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]

The greater the population in a settlement, the larger geographic area, the higher the status and the greater the availability of services 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 settlement hierarchy.

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:[3]

(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.)

  • Ecumenopolis - a theoretical construction in which the entire area of Earth that 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.
  • Megalopolis - a group of conurbations, consisting of more than ten million people each.
  • Conurbation - a group of large cities and their suburbs, 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.
  • Large city – a city with a large population and many services. The population is <1 million people but over 300,000 people.
  • 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]
  • Large town – a large town has a population of 20,000 to 100,000.
  • Town – a town has a population of 1,000 to 20,000.
  • Village – a village is a human settlement or community that is larger than a hamlet but smaller than a town. A village generally does not have many services, most likely a church or only a small shop or post office. The population of a village varies; the average population can range from hundreds to thousands.
  • Hamlet – a hamlet has a tiny population (<100) and very few (if any) services, with only a few buildings.
  • Isolated dwelling – an isolated dwelling would only have 1 to 5 buildings or families. It would have negligible services, if any.

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[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.

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. ^ Doxiadis, Konstantinos Ekistics 1968
  4. ^ Michael Aston, Interpreting the Landscape (Routledge, reprinted 1998, page 44)
  5. ^ Andrew Reynolds, Later Anglo-Saxon England (Tempus, paperback edition 2002, page 81)
  6. ^ Della Hooke, The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England (Leicester University Press, reprinted 2001, page 52)
  7. ^ EERA planning map Archived 2007-12-02 at the Wayback Machine.