Understanding Issues

Why do rural-urban linkages matter?

Extracted from: DANIDA Workshop Papers: Improving the Urban Environment and Reducing Poverty; December 5, 2000; Copenhagen, Denmark.

What is ‘urban’ and what is ‘rural’? The implications of administrative definitions

The difference between urban centres and rural areas may seem so obvious that definitions should not be an issue. However, there can be major variations in the ways in which different nations define what is an urban centre. The criteria used include population size and density, and availability of services such as secondary schools, hospitals and banks. However, the combination of criteria applied can vary greatly. Even the population thresholds used can be different: for many African nations it is 5,000 inhabitants, while for most Latin American and European nations it can be as low as 2,000 or 2,500 or even just a few hundreds inhabitants.

This wide fluctuation in definitions has three important implications.

  • Official classifications should be treated with caution – for example, a large proportion of settlements classed as ‘rural’ in China and India would fall within the ‘urban’ category if they used the criteria and population thresholds adopted by many other countries. Given the size of the population of these two countries, this would significantly increase the overall proportion of urban residents in Asia and in the world.
  • International comparisons are difficult, as they may look at settlements which, despite being classed in the same category, may be very different in both population size and infrastructure. In addition, the reliability of data on urbanization trends within one nation can be compromised by changes in the definition of urban centers over time.
  • Public investment in services and infrastructure tends to concentrate on centers that are defined as urban. As a consequence, investment can bypass settlements not defined as urban even if these can, and often do, have an important ‘urban’ role in the development of the surrounding rural areas. Within national and regional urban systems, larger cities also tend to be favored with public investment over small and intermediate-sized urban centers, including those with important roles in supporting agricultural production, processing and marketing.

Outside the city boundaries: the peri-urban interface

The physical boundaries of urban built-up areas often do not coincide with their administrative boundaries. The areas surrounding urban centers generally have an important role in providing food for urban consumers, with proximity lowering the costs of transport and storage. It is difficult to make generalizations on the nature of peri-urban areas, which depends on the combination of a number of factors including the economic and infrastructural base of the urban center, the region and the nation; the historical, social and cultural characteristics of the area, and its ecological and geographical features. Peri-urban areas around one center are also not necessarily homogenous: high- and middle-income residential developments may dominate one section, while others may host industrial estates and others provide cheap accommodation to low-income migrants in informal settlements.

The peri-urban interface around larger or more prosperous urban centres is also the location where processes of urbanisation are at their most intense and where some of the most obvious environmental impacts of urbanisation are located. They are often characterised by:

  • Changes in land use: land markets are subject to competitive pressure as urban centres expand and speculation is frequent. Whether low-income groups such as small and marginal farmers or residents of informal settlements can benefit from these changes, or end up losing access to land, depends largely on land rights systems.
  • Changing farming systems and patterns of labour force participation: because peri-urban agriculture can be highly profitable, small farmers may be squeezed out by larger farmers who can invest in agricultural intensification. As a consequence, wage agricultural labour often becomes more important than small-scale farming, attracting migrant workers. On the other hand, residents of peri-urban areas may benefit from employment opportunities in the city.
  • Changing demands for infrastructure and pressure on natural resource systems, with many rural dwellers’ access to resources having to compete with urban demand (for example, for water, fuelwood and land for non-agricultural uses) or affected by urban-generated wastes.

Variations in the characteristics of peri-urban areas can be important. For example, in the growing number of extended metropolitan regions in Southeast Asia, agriculture, small-scale industry, industrial estates and suburban residential developments co-exist side by side. Availability and affordability of transport are essential for the intense movement of goods and the extreme mobility of the population. In other contexts, and especially in less industry-based economies such as many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture still prevails in peri-urban areas although often with significant shifts in land ownership and use. This is especially the case where smallholder productivity is low because of the increasing costs of inputs and limited credit availability. Other problems include poor access to urban markets due to a lack of roads and physical infrastructure and the tight control over access to the urban market-places by middlemen and large traders. Thus, despite proximity to urban consumers, small farmers may be easily squeezed out, especially as the value of land in peri-urban areas increases with the expansion of the built-up center.

The extra-urban impact of urban activities: cities’ ecological footprints

Most cities draw heavily on their surrounding regions for freshwater resources. Most urban wastes end up in the region surrounding the city, for example, solid wastes disposed of on peri-urban land sites (either official or illegal) and liquid wastes either piped or finding their way through run-offs into rivers, lakes or other water bodies close by. Peri-urban areas may also be affected by urban air pollution.

