Small towns are bigger than we think — and the world is more connected than ever

Here’s a mental experiment: take a moment to ponder the entire global population and where they live. Some, your mind will envision, are in the sprawling megacities of the world, while others are in smaller towns or villages. How many live in remote areas?

According to a new study, less than one percent of the global population lives in truly remote hinterlands. The surprising study shows that smaller cities and their surrounding areas are having an increasing influence on people’s livelihoods, contradicting the narrative that big cities are where most development happens.

How long it takes to get to large towns. Image credits: FAO.

Not islands

Since the industrial revolution truly took over in the 20th century, mankind has slowly moved from rural areas to urban areas. We’ve also become more connected, thanks to trains, cars, and more recently, planes. But according to a new study, even areas that are mostly rural (and you might think, isolated) are usually pretty well-connected.

The study analyzed multiple spatial datasets and calculated the time needed for rural populations to reach nearby urban centers. This is the so-called peri-urban area.

Cities often sprawl about, growing unrestrictedly in their desire to provide housing and commercial development towards the edge of the city. Thus, the ‘edge’ of the city gets pushed more and more, until it’s not clear where the city ends, and where neighboring areas begin. There’s no real agreement as to how to classify ‘peri-urban’, but typically, even a sprawling, sparsely-populated area around a city can be considered peri-urban.

According to the new study, 40% of the planet’s population lives in peri-urban areas, which is not necessarily surprising. What was surprising is that this 40% are almost equally distributed around small, intermediate, and large cities. Furthermore, small and intermediate towns seem to draw more inhabitants into their orbit than large cities.

The problem is that peri-urban environments often slip through the cracks of regulation and policy. They were traditionally considered rural, countryside environments, but as cities continue to expand, this is starting to change. Designing and managing areas in a way that’s suitable for both farmers and city dwellers is challenging, the researchers highlight.

“Rural and urban have been thought of as separate for too long. Development planning needs to focus on rural people’s access to employment opportunities and services in nearby urban centers, and acknowledge that urban centers are not islands upon themselves,” said Food and Agriculture Organization Senior Economist Andrea Cattaneo.

Mountain valleys of industrialised countries (e.g. Inn valley) are often periurbanised. Image credits: Lonesome Crow.

But what is perhaps even more striking is the percentage of residents that live in isolated hinterlands — areas defined as needing more than three hours — measured in terms of the available mode of transit from an urban settlement — to get to a town (of over 20,000 people). Just three countries have more than 5% of their population living in hinterlands: Madagascar, Niger, and Zimbabwe. Globally, less than 1% of the world’s population lives in these isolated areas.

The findings build on an overly simplistic view that higher-income countries are more urban. Real development is more complex, and often falls in the grey peri-urban area that’s neither truly urban nor rural.

Another important finding concerns food supply chains. The dominance of these peri-urban landscapes, combined with the fact that the urban and rural components are managed differently, suggests that local food chains could be managed more effectively and sustainably through local collaboration between farmers and urban dwellers.

“Agri-food chains connect rural and urban areas,” said Professor Andy Nelson from the Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation, University of Twente in the Netherlands, and a co-author of the study. “Our data set supports both research and policy for transforming food systems to sustainably meet the increasing demands of urban markets.”

However, the importance of large cities should still not be underestimated: 40% of the world’s urban population (and almost 50% in Latin America and the Caribbean) live in large cities.

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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