated by the Longitude and Latitude of the given settlement(absolute location) eg. Longitude 4’00” E, Latitude 0’12″N.  The situation of a settlement is the location of the settlement relative to its surrounding features. eg. it is located close to a river, along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea etc.

2. land use/function

The function of a settlement refers to the main activities taking place there. This is related to the land use, because the function will determine how the land in the settlement will be used for. Examples of functions include:

  • commercial function – market, etc
  • religious function – church, mosques, shrine etc
  • transportation function – main road, airport, sea port, nodal town etc
  • agricultural function – farming activities etc
  • educational function – schools, universities etc

Land use could fall under the following categories:

  • residential function – Housing
  • industrial function – Industries
  • recreational function – sporting facilities eg stadium
  • transportation function – road and rail network

Urban land use however, do change over time, depending on the level of economic development and availability of the factors that once determined the particular functions of the settlement.

3. Hierarchy

The hierarchy of a settlement refers to the arrangement of a settlement in terms of its importance or significance. It depends on factors such as the:

  • range – this is the maximum distance people are prepared to travel to buy a good or pay for a service.
  • threshold – is the minimum number of people require to sustain a business providing a particular service or good.
  • sphere of influence – it is the area that comes under the influence of a given settlement. It is determined by the range and threshold
  • high-order good/services – good that people are prepared to travel long distances to buy. eg. washing machine, computer
  • low-order goods/services – goods that are bought frequently and easily available because they are sold almost every where. eg. bread, water, etc

The functions of a settlement may be determined by the concepts above, hence its location/place on the settlement hierarchy. Low-order goods are sold in low-order settlements and high-order ones. However, high-order goods are sold in high-order settlements only. In other words, high-order settlements provide high and low-order functions but this is not true for low-order settlements. As a result of their functions, high-order settlements are fewer in a country whilst low-order settlements are ubiquitous – ie found everywhere. High-order settlements usually have larger spheres of influence whilst low-order settlements have a limited sphere of influence due to the low- order functions they perform.

The different settlement hierarchies include, hamlet, village, small town, large town, city, conurbation, mega-city, primate city. Others in-between city and primate city include megapolis, millionaire city, metapolis etc. The diagram below gives a summary of the settlement hierarchy:

Settlement hierarchy


Megacities are cities that have a population of over 10 million. Rapid urbanization has resulted in the rapid development of megacities. In 1950, less than 30% of the world’s population lived in cities.

Tokyo: (SVP)

In 2008, the UN claimed that 74% of the world’s population lived in towns and cities in MEDCs and 45% in LEDCs. In 1900, the only mega cities in the world were London and Paris. Today, the number of megacities have increased with Tokyo having about 35m people as at 2000 (as at 2016 Tokyo has a population of above 30 million.) While urbanization is slowing down in MEDCs (rate of 1.5% pa) it is rapidly increasing in LEDCs, esp China at a rate of 4-5% p.a. List of world’s top 20 cities

By 2017, other mega cities include Mumbai, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, New York, Jakarta, Delhi, and Lagos. Urbanization comes with environmental (pollution) and social problems (crime and dev’t of slums). But it is also important for wealth generation – about 80% of economic output is generated from urban areas in MEDCs. By 2030, it is estimated that about 60% of the world’s total population will be living in cities.  This growth is mostly taking place in LICs.

General trends in the growth of mega cities:
• The largest cities are in South-East Asia and Latin America.
• The fastest growing cities are in S.E. Asia mostly due to migration
• The rate of growth of cities in MEDCs slowed in the 2nd half of 20th Cent. But picked up again due to migration
• In China, most large cities are along the coastal areas.

The two most populous countries, China and India, are leading with the growth of megacities. New citizens are joining Delhi at a rate of 79 people per hour, while Shanghai continues to welcome 51 new citizens an hour.

The map below shows an animation of the most populous cities in the world.

Source: Visual Capitalist

In Africa, the most populous city is Lagos with a population of about 14 million. This figure is expected to double to 88.3 million by 2100.

Reasons for such rapid increase in the number of megacities include:

  • Economic growth, as a result of industrialization leading to an increase in demand for labor in mines and manufacturing sectors.
  • Natural increase due to the youthful nature of urban population resulting in high birth rates
  • Rural Urban Migration, especially in LEDCs

Megacities provide opportunities for development as well as challenges to socioeconomic development.

