Settlement hierarchy

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A settlement hierarchy is a way of arranging settlements into a hierarchy based upon their population or some other criteria. The term is used by landscape historians and in the National Curriculum[1] for England. The term is also used in the planning system for the UK and for some other countries such as Ireland, India and Switzerland. The term was used without comment by the geographer Brian Roberts in 1972.[2]


Throughout human history there was a hard limit on settlement density, as walking distance influenced geography; people simply were unwilling to live or work farther than 5 miles (or 10 if they owned a horse) from the nearest town to obtain everyday basic goods and services. In Europe, centuries old settlements were surrounded by farmland and tended not to be wider than 30 minutes' walk from one end to the other, with wealthier people monopolizing the "town center", while poorer people lived on the town's outskirts or nearby countryside (the "sphere of influence"). With the advent of decentralization technologies (i.e., bicycles, trains, cars, etc.), American settlements reversed this trend before reaching their saturation point, with vast farmlands managed by homesteads located dozens of miles away from the nearest settlement; lower-income communities occupied the "center" as the middle-income and upper-income migrated into suburbia, and this created a phenomenon known as urban decay.

A settlement's population size, its geographic area, its status[clarification needed] and the availability of services can all affect this hierarchy. Position in a settlement hierarchy can also depend on the sphere of influence. This is how far people will travel to use the services in the settlement: if people travel further the town becomes more important and ranks higher in the settlement hierarchy.

Problems with concept of a settlement hierarchy[edit]

Using size of a settlement can be misleading in some cases as not all population boundaries fit. Some cities (e.g., Norwich, England) have a smaller population than some towns (e.g., Luton, England). In addition there is no agreement as to the number of levels in the hierarchy or what they should be called. Many terms used to describe settlements (e.g., village) have no legal definition, or may have contradictory legal definitions in different jurisdictions.

Hierarchy and Status[edit]

Position in an accepted settlement hierarchy can imply status[3] which in turn reinforces the position of the settlement in the hierarchy. Status can derive from being the residence of a King or high-ranking member of the nobility or from being the location of a major religious establishment. A formal hierarchy of settlements, known as a multiple estate appears to have been common in 10th century England.[4] The centre of an estate (often called a "caput") could be supported by subsidiary settlements sometimes given specialised roles. For example, a Saxon royal estate might be supported by settlements specialising in production of cheese or barley or maintaining flocks of sheep.[5]

Example of a settlement hierarchy[edit]

In this example, an isolated building is at the lowest point, and the ecumenopolis is at the top with the greatest number of people:[6]

This is only an example, and in other contexts the population criteria for each category of settlement might be different.

(Note: This settlement hierarchy is adapted from the work of Konstantinos Apostolos Doxiadis for the actual current world situation as of 2010 as opposed to Doxiadis' idealized settlement hierarchy for the year 2100 that he outlined in his 1968 book Ekistics.)

Extreme Density[edit]

More than 1 billion.

  • Ecumenopolis - a theoretical construction in which the entire area of Earth is taken up by human settlements, or at least, that those are linked so that to create urban areas so big that they can shape an urban continuum through thousands of kilometers which cannot be considered as a megalopolis. As of the year 2009, the United Nations estimated that for the first time more than 50% of the world's populations lived in cities, so if these were linked, the total population of this area would be about 3,400,000,000 people as of 2010.

High Density[edit]

More than one million. At this density, the settlement's population and GDP tends to exceed that of most countries with lesser density. The need for administrative divisions, public transportation, public infrastructure and other government public services is critically essential for the sustainable growth and continued prosperity of its citizens. The first city in recorded history to reach a population of one million people was Rome, Italy in 133 B.C. During the Second Industrial Revolution, London, England reached the mark in 1810 and New York City, United States made it in 1875.

  • Megalopolis - a group of conurbations, consisting of more than ten million people in total.
  • Conurbation - a group of metropolis, consisting of three to ten million people.
  • Metropolis - a large city and its suburbs consisting of multiple cities and towns. The population is usually one to three million.

