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The City-Region (1947)
Publishing date: 03.07.2006


The concept of the city-region as a regional focus before World War II

Robert E. Dickinson, City Region and Regionalism. A Geographical Contribution to Human Ecology, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1947; Excerpts from Part III: The City-Region

The city cannot be fully understood by reference only to its arbitrarily defined administrative area. It has to be interpreted as “an organic part of a social group”[1], and in approaching the analysis of the four main urban functions - dwelling, work, recreation and transport – “it must be remembered that every city forms part of a geographic, economic, social, cultural and political unit, upon which its development depends”[2]. The problem of the regional interpretation of the city, of defining and analysing the functions and limits of the city and the unifying relationships in the surrounding area, is one of disentangling the regional component and examining the multitude of tributary areas served by and serving the city. Each group of functions has its particular extent and characteristics. Many functional areas have no close relation with each other in their geographical extent - which is often difficult to define - or in their causes or characters. But they all have a common denominator in their dependence on the city and, in consequence, in the scientific sense, we may refer to this area that is functionally dependent on the city as the city-region.

The regional interpretation of the functions of the city involves , a twofold approach: first, an assessment of the effects of the character of the region - its resources, and economic production - on the character of the activities of the city; and, secondly, an examination of the effects of the city, as a seat of human activity and organization, on the character of the region. There is also involved the question of the limits of the city, and its spheres of influence or tributary areas in its multitude of regional functions. Some attention has been paid in Part I to the question of defining the limits of the city as a regional centre, but this should be subordinated to the main aim of this approach which seeks to evaluate both the city and its region, however vaguely defined, in terms of their mutual relations and in the light of their historical development.

Settlement, route and area are the three facets of the geographical interpretation of urban economy. The commercial output of the area - farming of different types, forestry, industry, or combinations of these - calls into being centres differing widely both in their interests, their, commerce and in the industries arising from the processing of the primary products marketed in them. The quantity of output that passes through commercial channels is the sum total of economic, political, and cultural intercourse[3]. It is, in effect, a measure of the nodality of the urban centre. If all such intercourse is concentrated in one city, all the commerce for the area would pass through the city; and the sum total of this commerce would be the total of its exports and imports. This theoretical state of affairs is never reached because the degree of concentration of circulation in one city in any area depends on the suitability of the area for commerce relative to the location of the city and of its neighbouring cities) to the conditions of historical development, and to the physical build of the land, which may rigidly affect the orientation of routes. Nevertheless, the potency and extent of the sphere of influence of a city are to be measured in theory from the degree of concentration of the circulations of the area around it in the form of freight, passenger and general intercourse.

The city produces goods, and processes and stores imported goods not only for a nation-wide market, but also for the market in its surroundings - whatever it can sell in competition with its neighbours. The city, in addition to its own natural increase (by excess of births over deaths) draws the folk from its surrounding area to enjoy its special amenities - its shops, institutions, markets, art galleries, and theatres. With the great growth of cities in the early nineteenth century, the rural population has been drawn into the towns, with the resultant phenomenon of rural depopulation. The city is a melting-pot and fount of opinion. It disseminates its views on matters relevant to the life and affairs of its citizens and the people of the surrounding towns through the medium of the press. It is a home of learning, culture and political life. The city must be fed, with food for its people and materials for its industry. Before the development of cheap and rapid transport, every city was almost entirely dependent upon its surrounding area for both. Distant supplies of food or materials or immigrants were brought by the only cheap means of transport-water, and it is no accident that in the past, before the railway era, the chief cities in Europe and America were either ports or riverside cities at the heads of river navigation. In the modern era, however, although the movement of foodstuffs and raw materials is world-wide, there is, in fact, a still closer relation between town and country. For all perishable goods must be delivered quickly and daily to the city consumers. Moreover, the economic factor of accessibility to the best market dragoons farm areas to supply large urban markets, so that an even closer tie-up between the great city and its environs results. Again, with the ever-increasing complexity in the social and economic structure of society, in service and organization, the city has acquired a great increase of functions as a regional centre for the distribution of both consumer goods and producer goods, and as a centre of services - social, economic and administrative. The city makes its impact on the surrounding towns and countryside, especially since the advent of the automobile, by the expansion of urban built-up land - for residence, industry and recreation. It also affects the character and structure of their social and economic life.