Assignment: Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of megacities in relation socioeconomic development

The 5 Largest Cities (Years: 1600 to 2100)

4. Growth process (planned or spontaneous)

The growth process of urban settlements refers the various ways these settlements may change in the hierarchy from one stage to the next. Settlements, just like living things, cities also ‘evolve’ over time – they grow over time and sometimes may also decline (die) over time, depending on how they are managed. Most industrial cities or areas in many parts of the developed world are becoming ghost towns because the focus has shifted from the manufacturing sectors to the tertiary sectors of the economy.

The growth of any city, therefore, will be dependent on: climate/weather, agriculture, industry, residential etc. These will be explained in detail later

Factors affecting the pattern of urban economic activities

  • Land values

Land values, as a factor affecting the pattern of urban economic activities, may best be understood when examined using the Bid-Rent theory.

The theory shows how the price and demand for land changes as the distance from the Central Business District (CBD) increases. Its basic assumptions are that the highest bidder gets the land and is expected to obtain maximum profit from the land. This is based on the idea that because businesses wish to maximize their profitability, they are willing to pay more money for land close to the CBD and less for land further away.

Bid-Rent Theory
  • Away from the CBD land become less expensive for commercial activities
  • Industry prefers land that is less attractive for commercial activities
  • Residential land is found further away from the CBD where land values decrease.
  • The model therefore explains why population density is high near the city centre (with low-income earners living in low-class residential areas_ and why wealthy people live near the city boundary and commute to the city.

Peak Land Value Intersection

  • On the basis of Bid-Rent theory, ‘the more accessible the site, the higher its land value’.
  • Rents will therefore be highest along main routes out of the city centre and outer ring roads.
  • Where two of these roads intersect, a secondary PLVI develops as shown in the diagram below.
Secondary Peak Land Value Intersection.
  • Physical factors
  • Proximity to the central business district

The Central Business District (CBD) is the centre of all economic activities in an urban area. Most cities in the world have their CBDs located either in the centre of the city or close to a major sea port. Such as in New York and Accra where the CBD is close to the sea. London and Tokyo have their CBD in the centre of the city.


Some CBDs are located on mountain tops; however they face the problem of expansion and always have to come down to the valley. This is why Ghana’s capital city moved from the undulating land of Cape Coast to the flat land of Accra. In the CBD the principal commercial streets and main public buildings are mostly located there.

Characteristics of the CBD:

  1. Multi-story development: This is a result of the high land values (land is very expensive which is why people have to build upwards to avoid the cost of land).
  2. Concentration of retailing: This is because during the day it attracts a large number of people.
  3. Public Transport is concentrated: the convergence of bus/rail routes.
  4. Vertical zoning is apparent: different sections of the storey building with different functions.
  5. High day time population and low night population.
  6. Functional segregation: Every part of the city has a different land use.
  7. It changes with time.
  8. Traffic restrictions are great
  9. Economic/tertiary activity (shops, offices, entertainment) are found here
Beijing-China- Skyline of the CBD (

Factors causing CBD decline:

  1. Poor and ageing nature of infrastructure
  2. Increase in private car ownership makes it easier for people to live outside the CBD
  3. Investors attracted to out-of-town locations because many business owners desire to escape the traffic congestion and pollution, so they would prefer to locate outside the CBD.
  4. Cost of development and maintaining the CBD. It is expensive to maintain the infrastructure or improve the conditions in the CBD due to high day time traffic, harbouring movements or the high cost involved in replacing or renewing the existing infrastructure.
  5. Congestion, both vehicular and human and their associated problems can cause a CBD to decline by reducing the convenience of common movement. Cars can get caught in traffic due to things like the weather. This lowers productivity.
  6. Poor planning by city authorities. Sanitation for example can lead to CBD decline when poorly planned by creating massive pollution.

Industries found in the CBD are usually fashion and clothing factories, printing press or newspaper distributors, industries producing medical instruments etc.

