Rural Urban Continuum and the Necessity of Integrated Planning


Understanding the rural urban continuum

According to the Census of India, rural areas are defined in terms of revenue villages forming a much smaller unit of habitation than urban areas – which are under various district administrations and have surveyed boundaries which are definite. Each village is a separate administrative unit and can also be composed of a group of habitations together forming a unit. Defining urban areas however, proved problematic for the Census, and with the 1971 Census, the concept of the Standard Urban Area was developed. The requirements for a Standard Urban Area are that (Census, 2011) –
(i)   a minimum population of 50,000 should reside in an area marked as the core town area,
(ii) the core town area should have close socio-economic links with contiguous areas that can be composed of other urban areas as well  as rural units of administration,
(iii) the entire area mentioned in (ii) should exhibit a probability of becoming completely urbanized within 2 or 3 decades of being identified as such.

Urban and rural areas can sometimes however be mutually interlinked, which can appear as transition zones between urban and rural, and also between urban and suburban areas. The qualities that differentiate urban and suburban with rural areas is the method of land use and population density according to the stipulates mentioned above. Rural urban continuum is the term used by sociologists to describe these linkages between urban and rural areas whereby no sharp differences can be said to exist in the quantity or degree of the difference between these interlinked rural and urban areas.

The term was coined by Redfield (1947) on the basis of his study of Mexican peasants where the rapid urbanization of Mexico through the establishment of urban traits such as the setting up of industries led to a blurring of the differences between urban and rural zones in the late 1940s.


The difference between the rural and the urban in the rural urban continuum arose out of the differences of opinion between sociologists and development specialists over whether rural and urban are to be treated as two dichotomous categories or not. Certain differences may arise between the two on the basis of population density and size, occupational make-up, social mobility, environment, etc. However, a point of view originally proposed by Pocock and Hudson (1978) takes the view that the dichotomy is not meaningful in the sense that both rural and urban are elements of the same civilization and on this basis there should not be a separation of the two categories.

In the context of India, Rao (2001) opined that there are certain organizational and institutional differences between the rural and urban that distinguish social and cultural life in between the two.

Burgess (1925) provided the most basic descriptive model in the rural urban continuum debate whereby zones of urban agglomerations extend outside concentrically from the core town area, with the outer fringes made up of the suburban or periurban area. Burgess arrived at this formulation after observations of a number of American cities, notably Chicago which, based on empirical evidence, displayed differences in socio-economic status and access to facilities as one progressed from the central core town area outwards towards the periurban areas (USDA, 2013). Outside the periurban areas lay what are called the hinterland areas.

Model of Chicago

Fig 1: Burgess’ Model of Chicago
Source: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Hofstra University, New York, USA

Contemporary cities are characterized by unfixed and expanding structural boundaries of cities, the outer areas of which are occupied by a dispersed and outwardly shifting urban population. Outside the periurban areas lie the hinterlands of cities and are usually populated by migrants coming into and living in these cities. Economic production in a city moves along with this dispersal of people into hinterlands, leading to an expansion of employment and consumer oriented economic activity in these areas, which further add to the population of these hinterlands. These can extend outside the core town area, and can make establishing administrative delimitations and facilities difficult.

The hinterland is the place within the rural urban continuum where the urban, rural and countryside can mix and clash. Sometimes facilities such as apartment housing, streetlights and piped water supply can be provided to the developed portions of these hinterlands due to economic development while adjoining less developed portions of the hinterland might enjoy no such facilities due to lack of economic activity and administrative jurisdictions. These can frequently be the case in Cloke’s model (1979) that displays how connectivity due to roads in proximity to significant cities can change land use in the rural urban continuum whereby there are no typical rural settlements but interspersed suburbanized villages and overspill towns dotting the landscape around major towns and cities.

South Wales

Fig 2: Cloke’s Model
Source: JAGS Geography, South Wales

 India’s Policy on Rural Urban Continuum

India’s policy over urban and rural areas are dependent on site-specific demographic factors. Much of India’s demographic policy is based upon investigations by India’s census operations, although a trend towards increasing urbanization and rural to urban migration is affecting India’s regime of rural subsidies.


With the commercialization of India’s agricultural sector and the deregulation of the agricultural produce markets after amendments to the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act, 2003, there is an increasing requirement of agricultural credit and insurance mechanisms that are not adequately fulfilled in most rural areas. This serves most to benefit those involved in the agricultural supply chain leading to informal transactions for most farmers, placing them at a disadvantage, which is sometimes referred to as vertical co-ordination.

These systems are centred in commercial centres and peripheries of towns and cities, where the lack of transport connectivity is seen as a disadvantage for the agency of disconnected rural farmers. However, with the solution of regulated markets, there are very few of these regulated markets in operation, numbering not more than a few thousands. Market exigencies in agriculture thus are adding to the need for the semi-urbanization of rural areas, which as empirical studies show, are aided by the development of accessible transport.

Agricultural harvests are not stable and in India monsoons can sometimes be excessive or deficient, and as such, rural populations can sometimes face domestic economic crises. Also factors such as education and livelihood options can drive people to migrate towards urban areas, where occupational specialization can be much more diversified.



Rural populations can sometimes migrate to urban areas with much lower skill levels than urban populations and this can lead to relative impoverishment among urban migrant populations. In 2010, out of the total population in India over 15, many of which migrate from smaller towns and rural areas to larger urban agglomerations, only 6.5 per cent gained permanent employment, while 76.7 per cent were people employed in unskilled casual jobs. However, over the last 3 decades, India has witnessed low residential migration towards big cities, with non-farm employment usually being provided in small towns (E. Denis & M.H. Zerah, 2014). There are however high dropout rates in India’s school education system, with a lack of quality skill development for large section of India’s population, the centres for which are usually located in urban areas.

The government’s plethora of rural development schemes and the associated benefits many a time leads to resistance in rural areas from being classified as urban areas by the Census. This is accompanied by lower taxes, lower property prices, and lower tariffs for essential services such as water and electricity. Many policies such as rural employment schemes can have an impact on areas being urban or rural areas.

There is a trade-off where urban areas may have better facilities while cost of living might be higher while rural areas might have less facilities while it enjoys many benefits of governmental schemes and subsidies, where the cost of living might be greatly lesser. This is coupled with the problem of rural to urban migration whereby one can witness widespread poverty in urban areas in India, the same people who are not adequately protected by the lack of an urban infrastructure in rural areas from problems such as disease and a lack of access to credit. An integrated planning approach is necessary if a balance is to be created between rural and urban agglomerations, without which the contiguity of the rural urban continuum shall continue to pose problems.

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