Small Urban Centres as Alternative to Big City Life: A new approach in Urban Planning

In this highly globalized era the term ‘urban’ which had been frequently associated with a city life as against a village life has begun to lose its legitimacy owing to the blurred distinctions between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ in absolute senses of the terms. There has been rapid production and reproduction of urban space within rural spaces and also deliberate construction of urban space in the form of small urban centres, so as to accommodate larger chunk of the population in the ever desired realms of ‘development and progress’. Discussion on small urban centres, involuntarily, brings into mind the images of suburbs and sprawls, however, this paper does not seek to go into the details of suburbanization or sprawl formations, which by definition are auto-oriented, low-density development of smaller urban agglomerations residing in not-very-well-defined centres. Rather, the focus of this paper would be on the deliberate formation of well-defined ‘towns’ as alternatives to big ‘city’ life in developing countries, especially in India. This paper aims to study and analyse the emergence of small urban centres, especially in the developing countries where the experience of urbanization has been very different from that of the developed countries and to what extent these centres have been beneficial for the under-privileged masses.


There is an immediate relationship between the body and its space, between the body’s deployment in space and its occupation of space. Before producing effects in the material realm…, before producing itself by drawing nourishment from that realm, and before reproducing itself by generating other bodies, each living body is space and has space: it produces itself in space and it also produces that space. (Lefebvre 1996, p. 170)



City remained the centre of urban studies for such a long time that a general tendency has developed among both layman and researchers to associate ‘urban’ with ‘cities’. It was as if the distinction between towns and cities, based on density of population and socio-economic relevance, as forms of urban landscapes made the ‘city’ more visible; its structural existence impressing more on what ‘urbanism’ suggested . When one talks of such landscapes, the reference is always to a ‘space’ which has been transformed to a ‘place’ in the course of time, implying that the transformation is continuous and not ubiquitously regular in their shape, size and composition. It would be erroneous if one is to generalize ‘urban space’ and more so in an entirely globalized world. Madanipour quotes Bochner in defence of leaving scope for varied interpretations of ‘space’: “the concept of space is so ubiquitous , and is reached by so many avenues and channels , that it would be stifling and sterile to force upon it metaphysically a single logical schema, which, even if acceptable today , might become unsuitable tomorrow ” (1996, p. 29) and it is indeed that is what seems to have happened. The post-modern world has witnessed drastic changes; there has been profound transformation of and negotiation with our physical and social environments giving rise to new experiences which cannot be deemed under the existing frameworks of understanding urban space. “It is by concentrating on this process of daily life, at its intersection with the political economy of urban development , through which space is made and remade , that we can expect to move toward s a wider , more dynamic platform of understanding .” (Madanipour 1996 p. 29)

Now, focus has shifted from city to small urban centres. Urban studies is now mostly about urban planning; about recoiling the gap between country life and city life and hence the spotlight is on urbanizing pockets of rural areas; creating new towns in areas which are no more rural in the traditional sense of the term owing to the disappearance of the ‘remoteness’ that existed until a few decades ago. Unplanned formation of small urban centres has often reproduced the rich-poor gap; which is a salient structural feature of city life in developing countries. Such centres though urbanizes the people, they do not necessarily modernize people. But decentralization of city-centres is an utmost requirement in developing countries to avoid explosion of population and thereby subsequent adverse conditions and effects on humanity, such as rampant poverty, crime, delinquency etc.  Hence, the need for formation of sub-centres and of planned development of already existing small towns.  Governments in most countries have adopted measures in  assisting  sub-center  formation-for  example  by  providing  infra-structure,  regulating  or  subsidizing developers, or subsidizing firm location. But before moving on to the questions of what, why and how of small urban centers, it is necessary to discuss, albeit in brief, in what sense urbanization has been used in this paper.