Industries are attracted to large cities because:

  • Cities have large markets which attract large numbers of customers
  • Cities have highly skilled labour that are innovative, creative and can provide information for research and development of the products produced.
  • There is science and research parks located all over the CBD
  • Economies of scale- industries are already located there so they enjoy economies of scale.
  • Urban Planning

In most cities in the world, e.g. Tema, Brasilia, Canberra, Gongju-Yongi and Putrajaya are planned according to the location of economic activities. In Tema, the industries are located to the eastern part of the city while the residential areas are located to the west of the city in order to reduce pollution (The wind blows from south-west to north-east). In Tema the industrial area is located along the coast where the major port is situated. This is to facilitate the importation of raw materials and to export manufactured goods into the country.

In other CBDs, such as in Beijing, during the 2008 Olympic games, polluting industries are relocated away from the city in order to reduce the level of smog/ environmental pollution and in 1992, during the Barcelona games, Barcelona’s water front industries were used as a location for the Olympic Stadiums as a way of regenerating economic activities in that part of the city. During the London 2012 Olympic Games, Stratford Park, Lower Lea Valley. The area was in a dilapidated state, and the government decided to locate the stadium as a way of revitalizing or regenerating that part of the city in order to enhance its economic prospects.

Factors affecting the pattern of residential areas within urban areas

A number of factors are responsible for the location of residential areas in cities. These include:

  • Physical factors

In most cities, wealthier people stay away from the CBD or the city centre, whiles low-income earners live close to the CBD especially in LEDCs. In some LEDCs however, wealthier people live close to the CBD while poorer people live on the outskirts of the city centre. In most advanced countries, the wealthy people live outside the city in order to escape the city noise, industrial noise, vehicular noise etc..

The wealthy people live outside the CBD to escape traffic and high land values and benefit from cheaper transportation networks. They can also afford to drive longer distances to the city centre and back. In developing countries however, they tend to be located on cheap, dilapidated lands, leading to the formation of slums. In some cases, urban regeneration may take place, where rich young wealthy professional buy the old and dilapidated buildings to put up high-rise ones.

In some cities, residential areas are located along major roads or water bodies such as rivers to make transportation easier. Others are also located close to airports

  • Land values

Areas that are expensive (high land values) are usually used for retail or commercial purposes e.g. Accra Mall. On the other hand, high value land can be used for residential purposes such as e.g. Villagio where the houses are apartments that are built for sale and rental purposes. Therefore residential areas are located in the areas where the land is cheap, explaining why residential areas in developed countries are located further away from the CBD. On the other hand, low class residential areas can be located close to the CBD where land values are high but on land that is dilapidated or in areas that are polluted. Sodom and Gomorrah in Ghana is located in marsh land.

  • Ethnicity

Ethnicity is also important in determining the residential patterns in a city. For example most cities in the world like San Francisco, New York, London and Paris have Chinatowns where Chinese immigrants stay together in order to maintain their culture. Locating residential areas according to ethnic lines has benefits (positive segregation) and disadvantages (negative segregation). Positive segregation includes the benefits that are accrued by the people living there such as culture, food etc. Negative segregation is when the indigenous people look down upon them. Location of residential along ethnic lines may also come about due to government policies to segregate different ethnic groups. Similarly, the relative wealth of migrants can affect their location in urban areas on the basis of ethnicity e.g rich and poor areas attract migrants of similar wealth.

  • Urban residential planning

In most cities in the world, houses are planned according to the economic status of the people. For example, Croydon for middle class people and Chelsea for the higher class people. In the United States, some city authorities especially in Chicago have been accused of “red-lining” – such that certain people are left out when buying houses.

Urban Poverty and deprivation and informal economic activity in urban areas

The concept of poverty and deprivation relates to the problems facings inner cities in urban areas. It involves a continuous process of poverty being transmitted from one generation to another, and the factors that makes it difficult to escape such poverty. The cycle of poverty  is shown in the diagram above.

Poverty Cycle: Yambilla

Certain jobs offer low incomes, which result in low standards of living, including poor housing in a poor environment or neighborhood. The poor environment may produce strains and stresses in the household. This may also result in poor health among the household members, leading to poor academic attainment in school esp. among children. Poor academic attainment may negatively affect the prospects of the younger children. The school and neighborhood may lack resources and people with skills who are needed to improve the conditions.

