Rural-urban continuum and causes of rural-urban continuum

Some background about rural-urban continuum

The term rural-urban continuum came into existence because of the fact that a marked difference between the urban & rural character is not seen in the settlements abutting the city limits. On one hand, they have characteristics of the city because of their closeness to it & on the other they cannot deny their rural characteristics of largely unplanned development.

Some sociologists have used the concept of rural-urban continuum to stress the idea that there are no sharp breaking points to be found in the degree or quantity of rural-urban differences. The differences may arise due to various factors. But the leading factor among them is migration. Although, the rapid process of urbanization through the establishment of industries, urban traits and facilities has decreased the differences between villages and cities, yet this continuum or loss of demarcation has proved problematic to planners & other civic departments because these areas being near the city facilitate movement of people in & out of the city & hence demand extension of facilities. This is where the entire problem lies. These areas have been of substratum for immense research in the past centuries with eminent sociologists, planners & others inferring as well as proposing ways to tackle this problem of fringe area development.

Rural-urban continuum

The concept that the size continuum of settlement from hamlet to city is reflected in a similar continuum of ways of life form, at one pole, a true rural community to, at the other, a distinctive urban society. In its most direct form the concept suggests that the population size, density and environment of a settlement are the determinants of its societal type, and that the most meaningful description of a way of life is to relate it to the settlement in which it occurs. The notion of the rural-urban continuum evolved from the work of L.Wirth on the social distinctiveness of the city. Societies at the rural end of the continuum are envisaged as being close-knit, rigidly stratified, highly stable, integrating and homogenous in composition. Urban societies are supposed to be loose in association, unstable in membership, characterized by great, social mobility and with a tendency for inter-individual contacts to occur only in one situational context (e.g. workplace, kinship, recreation) whereas in rural societies contact would occur in several different contexts.

The continuum has been seen both as a classificatory device and as marking a process of social change, the view of the continuum as marking a method is criticised and discredited by the fact that social change can occur without any growth of settlement or increase in population, e.g., through the replacement of an original rural population by commuters.

Related: Rural-urban fringe: Concept, History, Reasons, Issues

Causes of Rural-urban continuum

Migration has been thought to be the most significant factor contributing to the rural-urban continuum and thus formation of such settlements. As is evident, the cities are the most prominent service providers in an area. Hence, these act like nuclei & pull unemployed people towards the city. But the city centers are either already crowded or are so expensive that the immigrants can hardly afford it. Thus, these people choose a place that is neither far from the city center nor costly. The city fringes provide an ideal location for such intentions. It is here that haphazard developments begin without the prior consent of the municipal body or any other civic body concerned with the management of the city. Such developments have another aspect too. Houses come up only on major traffic corridors. This is because surface transport provided by public transport services of the city is cheap & affordable.

Politics too has a role to play in the process of diminishing rural-urban difference of characteristics. Vote bank in any part of the world is very essential. In order to sustain a large vote-bank, local political leaders with the help of some local goons, arrange utility services for the area from nowhere else but the city. This catalyzes the process of erasing the clear demarcation of urban & rural areas. The development of extensive road networks around major cities and cheap means of transport (buses, motorcycles, bicycles) allows people to live in the rural areas and to commute on a daily basis to the city for work. As a result, an increasing number of people find temporary or permanent urban employment in the urban areas, while living or at least being registered to live in a rural area.

They may have the density and the character of a rural area, with agricultural land surrounding the villages, but the economic activities of the population are at least partly urban in nature. Colombo is an example where economic activities are concentrated in the city (with a population of around one million), while most people live in villages around the city in the extended metropolitan area.

Rural urban continuum

The situation is further complicated with urban economic activities moving into the metropolitan rural areas. As land becomes more expensive in the urban areas and environmental regulations become more demanding, companies move their manufacturing plants out of the city and into the rural areas. For instance, factories of multinational corporations are to be found in the middle of the rice fields some 100 kilometres outside Bangkok. Since the factory is in the middle of the rice fields, the company may have to build a dormitory for its workers or use buses to bring the workers to the factory. Township and village enterprises in China engage large numbers of people (123 million in 1993, including many temporary migrants) in non-agricultural activities.

The enterprises are a major source of economic development in many places in China. They are primarily located in the small towns and townships and have prevented mass migration to the large cities. The nature of the activities of the township and village enterprises classifies them as urban enterprises and, according to Yu (1998), they should be seen as an important component of the urbanization process of China.The enterprises cause environmental problems typical of urban areas (Zhang 1996), and to address those problems the local administration has to assume municipal responsibilities that are again typically urban. This raises the question as to whether rural industrialization in China is really rural.

Different views and approach towards rural-urban continuum

There are some sociologists who have differentiated the two at various levels including occupational differences, environmental differences, differences in the sizes of communities, differences in the density of population, differences in social mobility and direction of migration, differences in social stratification and in the systems of social interaction.

A third view regarding rural and urban communities has been given by Pocock who believe that both village and city are elements of the same civilization and hence neither rural-urban dichotomy, nor continuum is meaningful. M.S.A. Rao points out in the Indian context that although both village and town formed part of the same civilization characterized by institution of kinship and caste system in pre-British India, there were certain specific institutional forms and organizational ways distinguishing social and cultural life in towns from that in village. Thus, according to Rao, Rural-urban continuum makes more sense.

