3. Conceptual issues and debates in classifying or demarcating periurban

Learning objectives

  • Understand the different connotations of the word periurban; a place, process and concept.
  • Understand the limitations of place based definitions of periurban.
  • Understand the different types of rural-urban linkages that the term periurban tries to capture.
  • Understand the value of a periurban conceptual lens.

Key Concepts

place, process, concept

1. Many definitions of periurban

In this session, participants are introduced to different connotations of the word periurban. Broadly, the word is used in three different ways, namely to describe a place, process or concept. These connotations are expanded. Participants are introduced to the limitations of place based definitions of periurban. They become familiar with terms used in different languages to denote this concept. The value of a periurban conceptual lens to study rural-urban linkages and transformations is described.

The word ‘periurban’ is a widely used term; however, there is no consensus regarding its meaning and the term is used rather loosely. Iaquinta and Drescher (2000) note that the term is used in different ways to denote contradictory processes and environments. Scholars studying periurban issues usually make their own definitions and conceptualization of what constitutes periurban to define the conceptual boundaries or foundation of their studies. Since the word has many connotations, it is essential to clearly establish the conceptual boundaries of the term.

In the periurban literature, there is a common debate regarding the meaning of the term; the debate usually centers around periurban being a geographical space around cities – usually defined in terms of a distance or proximity to the nearest city or urban centre – as against seeing it as a process of transition from rural to urban, or a concept to study rural-urban transformations and flows of goods, services and resources.

In general, the expression ‘periurban interface’ is used to describe a zone and social space of transition characterised by the co-existence of rural and urban activities and institutions, diverse land uses and heterogeneity of economic interests (Allen 2003; Tacoli 2002; Narain and Nischal 2007;  Iaquinta and Drescher 2000; Lerner and Eakin 2011). Its use has emerged to capture spaces of rapid transition from rural to urban concomitant to contemporary urbanization. The term serves as an analytic construct to denote core-periphery relationships in the context of urbanization, as well as to give a sense of how the ecological foot-print of urbanization is borne.

2. Periurban as a place, process or concept

As noted by Narain and Nischal (2007),  the term is used in three different ways; as a place, a process or a concept. Scholars of the periurban interface have debated the relevance of this term to denote a geographical space around cities or around an urban core, a process of transition from rural to urban, or as an analytic construct to study rural-urban relationships and flows of resources, goods and services between urban centers and rural areas  (Marshall et al. 2009; Tacoli 2006; Narain and Nischal 2007; Allen 2003, 2006; Randhawa and Marshall 2014; Vij 2014). As a space of social, economic and institutional transition around the cities, the “periurban” is often represented by such expressions as urban outgrowth, urban agglomeration, rural-urban fringe or the periurban interface.

As a place, ‘periurban’ refers to rural fringe areas surrounding cities. These are locations around large cities that usually bear the brunt of urban expansion by providing the land and water resources needed for urban expansion while receiving urban wastes such as wastewater. Brook et al. (2003) however note that ‘periurban’ is perhaps best understood as a process, representing a transition between rural and urban and the flows of goods and services between villages and urban centres. More broadly, ‘periurban’ could  be understood as a concept used to refer to an  interface of three systems, namely, the agricultural system, the urban system and the natural resource system (Allen, 2003).

Concept and process based definitions of periurban are particularly relevant for the analysis of issues of water justice as they throw light on the flows of goods and services between rural and urban areas and how they are transformed in the process of urbanization, while also shaping these processes themselves; a periurban conceptual lens allows us to study the changing flows of water between rural and urban areas. These flows can be physical – such as the diversion of water from rural areas through canals or water tankers over long distances to augment urban water supply – or they may represent the local appropriation of rural water by the urban elite using expensive technologies to dig deep into the aquifers.

Also important in understanding these flows and processes are the links between land tenure and water security. Much of urban expansion in the third world takes place by acquiring the land of the peripheral villages. Since access to water is often tied to ownership of land, the acquisition of land also implies the loss of access to water sources located on them. Particularly in the Indian context, groundwater depletion is now considered an important challenge with far-reaching consequences for food security especially in North-West India, raising questions both about equity and sustainability. A common argument in the groundwater management literature in India is the pre-emption of the resource by the rural elite (Shah, 1993; Narain, 1998; Prakash, 2005; Dubaash, 2002). Recent periurban research (for instance, Narain 2014) has show that current processes of urbanization are creating a phenomenon in which rural resources are pre-empted by the urban elite, who acquire the best land and by corollary, also the groundwater of the villages at the periphery of large cities. Their access to capital resources enables them to pre-empt such natural resources as water as well.  Their ability to pre-empt the village’s natural resources in turn, places these resources out of the reach of smaller and marginal farmers. This raises important questions for rights, equity and justice dimensions of the periurban interface.