Indicators of Deprivation
Economic indicators: Access to employment, levels of income of families
• Social indicators: Crime, levels of health and access to health care, proportion of lone-parent families
• Physical indicators: quality of housing, level of pollution, incidence of crime, vandalism, graffiti
• Environmental indicators: noise pollution, derelict land
• Political indicators: opportunity to vote, opportunity to participate in community organization

• Housing indicators: Lacking one of more basic amenities, overcrowding, no central heating

Cycle of poverty in Washington: Source:

Slums and squatter settlements

The UN defines a slum as a “contiguous settlement where the inhabitants are characterized as having inadequate housing and basic services” (UN – HABITAT Urban Secretariat & Shelter Branch, 2002).

On the other hand,  a squatter is a person who settles on new especially public land without title or a person who takes unauthorized possession of unoccupied premises. Therefore, a residential area occupied by squatters becomes a squatter settlement (Concise Oxford Dictionary).

In 2001, the number of slum dwellers world-wide was 924 million people (representing about 32% of world population and 78.2% of urban population in LEDCs.

Characteristics of slums and squatter settlements

It is easy to locate slums in urban areas characterized steep slopes, floodplains, edge of town locations or areas close to industrial complexes.

  • Lack of Basic Services e.g access to sanitation facilities and safe water sources, absence of waste collection system, electricity supply, surfaced roads and footpaths, street lighting and rainwater drainage.
  • Sub-standard housing or illegal and inadequate building structures – often built with non- permanent materials unsuitable for housing given local conditions of climate and location.
  • Overcrowding and high density: Overcrowding is associated with a low space person, high occupancy rates, cohabitation by different families and a high number of single room units. Many slum dwelling units are overcrowded, with five and more persons sharing a one room unit used for cooking, sleeping and living.
  • Unhealthy living conditions and hazardous locations – resulting from a lack of basic services, with visible, open sewers, lack of pathways, uncontrolled dumping of waste, polluted environments etc. Houses may be built on hazardous locations.
  • Insecure tenure, irregular or informal settlement: A number of definitions consider lack of security of tenure as a central characteristic of slums, and regard lack of any formal document entitling the occupant to occupy the land or structure as evidence of illegality and slum occupation.
  • Poverty and Social Exclusion: Income or ‘capability poverty’ is considered, with some exceptions, as a central characteristic of slum areas. It is not seen as an inherent characteristic of slums, but a cause (and often consequence) of slum conditions.
  • Minimum Settlement Size: The municipal slum definition of Kolkata requires a minimum of 700 square meters to be occupied by huts

Adapted from

Case Study; Rio de Janeiro
Problem facing slum dwellers:
Many problems face slum dwellers, including:

  • Overcrowding,
  • Unemployment,
  • Housing stress etc.
  • Insecurity of land tenure,
  • Lack of basic services (water and electricity),
  • Rising crime rate,
  • High concentration of poverty, social and economic deprivation

Usefulness of slum dwellings

  • they serve as the first stop point for immigrants who do not have money to rent decent accommodation
  • They serve as place of residence of low-income earners
  • They are the base upon which informal entrepreneurs are able to operate.

Disadvantages of slum dwellings

  • High levels of pollution
  • Insecurity of land tenure
  • Poor quality housing
  • unreliability of basic services e.g. water, electricity etc

Informal economic activities
Informal Sector employment is paid work on a casual basis. Jobs are irregular, and

Informal market in Ghana Source:Citibusinessnews

workers are often self-employed without earning pensions and without paying taxes. This sort of employment is common in the urban areas of developing countries; for example, in Mexico City. It may involve service jobs of the lower industrial sector—cleaning shoes, selling bottled water  on the street ( street economy) as well as craft industries and small scale businesses (bazaar economy) . Informal employment also includes illegal activities such as theft, prostitution, and selling drugs. The sector constitutes about 60% of the employment sector.

Characteristics of informal sector
• They are self-employed workers and may involve family members
• Less capital is required to start
• It is usually labor- intensive i.e less technology is employed
• Low quality standard goods are produced
• No gov’t assistance in the form of loans, technical know-how etc• They are most  illegal, in that the business is not usually registered, taxes not paid etc
• Irregular working hours – business hours can vary depending on the mood, schedule or other factors that may affect the owner.

Assignment: Discuss the usefulness of the informal sector to the development of LICs.


7 replies on “The variety of urban environments”

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