Maclver remarks that though the communities are normally divided into rural and urban the line of demarcation is not always clear between these two types of communities. There is no sharp demarcation to tell where the city ends and country begins. Every village possesses some elements of the city and every city carries some features of the village.

R.K Mukherjee prefers the continuum model by talking of the degree of urbanization as a useful conceptual tool for understanding rural-urban relations.

This tussle continues to exist to find out a clear demarcation of urban & rural limits for the sake of planning. The United States Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) has devised the Rural-Urban Continuum Codes in this regard. Rural-Urban Continuum Codes form a classification scheme that distinguishes metropolitan (metro) counties by the population size of their metro area, and nonmetropolitan (non-metro) counties by degree of urbanization and adjacency to a metro area or areas.

Initiatives by govt. Regarding rural-urban continuum

In a recent development in the discussions on rural & urban continuum in India, a panel of eminent speakers from Ministry of Rural Development; Panchayati Raj; Department of Information Technology; IL&FS Transportation Networks; Skoch Development Foundation; Industry Solutions Group, SAP; Public Sector & Defence, Siemens, under the chairmanship of Dr. M. Ramachandran, Secretary, Ministry of Urban Development discussed & emphasized on the fact that it was necessary to leverage urban-rural continuum before we move to the next decade. Working this direction, Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA) is a scheme which has been implemented as a pilot on a population of base of 30 to 40 thousand. Six schemes of government are being covered Under PURA. Public-Private Partnership will shape the PURA projects wherein creation and maintenance of the infrastructure will be taken care by the private sector while all the CAPEX will come from the government.

Rural urban continuum PURA

Related: Burgess model or concentric zone model

This would result into:-

  • Collective impact of infrastructure development, which can be experienced
  • Maintenance of assets in PURA has been factored in for 10 years to be managed by private player
  • Standard of services in rural areas to be at par with what is available in urban areas.

The social inclusion programme should be encouraged and should aim at providing amenities like drinking water, street lights, and education, healthcare and telecom services to the country’s rural areas and ensure its 626,000 villages become the development process.

Citing the RIDCOR example, one of the eminent speakers mentioned that there has not been an increased use of public services in spite of improvement in connectivity. However, lot of economic activity is happening, its gradual impact will be seen in the coming years. Some of the benefits which can be experienced from the RIDCOR project in the state of Rajasthan are:

  • Travel to the nearest urban centre has reduced with the construction of Roads under RIDCOR
  • Health has come out as biggest beneficiary as accessing medical facilities has improved.
  • Also improved is the access to markets.
  • New commercial complexes are coming up along the road sides. Development of commercial activities would be helpful in leveraging the rural-urban continuum.

Panel concurred to the fact that urbanisation is must and desirable. Out of the 600,000 villages in the country, several are not economically viable. Regions with the population base of 500 persons or less, delivering goods and services to such places is economically not viable.

Impact of urbanization can be seen in almost all the regions of the country. In the states which are not growing at a desirable rate, the rural areas are still very prominent. Integration of rural-urban can only happen when it is recognized that the urbanization is good. Per capita imbalance within the state and between the states is a serious problem. There is a need to address this and reduce the gap between haves and have-nots. It becomes reasonably challenging to provide amenities and services to the dispersed rural population. Development is inherently unbalanced, but instead of focussing on this unbalance, efforts should be made to extend urbanization so that its benefits can reach maximum. To further leverage the rural-urban continuum, technological intervention is must to bridge the divide. Improved service delivery systems, tax and revenue collection, should be made secure, scalable and accessible.

2. Rural-Urban Continuum Codes were developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Rural-Urban Continuum Codes form a classification scheme that distinguishes metropolitan (metro) counties by the population size of their metro area and nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) counties by degree of urbanization and adjacency to a metro area or areas. For more information from the USDA or to download the original data, go to their section on Rural-Urban Continuum Codes.

Rural urban continuum Codes by USDA

Rural-Urban Continuum Codes are available for the following years: 2013, 2003, 1993, 1983 and 1974. In concept, the 2003 version of the Rural-Urban Continuum Codes is comparable with that of earlier decades. However, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) made significant changes in its metro area delineation procedures for the 2000 Census, and the Census Bureau changed the way in which rural and urban are measured. Therefore, the new Rural-Urban Continuum Codes are not entirely comparable with those of earlier years. OMB’s changes added some additional metro areas by no longer requiring that a metro area must have at least 100,000 population if its urbanized area has no place of at least 50,000 people. More importantly, simplifying the worker commuting criteria that determine outlying metro counties had the effect of both adding numerous new outlying counties to metro status while deleting a smaller number that was previously metro

In Bangladesh, to develop the rural-urban fringe & tackling the migration problem, the Govt. there has proposed a change in the local governance of its provinces & redesigning the existing modus operandi of them. The local govt. will also have a say from now on in urban management programmes.

In-depth review of the existing policies and Organizational structure of urban municipalities in the

Areas of:

  • Institutional arrangements
  • Representation and inclusiveness
  • Planned development process
  • Urban poverty
  • Resources availability and local resources mobilization
  • Management capability
  • Rural-urban linkage


  • High concentration of migrant population,
  • Presence of large schools, colleges & industries
  • Large villas, farmhouses
  • Infrastructure facilities may be entirely absent or present in only select areas.
  • Development occurs along major traffic corridors, going away from which the rural character predominates.

Read about: Burgess Model or Concentric Zone Model, Central Place TheoryRational Planning Model, Tactical UrbanismHoyt Model or Sector Model