Why ‘Urban’:  Examining the logic of usage

Urbanisation, in statistical terms, is a growing proportion of a population living in settlements defined as urban centres. The immediate cause of practically all urbanisation is the net movement of people from rural to urban areas.  Another factor that has a say in the changes in urbanisation levels between censuses is the reclassification of rural settlements as ‘urban’ as their population increases over a certain period. Similarly, the extension of the precincts of cities or metropolitan areas changes the status of many settlements and residents within the newly extended area from rural to urban. However, it is not in the statistical terms of reference within which ‘urban’ has been conceived in this paper, rather it envisages the qualitative aspect- as to ‘what is urban and why people prefer ‘urban’? Proper urban conditions mean proper accessibility to the basic as well extended needs of life- jobs in the industries and service sectors, higher education, leisure and luxury. Underlying cause of urbanisation in most nations or regions within nations is changes in economic structures and systems, not population increase. On one hand most nations with the highest population growth rates have low levels of urbanisation, with most of the population residing in rural settlements and deriving a living from agriculture. On the other hand many of the nations with the lowest population growth rates are among the worlds most urbanised, with the majority of the population living in urban centres (Satterthwaite and Tacoli, 2003, p. 7). Even in what Satterthwaite and Tacoli says, rural-urban distinction is still visualised under the pretexts of primary activity vs. secondary and tertiary activity. We may, however, consider urban as those avenues which guarantee a more, even if not total, equitable per capita income and purchasing power parity (PPP) to citizens of a nation. In present times, even employment in primary activities like organic farming, can guarantee sufficient avenues to avail an urban way of life to some extent, if the required facilities are made available to the farmer. Urban in this sense is the order which dispenses up-to-date facilities- structurally and institutionally. It is thus, comprehensible that urbanization is and need to be much more than a mere shift from rural to urban places. Urban place has been equated with the term “townscape” as the urban equivalent of landscape, comprising the visible forms of the built-up areas. Its three main components are street plan or layout, architectural style of buildings and their design, and land use.  To create ‘urban’ areas, is therefore, the responsibility of the government since for proper ‘urbanization’ acute planning is inevitable.


Call for Small Urban Centres

The urban scenario in developing countries is in most cases deplorable. The cause for such a state has been attributed often to the incompetence of the developing countries to keep up with the developed in the world economy. On one hand there is a gradual development of underdevelopment and on the other hand owing to the arrival of global forces even the remotest corners of these countries are urbanizing themselves. The result is haphazard formation of urban centres. However, the promising possibility of formation of urban centres even in far-flung areas and the potential of already existing small towns in these countries deliver the hope of a decreasing gap between the privileged and the under-privileged.[1]

Satterthwaite and Tacoli mentions that “large proportion of the urban population in most nations lives in small and intermediate urban centres. In both the North and the South, more than half the urban population is in urban centres of less than half a million inhabitants, with sizeable proportions in market towns and administrative centres that have between 5,000 and 100,000 inhabitants. The assumption that increasing proportions of the urban population will be in large cities (especially mega-cities) is now questioned and recent census data show falls in the growth rate of many of the world’s largest cities; the world in 2000 turned out to be less urbanized and with less of its urban population concentrated in large cities than had been expected.” (2003, p. 6)

The gradual melting away of center-periphery boundaries of urban space and the continuing growth of polycentric urban centres call for the development of small urban centres, so as to create a more balanced distribution of urban settlements, population and economic activities. The argument for revitalizing small  urban centers  is  based  on  the theory that widespread economic growth is  facilitated by the emergence of  an  articulated  and integrated settlement system of  towns and  cities  of  different  sizes  and  functions  that are large  enough and  diversified enough to  serve  not only their  own  residents  but  also  those  in surrounding rural areas.  Moreover, in  countries  with diverse  economic,  social, and political  characteristics,  towns  and  small  cities have helped to  renovate  the  economies  of  rural areas by  providing access  to services,  facilities, and non-agricultural  employment  opportunities and by  inducing  the  commercialization  of agriculture.

Rondinelli (1983) mentions that “ renewed  concern  about  small  urban  centers  arose  in part from  dissatisfaction  with  macroeconomic  theories  that prescribed the  concentration  of  investments  in  the largest urban  centers  to  maximize  the growth of  national output.  Many  economists argued that  in developing countries  where capital is scarce  the highest rates  of  return  from  investment  are  achieved  in  the largest cities  and  concluded  that the  vast  size  to which  some primate cities  were growing in  the developing world  was  not economically inefficient.”

Studies have proved that absence of an articulated, integrated system of central places obstructs the emergence of a sectorally and geographically balanced pattern of economic growth, which is definitely the case in developing countries where urbanization dawned like the news of an illegitimate child on its mother’s womb. The analogy is definitely crude, nevertheless true because urbanization was never a planned step in these countries; it was just the offshoot of other politico-economic development policies.  E.  A.  J. Johnson  argued that  a well-defined central system allowed  the  commercialization  of agriculture, the  diffusion of manufacturing,  and expanded  employment  opportunities both  in  Western industrial  countries  and  in  the  advanced  economies  of  the developing countries. Countries deficient in such a spatial system cannot easily attain geographically diffuse development and cannot reduce regional and urban-rural disparities. Without access to intermediate-sized cities, towns, and market centers, farmers would not be able to easily sell their surpluses, obtain inputs, modernize their operations, and adapt products to consumer demand.  Nor can they easily obtain the services that they need to have a satisfactory way of living in rural areas. (Rondinelli 1983)

