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The Rural-urban Fringe

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This article looks at the rural-urban fringe, an important concept in settlement geography. After consideration of general trends and related concepts such as suburbanisation and green belts, there is a detailed examination of part of the south-west sector of London’s rural-urban fringe with a particular focus on land use change in the Epsom Hospital Cluster.

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small globe iconWhat is the rural-urban fringe?
The rural-urban fringe is the boundary zone outside the urban area proper where rural and urban land uses intermix. It is an area of transition from agricultural and other rural land uses to urban use. Located well within the urban sphere of influence the fringe is characterised by a wide variety of land use including dormitory settlements housing middle-income commuters who work in the main urban area. Over time the characteristics of the fringe change from largely rural to largely urban. Suburbanisation takes place at the urban boundary of rural-urban fringe.

Problems stem from the competing land uses within this zone and the constant pressure for new development, even in areas that have green belt status or other forms of protection. The issues of land use and prospective change are significant in most MEDCs (Figure 1) and an increasing number of LEDCs.

The nature of the rural-urban fringe is influenced by four main factors: agricultural policy, regional planning, the urban economy and the agricultural economy. Baker et al have identified four types of fringe (Figure 2) resulting from these influences:

  • disturbed landscapes
  • neglected landscapes
  • simplified landscapes
  • valued landscapes.

This model is useful as it shows that the rural-urban fringe varies in character from place to place according to the main influences acting upon it.

Figure 1 - The North American rural-urban fringe

The North American rural-urban fringe

Figure 3 summarises the main processes operating in the North American rural-urban fringe. In the United States in particular planning controls on urban development have usually been much weaker than in Britain resulting in far more extensive urban sprawl.

In general the size of the fringe area is dependent on the magnitude of the overall metropolitan area and the influence of nearby and competing metropolitan areas. As land values can change so rapidly in fringe areas speculators frequently hold much of the undeveloped land with the ownership and character of land frequently beginning to change more than 20 years before the area is actually built over. Detailed studies of a number of urban regions have shown that investors and property developers own a higher proportion of fringe land where development pressures are strong than where such pressures are moderate or weak. The main processes operating in North American fringe areas are:

  • A marked change in ownership land size with distance from the built-up area. Units of land show decreasing size and increasing value with proximity to the urban area.
  • The rate at which land ownership changes also varies with distance from the boundary of the built-up area with the most intense activity closest to the urban area.
  • Development takes the forms of peripheral accretion (adding on directly to the existing urban area), linear development along major routeways and leap-frogging. The locations of the latter are determined by a number of factors including the varying desirability of different locations and the ownership status of the land.

Land use change in the rural-urban fringe is a major issue in most North American urban areas. As more and more fringe land becomes developed, an increasing number of tools have been created to preserve the land that remains. One method that is now being employed in 18 US states is the purchase of development rights (PDR). This is a voluntary system whereby a land trust or some other agency, usually linked to local government, makes an offer to a landowner to buy the development rights for a parcel of land. If agreement is reached a permanent deed restriction is placed on the property which restricts the type of activities that may take place on the land in perpetuity. In this way a legally binding guarantee is achieved to ensure that the parcel will remain agricultural or open space forever.

The location of the rural-urban fringe has changed over time (Figure 4), stabilising only after the introduction of green belt restrictions. Successive waves of suburban development swallowed up previous fringe areas as private and local authority builders tried to satisfy the insatiable demand for housing. The development of suburban railways and the increase in middle-income car ownership were the main catalysts in such development.

Figure 2
Figure 2.
The nature of the rural-urban fringe.
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Figure 3
Figure 3.
A model of the North American rural-urban fringe.
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Figure 4.
Figure 4.
The outward shift of the rural-urban fringe.
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