The question of the limit of the city when considered as a centre of regional services of collection and distribution may be approached by referring to Figs. 3a and 3b. Suffice it to note here that this theoretical distribution of towns is based on the assumption that functions are centred in towns that may be graded according to the importance of these functions. Consequently, a city of the fifth grade in Christaller's scheme, for instance, will combine all the functions of its own and of the four lower grades, and each set of functions in each grade will have its corresponding limits as a series of concentric circles passing through the towns of the next lower grade. This scheme is most nearly approached in extensive and dominantly rural areas with an even distribution of towns and occasional, evenly spaced, large, dominant cities as in eastern England, France, or, indeed, in south Germany. But the following conditions must be added to this distributional pattern - quite apart from irregularities of distribution brought about by topographical and historical conditions, though these, in an evenly settled area, cause relatively small deviations.

First, the modern growth of population has been mainly in urban centres, proportional to the size of the centre. This has meant the snowball growth of existing towns, and in no way interferes with the basic pattern of distribution of service centres.

Secondly, new seats of industrial production, clustered at seats of production of raw materials (or at places of assembly), have given rise to new population clusters, which give rise in turn to central service centres.

Thirdly, the spread of population from the big city results in the spread of the urban area radially and frontally: merging with, often absorbing, pre-existing centres in its closer environs. These outlying centres, though absorbed in the : urban mass, usually retain their functions as commercial sub-centres.

Fourthly, the extension of the big city results in the appearance of new settlements, budding off from it, sometimes being independent centres, both legally (if beyond the city boundary) and economically, without any relation to the laws governing the origin and growth of centralized services.

We have already discussed the general structure of the city and its fringes. These, and the outer and more widespread areas, influenced by the city, are arranged into three main zones that can be described as the urban tract, the city settlement area and the city trade area.
The Urban Tract is used to define the compact and continuous urban built-up area in preference to the term “conurbation”. The latter term defines the urban agglomeration that extends beyond administrative boundaries, and was in fact first defined by Geddes as a group of two or more contiguous administrative units that were urbanized. The term has been further elaborated by Fawcett, who describes it as “an area occupied by a continuous series of dwellings, factories, and other buildings, harbour and docks, urban parks and playing fields, etc., which are not separated from each other by rural land; though in many cases in this country such an urban area includes enclaves of rural land which is still in agricultural occupation” [4]. This assumes that the conurbation ends with the limit of the compact built-up area, but there is invariably a fringe of rural-urban uses, a fringe that is wide and irregular in this country and still more complicated in other countries. This definition has given rise to much confusion of thought, because with it is associated the idea of several administrative units. An urban agglomeration, no matter what its extent or population, would not be counted, on this definition, as a conurbation if it were one administrative unit [5]. In such cases the administrative boundaries have ex- tended with the growth of the urban area, or the urban area itself has grown by the coalescence of separate units-whether independent towns, villages, or satellites thrown off by a central city and later absorbed in its extension. Moreover, the peripheral rural-urban fringe is so diffuse that there arises the problem of deciding whether to include places that are cut off from the main area but sufficiently near to it to be a part of its economic and social organization. In other words, on the margins the emphasis must change from compactness to function and accessibility. The limits of an urban tract are to be defined in the first place by mapping the land uses and enclosing those areas that are closely built-up, as suggested by Fawcett. It is of interest to note the minimum density of population for such marginal areas - though it is not suggested that the tract is to be limited on this basis. The Ordnance Survey takes 6,400 per square mile as the limit of “urban”; Jefferson [6] suggested a theoretical limit, many years ago, of 10,000 per square mile for American cities. A recent study of Paris takes 250 persons per square mile as the extreme limit of urban influence against rural areas and 1,250 persons per square mile as the limit of the compact urban tract. A comparative study of German cities shows that in the suburbs ( Vororte) of the cities fully urban areas have a minimum overall density of 2,500 persons per square mile and that 250 persons per square mile is the outer limit against the rural areas [7].