Mid Density[edit]

Less than one million. At this density, viable access to advanced services due to Economies of scale being abundant.

  • Large city - a city with a large population and many services. The population is less than 1 million but over 300,000.
  • Medium city - a city would have abundant services, but not as many as a large city. The population of a city is between 100,000 and 300,000 people.[citation needed]
  • Small City or "Borough"- a city that functions as a type of municipality or subdivision of a consolidated city.

Low Density[edit]

Less than one hundred thousand. Common "city features" and services such as clinics, police, fire station, schools, residential neighborhoods, etc. become more prominent. Density is sufficient to support local commercial areas which may include a "Main Street" or a Shopping mall.

  • Suburb - a mixed-use town or residential area, existing either as part of a city or urban area or as a separate residential community within commuting distance of a city.
  • Large town - a large town has a population of 10,000 to 100,000.
  • Town - a town has a population of 1,000 to 10,000.

Minuscule Density[edit]

Less than one thousand. At this number, settlements are too small or scattered to be considered "urban", and services within these settlements (if any) are generally limited to bare essentials: i.e., church, grocery store, post office, etc. Throughout most of human history, very few settlements could support a population greater than 150 people.

  • Village or Tribe - a village is a human settlement or community that is larger than a hamlet but smaller than a town. The population of a village varies; the average population can range in the hundreds. Anthropologists regard the number of about 150 specimens for Tribes as the maximum for a functioning human group.
  • Hamlet or Band - a hamlet has a tiny population (less than 100), with only a few buildings. A social band are the simplest level of foraging societies with generally a maximum size of 30 to 50 people; consisting of a small kin group, no larger than an extended family or clan.
  • Homestead or Isolated dwelling - a cluster of isolated dwellings normally occupied by a single extended family, normally would only have 1 to 5 buildings or families.

Settlement hierarchy by country[edit]

Settlement hierarchy in the UK planning system[edit]

The position of a settlement in the hierarchy is intended to inform decisions about new developments such as housing. Rather than define the hierarchy by population, an alternative way to construct the hierarchy is based on the services that are available within each settlement. Settlements are described as "level 1", "level 2", etc. rather than using terms such as village or town.[7] The Government planning statement (PPS3) does not specifically mention "settlement hierarchies", but talks about the availability of services to small rural settlements. The term is used a number of times in the guidance for preparing evidence for planning decisions.

Settlement hierarchy in the German planning system[edit]

The German planning system is based on the Central Place Theory developed by Walter Christaller in the 1930s and first applied in the Nazi-Era, especially in Poland. Every settlement is categorized by funtion: highly central cities Oberzentrum [de] (e.g., Hamburg with speciality clinics for tropical diseases), middle central cities Mittelzentrum [de] (for periodic functions e.g., Homburg (Saar) with major schools (starting at 5th grade)) and basic central towns Grundzentrum [de]/Unterzentrum (e.g., Illingen with basic doctors and Supermarket). The number of inhabitants does not matter, so that a city such as Kaiserslautern (100.000) can be a highly specialized city, because it has a central role for the surrounding rural area (theatre, TU ...). It is used in the federal level for the regional planning system of states and planning regions for the "State Development Programmes" (Landesentwicklungsprogramm [de]) and the "Regional Spatial Structure Plans" (Regionaler Raumordnungsplamn [de]). These are political plans to achieve goals such as equivalent living standards (Gleichwertige Lebensverhältnisse [de]) in rural and urban areas, east and west, in all of Germany.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Geography, Year 8, [ Archived 2005-12-26 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ B. K. Roberts, Village plans in County Durham, (Medieval Archaeology, Volume XVI, 1972)
  3. ^ Michael Aston, Interpreting the Landscape (Routledge, reprinted 1998, page 44)
  4. ^ Andrew Reynolds, Later Anglo-Saxon England (Tempus, paperback edition 2002, page 81)
  5. ^ Della Hooke, The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England (Leicester University Press, reprinted 2001, page 52)
  6. ^ Doxiadis, Konstantinos Ekistics 1968
  7. ^ EERA planning map Archived 2007-12-02 at the Wayback Machine