Understanding rural-urban differences and rural-urban linkages

There is a need for an understanding of development that

  • Encompasses both rural and urban populations and the inter-connections between them;
  • Acknowledges that where people live and work and other aspects of their local context influences the scale and nature of deprivation (whether they live or work in rural or urban areas); and
  • Recognizes that there are typical ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ characteristics that cause or influence people’s livelihoods, although care is needed in making generalizations because of great diversity between different urban locations (and rural locations).


Livelihoods and the rural-urban continuum
ILivelihoods drawn from crop cultivation, livestock, forestry or fishing (i.e. key for livelihood is access to natural capital)

Access to natural capital as the key asset and basis for livelihood

Access to land for housing and building materials not generally a problem

More distant from government as regulator and provider of services

Access to infrastructure and services limited (largely because of distance, low density and limited capacity to pay?)

Fewer opportunities for earning cash; more for self-provisioning. Greater reliance on favorable weather conditions.

Rural-urban interface Livelihoods drawn from labor markets within non-agricultural production or making/selling goods or services

Greater reliance on house as an economic resource (space for production, access to income-earning opportunities; asset and income-earner for owners – including de facto owners)

Access to land for housing very difficult; housing and land markets highly commercialized

More vulnerable to ‘bad’ governance

Access to infrastructure and services difficult for low-income groups because of high prices, illegal nature of their homes (for many) and poor governance

Greater reliance on cash for access to food, water, sanitation, employment, garbage disposal.......

Urban characteristics in rural locations (e.g. prosperous tourist areas, mining areas, areas with high value crops and many local multiplier links, rural areas with diverse non-agricultural production and strong links to cities....)   Rural characteristics in urban location (urban agriculture, ‘village’ enclaves, access to land for housing through non-monetary traditional forms.......)


The figure emphasizes some of the most ‘rural’ characteristics of people’s livelihoods in the column on the left and some of the most ‘urban’ characteristics in the column on the right. These should be regarded as two ends of a continuum with most urban and rural areas falling somewhere between these extremes. The text noted earlier the importance of non-farm income sources for many rural households (including remittances from family members working in urban areas) and the importance of agriculture and/or of rural links for many urban households (including urban centers with many residents who work seasonally in rural areas).

For all the contrasts between ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ highlighted in the figure, there are many exceptions. It is also useful to see in the middle of the continuum between ‘rural’ characteristics and ‘urban’ characteristics a ‘rural-urban’ interface in which there are complex mixes of ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ characteristics. For instance, many of the areas around prosperous cities or on corridors linking cities have a multiplicity of non-farm enterprises and a considerable proportion of the economically active population that commute daily to the city or find work seasonally or temporarily in urban areas. Many rural areas also have tourist industries that have fundamentally changed employment structures and environmental pressures.

Governing across and beyond the rural-urban boundary

If well managed, the interactions between towns and countryside are the basis for a balanced regional development which is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. Local development is increasingly associated with decentralisation processes, on the assumption that local government is ‘closer’ to citizens – meaning that it is both more accountable to them and that it has a better understanding of local needs and priorities. With regard to rural-urban linkages, local government can play an important role in facilitating positive interactions and limiting negative exchanges:

  • It is best placed for decision-making on physical transport and communication infrastructure; however, expenditure for infrastructure can be significant and well beyond the means of local government. Wider alliances, which increase access to financial resources, are therefore necessary.
  • The management of natural resources and wastes is an important area of local government intervention. However, it often includes much wider areas than those administered by local authorities, and requires alliances with other local, regional, national and sometimes cross-border governments.
  • National level policies also have an important role, for example, with respect to access to land and land ownership and titling in both rural and urban areas. Clearly, this is not the responsibility of local authorities but is nevertheless crucial for local development planning and practice.

In short, understanding rural-urban linkages matters because it provides the basis for measures that can improve both urban and rural livelihoods and environments. Ignoring them means that important opportunities will be lost, and in many cases it will also contribute to poor and marginal people’s hardship. There are urban initiatives that can reduce ecological damage to rural areas, and help support regional development. However, with a narrow urban-centric approach, such initiatives are unlikely to be given the priority they deserve.