Geographia Polonica (1989) vol. 56

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A new definition of urban areas in England and Wales and its application to the analysis of recent urbanization processes

John Shepherd

Geographia Polonica (1989) vol. 56, pp. 91-108


As part of the output of the 1981 Census the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS) in Britain has introduced a new and more accurate method of reporting population and other statistics for urban areas (OPCS, 1984). The basis for the definition is the identification of land that is "irreversibly urban" in character which, at a minimum settlement size of 1000 persons, produces a clear distinction between rural and urban populations. This approach to the definition of urbanization contrasts with, but forms a valuable complement to, the functional view of urbanism as adopted in research into the systemic aspects of settlement structure (Coombes et al. 1983).In addition to the fundamental task of applying the urban land definition to over 2000 urban areas in England and Wales, the OPCS, in collaboration with the Department of the Environment (DOE), has produced census data measuring change in urban areas between 1971 and 1981 and, in 1984, the DOE commissioned research from universities and other organisations into the nature and causes of recent population change among urban areas in England.This paper uses material from one of these research projects — that relating to urban areas with populations in the range 5000 to 100000 people — to describe the origins and purpose of the urban areas definition and to demonstrate its application to understanding recent urban change in England. In particular, the paper focusses on the application of urban areas data to the understanding of those urbanization processes which, in North America and Western Europe, have been variously described as "counter-urbanization" (Berry 1976; Vining and Kontuly 1978; Hall and Hay 1980), as "des-urbanization" (van den Berg et. al. 1982), or as a contrast between the established forces of "decentralization" and the newer trend towards the "déconcentration" of population into the non-metropolitan parts of the urban system (Robert and Randolph 1983).


John Shepherd, Department of Geography, Birkbeck College, University of London, London UK