The City Settlement Area embraces the urban tract and the outer zone or rural-urban fringe, as we have described it in a previous chapter. This fringe of settlement and city influence extends as far as communications will allow. A journey-time of one hour is usually considered to be the main limit of daily travel for the city worker, and dormitory settlements lie on the main railway routes outside the greatest cities within a radius of about twenty miles. The map showing isochrones, or lines joining places accessible in the same time to and from a selected centre, is a fundamental basis for planning. This outer area, however, is not merely one of residential and industrial settlement. It supplies the city with milk and vegetables and receives many goods from its wholesale warehouses and its retail shops. It is sufficiently accessible to permit regular visits to the city. It , forms a part of the labour market of the city complex and has intimate social and economic associations with the activities of the city. The area has been appropriately called by Chabot the zone du voisinage [8]. Its characteristics are summed up by its j relatively high densities of population, intermediate between the urban tract and the country, and, more significantly, by its high rate of increase of population[9].

The City Circulation or Trade Area is the area of wider and more extensive, more occasional circulations to and from the city, these relations being normally more intense and varied as the centre is approached through the fringe and the tract to the core. The great bulk of local circulations, such as are found in the urban tract, are directed to the local towns. The city is the head of affairs, the seat of opportunity, offering in all fields what the local town has not got. Clearly the relations with the big city are occasional and diffuse, and normally (except for through routes) do not appear on the road traffic map until the threads collect on the main roads near to the urban fringe. The city settlement area is, of course, served by a net of routes-rail, bus and tram. The outer limit of this circulation, area is vague, and indefinable as a line except very diagrammatically. The ultimate limit of any particular circulation is fixed principally by the accessibility of the city relative to surrounding cities of similar status offering the same service. In fact, the limits will coincide in the peripheral towns, where such goods and services are received for distribution to their local service areas. It is normal for towns of medium size with considerable functional independence to be placed on the border of the sphere of influence of two cities, with close relations with both.

[1]M. Aurousseau, “Recent Contributions to Urban Geography”, Geographical Review, Vol. XIX, 1934, pp. 444-55.

[2]J. L. Sert, Can Our Cities Survive?, Harvard U.P., 1943, p. 10.

[3]H. Bobek, „Grundfragen da Stadtgeographie“, Geographische Anzieger. Vol. XXVIII, 1927, pp. 213-24. This is called Verkehrspannung by Bobek.

[4]C. B. Fawcett, “Distribution of the Urban Population in Britain in 1931”, Geographical Journal, Vol. LXXIX, 1932, pp. 100-16.

[5]This actually is the interpretation given by J. Soulas in his recent study of the French conurbations in the Annales de Geographie, Vol. XLVIII, 1939, pp. 466-71.

[6]M. Jefferson. “The Anthropogeography of Some Great Cities”, Bulletin of the American Geographical Society. Vol. XLI, 1909, p. 543.

[7]R. Clozier. La Gare du Nord, Baillière, Paris, 1940, and M. Reichert. Die Vorortsbildung der süd- und mitteldeutschen Grosstädte. Stuttgarter Geog. Studien. Stuttgart, 1936.

[8]G. Chabot, «La Détermination des Courbes Isochrones en Géographie Urbaine», illustrated by reference to Dijon in Comptes Rendus Congrès Internationale de Géographie, Tome II, Géographie Humaine, Amsterdam, 1938, pp. 110-13.

[9]A particularly interesting study of the banlieue of northern Paris will be found in R. Clozier, La Gare du Nord, Paris, 1940.


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