3. Socio-economic characteristics of the periurban

Socially, the periurban represents a heterogenous mix of population; traders, farmers, middle class, real estate, mining and quarrying are some of the activities seen in periurban areas. Economically, it can be characterised by extreme inequality of income and opportunity. Marginalization and deprivation exist along side affluence of the nouveau riche, caused for instance by the  sale of land, which brings affluence to many (for instance, land-owners) while causing deprivation for others (for instance, landless, tenants and sharecroppers who lose access to sources of livelihood).

Peri-urban areas & processes grow in importance with urbanization and the growth of urban agglomerations, creating new inequalities and conditions of competition, that may escalate into conflicts (Vij 2014). For example, urbanization creates non-farm employment opportunities in the urban areas for landless peri-urban communities (University of Birmingham et al., 1998), while small and marginal farmers in peri-urban villages face water insecurity due to private and grazing land acquisitions (Narain et al., 2013).  Several inhabitants in periurban areas are temporary migrants and settlers; this may affect their incentives for participation in long-term development plans and can be constraints to community mobilization. Maintaining links with home and families through remittances and periodic movements to the home base are important factors shaping the need for transport and connectivity in periurban contexts.

Long-term or daily migration of men to urban centres and cities can create increased tasks for women who stay behind to look after the farms and daily chores at the home.This can increase women’s work loads in the domestic and productive sphere. Coupled with increased stress on natural resources and resource degradation, this could pose additional work burdens for women in terms of collecting natural resources such as fodder, fuelwood and water as well (Ranjan and Narain, 2012; Vij and Narain, 2016).

4. Environmental characteristics of the periurban

Environmentally, the periurban interface is  associated with changing resource use and access and growing degradation of natural resources. Control over natural resources changes hands, for instance, as village CPRs are acquired for urban expansion or auctioned to non-residents (Narain and Nischal 2007). Since controls and regulations can often be lax, it also encourages the contamination and degradation of local natural resources.

A  process of the re-appropriation of land and water from rural to other urban uses may take place as a result of conscious state policy that seeks resources for urban expansion, or on account of the decisions of atomistic individual actors. For instance, the urban elite may move into the peripheral areas to acquire cheap land for farm-houses, also using expensive technologies to dig into the aquifers and extract groundwater placing the resource out of the reach of small and marginal farmers, or the acquisition of village common property resources for urban infrastructure may further weaken the accessibility of poor and landless households to basic means of livelihood, aggravating the impacts of unequal power structures on their access to common property resources (Narain, 2014; Vij, 2014).

5. Institutional characteristics of the periurban

Institutionally, periurban represents several governance challenges. Many subjects may fall under the ambit of neither rural nor urban governments; very often governance mechanisms could be weak or in transition as jurisdiction changes hands from rural to urban. Both statutory and non-statutory forms of natural resource allocation may co-exist, pointing to the existence of legal pluralism.

Since periurban areas are away from the city core, regulatory frameworks tend to be weak or contradictory; very often these spaces lack formal tenurial status, which may result in   poor provisioning of infrastructure and basic services. Urbanization processes reveal a bias in favour of the growth of large cities, to the neglect of the rural areas at the periphery, that provide land and water to support urban expansion (Narain 2009a, b; Vij, 2014). Planning decisions often tend to be flawed or lop-sided (Marshall et al. 2009). The factors and processes described above can create increasing marginalization of the periurban communities; the absence of governance and planning mechanisms to integrate rural development with urban planning and an inability of formal planning mechanisms to take into purview their requirements and priorities can breed grounds for resentment and conflict.

This rural-urban interface also results in socio-cultural transitions such as adoption of urban life styles by rural population, the in-migration of retirees, and competition among rural and urban occupations (Antrop 2004). For instance, agriculture has to compete in the land market with other non-agriculture land uses, such as recreational, utility, and urban housing. Agriculture is also exposed to numerous additional pressures and tensions – such as litter, wrecks, dumping grounds, and household waste – even if refuse is dumped legally (Qvistrom 2008). Shoard (2002) characterized the complexity of idle and marginal open spaces into a chaotic mix of heterogeneous land uses in peri-urban areas, as “edgelands”.

A peri-urban location is therefore understood to be ‘contested space’ (Douglas, 2006, p. 20). This is because of the diversity of economic interests that steadily mushroom in periurban areas, and on account of changing land use, which is both a basic driver and an important feature of peri-urban settings. With changes in land use patterns, water use demands and patterns change as well. Land and water thus both succumb to competing pressures. Water moves out from agriculture and rural domestic water use to urban purposes including residential, industry or recreation.

With the advent of urbanization processes, periurban areas grow in importance as they perform different functions for several people (Douglas, 2006). Land use changes steadily from agriculture to real estate, nature conservation, mining and industry. The presence of multiple competing interests in turn exerts enormous stress on natural resources like water. Water gradually moves out from agriculture and other rural activities to other purposes including urban residential, recreation or industry.

Key Readings

Key Readings

Further Readings and Films

Further Readings and Films

Other related International Waters Lessons and Submodules


Next submodule: Rural-urban water flows: concepts and theoretical frameworks

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