As such, towns  and  small  cities  become  crucial  nodes of trade  and  commerce  in  a larger network  of market centers  that provide more diversified  and higher-order  goods and  services. A  network  of  urban  centers  is necessary  to  distribute  specialized  goods  that are  produced  in  some  locations  to  consumers  in  other  places.  Urban  centers make  services  that require  fixed locations  or large numbers  of consumers  available  to persons  in  rural regions.  Urbanization in the form of smaller section leave  scope for each  community  to specialize in producing  the goods and  services  that  it  can  manufacture  most  advantageously  while  it  has  access to goods  and  services  from other  areas. There are two aspects in planning well-defined small urban centres- a) A eager government with policies notably relating to land-use controls and the provision of transportation infrastructure and b) keeping in mind the significance of space in economics while planning.

The use of urban space; urban size and structure all these gravely determine the life of urban residents. A prominent factor of change  in  urban  structure  is  the  changing  economic  relationships  within  and between  firms. Telecommunications, information-intensive  activities,  deregulation,  and  global  competition  have  all given way to  changes  in  the  functions that  firms  do  in-house,  and  in  how those  functions  are  spatially  organized.  There is a continuous vertical disintegration going on and firms are developing which have new interactive modes which are neither market nor hierarchy oriented but rather constitute a ‘network’ organizational form, characterized by relationship contracting and having unknown implications for locational propensities.

Such changes promise new life chances for rural people, who can now avail an urban life while living away from the big city if small towns are well-developed. Urban life, now a day, is determined by consumption patterns. It is the symbolic capital that has replaced physical capital. Small towns complete with all modern day infrastructure such as a viable market, industries (even if small scale), transportation, a competent service sector, proper housing and recreation, health and education facilities, would provide an urban experience far more handsome than an over-crowded city life and can also maintain a balance between the income of majority of the residents and the cost of living, since the administration would be decentralized and more focused. Social interactions in such ambiences of small urban centres, in the long run, would be beneficial in respect of providing more capable human resource.

Developing countries have tried different policies to balance urban growth; to abolish the disparities in the conditions of life of the privileged and under-privileged. Population  and economic activities must neither be overly concentrated in areas nor overly dispersed in towns  and  villages  that are  too   small  to  support  the  social  services,  physical  facilities  and  productive  activities  essential  for  economic growth. The first approach taken was to limit the growth and expansion of metropolitan areas by curbing migration and forcing people not to leave rural areas by several techniques. But the futility of such a step didn’t take much time to be recognised. Hence policies had been taken up to see to the diffusion of urbanization by investing in smaller towns to absorb rural migrants and provide alternative locations to large metropolitan areas for similar kinds of urban economic activities.  In Thailand, for  example,  the  government  attempted  to  stimulate  the  growth  of regional towns and  cities with  ports  or  locational advantages for  small- and  medium-scale industry.  (Rodinelli 1991, p. 797)

A new concept have also surfaced ever since some Czechoslovakian researchers realized that modern day industrial practices like mining often have adverse effects on nearby residential areas. They proposed construction of ‘new towns’. New Towns in the thickly populated country really secure a new “living environment” on the condition they do not deny the natural regional structure of the landscape which distorts the regular urban hierarchy. That is the heterogeneity of a rural living is encouraged while urban facilities are made available. The commuting to the traditional business sections need to be facilitated by sufficient road and public transportation connecting systems. Plenty of modern housings are provided especially for young families.  There  should be,  however,  some strong limitations on  the population  growth in a New Town  area with respect  to  the particular living, working and  environmental conditions  as well.  (Strida 1978)


Small Town Scenario in India

Although parts of India may claim to have been some of the earliest urban civilizations that the world has ever known, in modern sense of the term, India actually began urbanizing after its colonization. It is precisely because of this reason that the experience of urbanization was not as smooth and fluid as it was in the case of European countries. The main feature that started the process of urbanization was the introduction of railways, followed by a few industries. Urbanization was the by-product of industrialization, therefore leading to unplanned growth of cities in and around certain industrialized areas. But, at present, in India small towns dominate the urban scenario. According to the 2001 census, there are around 4,738 towns with population of less than 100,000, going down to even 5000. Most of them are considered ‘urban’ because they deal with trade and commerce and the service sector to a small extent and also act as intermediaries between complete village life and the city but otherwise they lack the infrastructural features to be called as urban.  The patterns of urbanization in India were mostly by-products of national economic and sectoral development policies that did not address directly urban development problems or opportunities.

