Przegląd Geograficzny (2022) vol. 94, iss. 2

The classification of small towns – a review of research approaches and an attempt at multi-criteria classification

Jerzy Bański

Przegląd Geograficzny (2022) vol. 94, iss. 2, pp. 199-218
doi: https://doi.org/10.7163/PrzG.2022.2.2

Small towns have specific social, economic and cultural features that distinguish them from medium-sized and large urban centres on the one hand, and rural areas on the other. They are a significant component in the settlement structures of regions that determine their polycentricity or monocentricity. At present it is possible to observe a rise in the level of functional diversity characterising small towns i.a. as a result of the ongoing economic diversification of rural areas. In part this also reflects small centres taking on certain urban functions that had previously been the preserve of large cities, or at least urban centres of medium size.

A reconnaissance of the tasks small towns discharge on a local or regional scale typically entails analysis of dominant economic sectors, or – more broadly – the role different socioeconomic spheres play in the given centre and its immediate surroundings. It is to this kind of subject matter that the work described here has been devoted, with the basic aim being to discuss and assess different classifications and research approaches to small towns that take their social and economic functions into account, as well as relations with surrounding areas. However, the very concept of the small town poses certain problems, not least because definitions generally simplify down to the criterion of population size. Depending on the country, the size criterion differs and is generally in the range 5000‑25,000 inhabitants.

The subject literature typically includes three types of approach to the classification of small towns: 1) the structural, 2) the location-related, and 3) the mixed. Each differs from the others in terms of the criteria defined, and the functions served by the minor urban centres taken account of. The structural approach allows for the grouping of towns from the point of view of the social, cultural and economic functions they discharge. Typically, structural classifications tend to single out the leading economic sector represented in the given town, allowing each to be analysed individually. This approach may be either static or dynamic, with the first case entailing reference to a given time at which categories identified offer information on socioeconomic structure. In contrast, a dynamic approach sees the degree of variability of such structures analysed, with this making it possible to indicate categories of town discernible in line with identified directions and rates of development.

The location-related approach draws on the idea of there being a continuum between the centre and the periphery, with significance therefore attached to the location of a given small urban centre vis-à-vis large centres undergoing development to the greatest extent. In very general terms, this approach allows a distinction to be drawn between satellite towns located in the zone of impact of large agglomerations and metropolises, towns that are traditional foci of the settlement network, and centres in isolated locations out on the peripheries. Location is rarely the sole element used to differentiate between small urban centres; and it is present regularly as just one among a number of criteria by which a classification or typology can be arrived at. We are then dealing with a so-called mixed approach. A mixed classification making simultaneous use of the different approaches to research brings the most information to bear in regard to categories of urban locality, but their results may therefore prove hard to interpret, given the more-complex research procedure and number of possible classes, categories or types.

Bearing in mind the approaches to classification, it is possible to propose a synthetic method for classifying small towns that takes account of economic structure, location, and the relationship between the towns and their surroundings. In the case of economic structure, the small centres may be divided into two basic groups – those featuring a multi-branch structure, and those that are specialised economically. A second element to the classification reflects the locations of urban centres. Two basic types can be identified – the small town within the range of impact of a large agglomeration, or else the town outside such areas – which is to say located peripherally. The third component of the classification arises out of small towns’ relations with their surroundings – as 1) local centres or 2) supra-local centres. In consequence, it is possible to indicate 8 types of small town.

Keywords: małe miasto, struktura funkcjonalne, klasyfikacja, typologia, rozwój lokalny

Jerzy Bański [jbanski@twarda.pan.pl], Instytut Geografii i Przestrzennego Zagospodarowania im. S. Leszczyckiego PAN