Rural-Urban Balance

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Large-scale shifts of population from the countryside to the city have been a feature of the demographic and geographic landscape for more than a century. Urbanization has accompanied the demographic transition in virtually all middle-and high-income countries. Urbanization, by definition, results in declining share of the population in rural areas. For instance, the Japanese rural population share dropped from 50 percent to 21 percent between 1950 and 2000, while in Canada the corresponding drop was from 39 percent to 21 percent. When urbanization is well advanced, it is accompanied by a decline also in the absolute size of the rural population, as is illustrated for the period from 1950 through 2000 by data for several major European nations: France (-21%), Germany (-47%), Italy (-12%), and the United Kingdom (-22%). (In the United States, the rural population was slowly increasing over that period–a rise of 14%–but is projected to gradually decline over the first half of the twenty-first century.) These shifts in population distribution are due to the combined effects of rural outmigration, the changing relative size of the rural and urban populations, rural-urban differences in natural increase, and the reclassification of territory from rural to urban.

Phases of Rural-Urban Population Balance

In the contemporary industrialized countries, shifts in the internal distribution of the population have moved well beyond simple urbanization. One can identify four broad phases of rural-urban population balance that characterize the trajectory of these societies.

A first phase could be termed classic urbanization. In Europe and North America this phase commenced with the Industrial Revolution and continued into the twentieth century. The growth of cities and urban territory outpaced that of the countryside, fed by net rural-urban internal migration. The second phase, commencing in the beginning of the twentieth century but accelerating by mid-century, might be characterized as suburbanization, or perhaps more accurately, as metropolitan expansion. Throughout this second phase the share of the population in the countryside continued to decline, and did so eventually also in terms of absolute size. With declining fertility, the rate of natural increase could no longer counterbalance the effect of net migration loss, initiating a process of outright rural depopulation. Rural depopulation was most notable in agricultural areas. In the United States the rural population of the heavily agricultural West North Central (northern Midwest) census division declined steadily in each decade from 1920 to 1970.

The third phase we might label "counter-urbanization." The phenomenon was first noticed for the United States in the 1970s, but counter-urbanization trends were soon also noticed in Europe, Japan, and Australia. This demographic surprise was alternately described as the "nonmetropolitan turnaround" or a "rural renaissance," and it generated a considerable amount of debate about its determinants and likely persistence. Observers variously attributed it to changes in industrial structure, technical issues in geographic classification, growth of retirement communities, and cultural shifts affecting locational preferences.

The fourth phase, about which there is less consensus, may be called "population diffusion." It describes a pattern of population redistribution discernible in most industrialized, high-income countries at the start of the twenty-first century. It can be characterized by (a) the location of a very large majority of the population in urban regions;(b) population deconcentration within urban regions; and (c) the absence of consistent, geographically pervasive, large-scale, unidirectional flows of population. For instance, the 5.2 percent U.S. nonmetropolitan gain in the 1970s was followed by only2.7 percent in the 1980s, and then 10.3 percent in the 1990s. In Australia, selected outlying local government areas (LGAs) recorded losses between 1996 and 2001, while capital regions and some smaller coastal settlement areas grew. France, in particular, has shown appreciable variation in growth and decline across rural territory in recent decades. Contributing to these trends in population geography are shifts in underlying demographic dynamics. As fertility declines and natural increase diminishes to near-zero, much of the urban-rural population change is determined by net migration. The relative size of the urban and rural populations and their age structures also likely to come into play in determining population change over time. For example, labor migration may redistribute rural-origin persons away from the rural hinterland toward other metropolitan (and selected nonmetropolitan) employment sites, while retirement migration may relocate individuals away from these sites to lower density communities.

The declining share of the rural population, and also its decline in absolute terms, was accompanied by a significant shift in the character of rural economic activity and social life during the latter half of the twentieth century. Rurality has been associated with occupations such as farming, animal husbandry, fishing, and mining. At one time "rural" was also synonymous with limited education, high fertility, "traditional" values, and disengagement from urban-industrial life. This is no longer necessarily the case. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, urban and rural occupy locations along a geographic settlement spectrum. Residents of territory classified as rural or nonmetropolitan in high-income societies have access to many of the same products and services of contemporary society that city-dwellers enjoy. Their geographic distance from some employment and cultural opportunities tends to be offset by better access to modern transportation and communication technology. It remains true, however, that within this broad scale most urbanized societies retain pockets of rural areas for which social exclusion is an enduring reality.

As to middle-income countries, many of them have already experienced much of the demographic transition and are in the midst of the rural-urban transition. Major Latin American countries (Mexico, Colombia, Brazil) have experienced a substantial decline in the share of the rural population, generally from about one-half around 1950 to about one-quarter by the end of the twentieth century. Malaysia and the Philippines record less than half of their population in rural areas. With declining fertility and continued urbanization, those rural areas out of reach of metropolitan spillover and having little destination attractiveness for internal migrants, are likely to experience absolute declines in population before long.

Changing Concepts and Definitions

Concepts and definitions are intrinsically bound up with the description and analysis of trends in population concentration. In the first phase of population shift, the period of significant declines in the rural share, notions of "urban" and "rural" may have been relatively obvious and readily captured by a dichotomy. As urban populations became dominant in many countries–and with the prospect of a world half-urban early in the twenty-first century–definitions have shifted along with population. Most national population statistics still recognize "urban" and "rural." Conventionally, settlements exceeding a certain threshold–often from about 2,000 to 5,000 persons–are classified as urban. This definition worked well enough in a predominantly dispersed agrarian society. But as the share of the rural population declined, the classification of "urban" territory in industrialized societies needed elaboration, adding terms such as "metropolis," "megalopolis," and the like. The reclassification of territory and of persons by place of residence has implications for the "rural" population. Some metropolitan areas, as defined, extended far into their hinterland, even to include agrarian and very low-density settlements. (China and the United States both offer examples of this.) The resulting reclassification of persons from rural to urban would further reduce the rural population. These issues of classification and their evolution over the historical span of demographic data collection are at once an illustration of the difficulty of capturing the event, and more importantly, a recognition that re-definition often follows changes in behavior of people at the individual and societal level.

See also: Suburbanization; Urbanization.


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internet resources.

Australia Bureau of Statistics. 2002. <>.

Bessy-Pietri, Pascale, et al. 2000. "Evolutions contrastées du rural." (Recensement de la population 1999, report #726.) Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes Economiques (INSEE, France). <>.

Johnson, Kenneth M., and Calvin Beale. 2002. "The Rural Rebound." <>.

United Nations, Population Division. 2002. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2001 Revision. New York. <>.

Michael J. White