Surprisingly in recent times, small towns have shown commendable potential in contributing to the economy directly or indirectly. There are success stories from small towns that the media is celebrating.  Bhiwani in Haryana is unexpectedly in the news for having produced Olympic medal winners and other towns are home to remarkably talented young people who win television reality shows.  It is with the IT revolution and the shrinking virtual as well as physical distance between places that rural life has started urbanizing on the very spot without much movement of people from once so called ‘rural’ areas to ‘urban’ areas.

Towns with a population under 50,000 or even 100,000 inhabitants, and surrounded by a rural hinterland, form an integral part of the rural economy. Much economic activity in these small urban centres is strongly linked to the village economy through consumption, production and financial linkages.  Besides, village households depend on and interact with local towns in the pursuit of livelihood opportunities and activities. Consequently, such locations often offer an appropriate entry point for public investment and policy interventions targeted at rural areas. It is therefore, intelligible that to change the scenario from an unbalanced haphazard growth of urban spaces, the government can assist through policy changes in developing and constructing small pockets of urban areas and linking them to the larger urban areas in the vicinity. Fresh investment in smaller urban centres and a planned approach to urbanize certain target areas would automatically stem the pressure on the bigger cities in the long run and also adequately supply avenues for the rural people to uplift themselves.

Ravi Kalia’s (1987) study on Chandigarh, despite it being a called a city, gives a good model of what well-planned small urban spaces could ensure. Chandigarh in India is definitely one such town which had a target population, mostly the refugees from partition of India and which was planned and developed with astounding finesse to accommodate a class of population whose position transformed from near destitution to agreeably well-to-do.

Degree of Efficacy

Over the decades debates have been raised over France’s  “poles  de  croissance, Britain’s  ‘New Towns’ policy,  and policies  of  less  developed  nations  to  divert  growth  away  from  their  primate cities  which  contain  large  percentages of  the national  urban populations. It has been observed that subsidies  for  home  ownership,  subsidized  highway  construction  and maintenance, and minimum-lot-size  residential zoning  are  just  some  of  the  measures which  have  increased  decentralization, even while  keeping  the poor  excessively concentrated in the central cities.

Many countries have insufficient numbers of towns and small cities providing services to neighbourhoods.  Many a times even the linkages  forged between  small  urban  centers  and  their hinterlands  have  been  used  to exploit rather than  to develop human and physical resources  in  rural areas. Since the potential for exploitation is in many cases as strong as that for beneficial and equitable development, some theorists and planners have argued against policies that support development of towns and small cities.  A strong debate  still fumes over  the degree to  which  small  urban  centers  should  be  the heart of regional  development and  over  the degree of linkage or “spatial closure”  that  should  be encouraged  through  countrywide and regional  programs of development.

In developing countries, it is often the case that policy implementation has been destabilized by lack of political commitment.  Some Asian countries like Malaysia and India had attempted  to  develop too many  small  towns  and  cities  at  one  time, thereby  spreading  limited  financial and  managerial  resources  too  sparsely. This calls for question the efficiency of the government to effectively influence the pace and pattern of urban development.

Moreover the global economic state of affairs hardly leaves any scope for full fledged government funding for developing old towns and constructing new towns. Neo-liberal development policies in themselves are the evidence of growing need for privatisation. India’s Seventh Plan explicitly recognizes that the government alone will not be able to provide all services and infrastructures in the future. It calls for private firms and cooperatives to take greater responsibility for investment in housing and other services. (Rondinelli, 1991, p. 800) It is doubtful to what extent the poor would gain access to urban conditions which have been brought about through privatisation.



The  towns and  small  cities  serve  as centers  for marketing,  services,  commerce,  processing, transportation, distribution,  and  communications  and  as centers  for small-scale manufacturing,  for  the  diffusion  of  innovation, and  for  social  interaction. Establishing new towns and developing old ones in a developing country like India where haphazard urbanization has and still remain like a sore on the back; it is significant to take the step with delicate carefulness. Institutional innovation is required for effective cross-cutting and sub-sector interventions. It is decisively important that the private sector and other civil society organisations with a presence in rural areas are also consulted throughout these processes and that their opinions are taken into account before proceeding with such plans. Post-structuralist and post-modern thinkers have often commented on how planning is always about power. It is concerned with achieving urban outcomes that serve the purposes of powerful agents in society. Urbanization, as a planned process, must always be understood as the outcome of the state-civil society dialectic.



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[1] I prefer using privileged and under-privileged instead of rural-urban/ rich-poor to refer to the degree of accessibility to a modern/progressive way of life, which urbanization is believed to provide. A relatively rich person from a rural area might be more privileged than a relatively poor person from urban area.