Settlement Characteristics

Settlements come in different sizes, types and locations. You can learn about the history and function of a settlement by studying its shape and size, its placement in the landscape, and its situation in relation to surrounding features.

If you group and classify settlements according to their size and shape, the result is a settlement hierarchy.

What is a settlement?

Sign at Southampton Docks

Sign at Southampton Docks


settlement is a place where people live. A settlement may be as small as a single house in a remote area or as a large as a mega city(a city with over 10 million residents).

A settlement may be permanent ortemporary. An example of a temporary settlement is a refugee camp. However, a temporary settlement may become permanent over time. This has happened to many refugee camps that have been built in conflict zones.

The reason a settlement was developed or built can be thought of as its function. For example, the settlement of Southampton is a port.

Settlement site and situation

The piece of land upon which a settlement is built is the settlement site.

Some common site factors include:

  • Wet point sites – these have a good water supply. Many settlements grew around wet point sites, eg villages in the South Downs.
  • Dry point sites – these are away from the risk of flooding, eg Ely in Cambridgeshire.
  • Defensive sites – often found on higher ground so that in the past enemies could be seen from a distance, eg Corfe Castle, Dorset, or in the loop of a meander, eg Durham.
  • Aspect – settlements are often found on the sunny side of a deep valley. This is common in settlements in the Alps.
  • Shelter – from cold prevailing winds and rain.
  • Gap towns – Lincoln is found in a gap between two areas of higher ground.
  • Resources – important for industry, eg villages such as Aberfan in the Welsh valleys is close to coal reserves.
  • Bridging point – settlements with ‘ford’ in their name often grew around a fording point or bridging point, eg Watford is found on the River Colne.
  • Trading centres – often settlements grow where natural route ways and rivers meet, which helps the development of roads, railways and canals.

The importance of many of these functions diminish as technological advances enable people to overcome difficulties.

The situation of a settlement is its position in relation to the surrounding human and physical features, many of which will have an impact on the settlement’s type, size and function.

With modern settlements, remember that decisions about location and situationhave been made by planners, but that their priorities may differ from those that determined the location of a historical settlement like Southampton. For example, a modern settlement does not need to be close to a river because drinking water is now piped to our homes and waterways are no longer important for transport.

Settlement functions

Most large settlements in MEDCs are multi-functional and perform a range of functions such as retail, education and industry.

When settlements first started to grow, most had only one distinct function, and others developed as the settlement grew.

Examples of functions

  • Port – the original function of cities such as Liverpool and Southampton. Both are still ports, but this function has diminished in importance and they are now multifunctional.
  • Market town – Watford was originally a market town, and although it still holds a regular market, it is now a thriving multifunctional centre.
  • Resort – Southport was a popular Victorian seaside resort, although it now has many functions and is a commuter settlement for Liverpool.
  • Natural resources in the area enabled Sheffield to develop as an important centre in the iron and steel industry. Although steel is still produced, its prominence has declined and Sheffield is a thriving multifunctional city.

Settlement hierarchies

If we group and classify a number of settlements according to their size and shape, the result is settlement hierarchy.

Pyramid showing relationship between population and services

Pyramid showing relationship between population and services


As you move up the hierarchy, the size of the settlement and the distance between similar sized settlements increases. As you can see from the diagram above, there are more cities than conurbations, more towns than cities and more villages than towns.

The number of services that a settlement provides increases with settlement size.

Small settlements will only provide low-order services such as a post offices, doctors and newsagents. Large towns, cities and conurbations will provide low and high-order services such as leisure centres, chain stores and hospitals.

Larger settlements and conurbations have a much larger sphere of influencethan smaller ones. This means they attract people from a wider area because of the facilities they offer. Cities such as London have a global sphere of influence, whereas a small hamlet or village may only have a sphere of influence of a couple of kilometres.

Services such as department stores selling high order goods have a higherthreshold than those selling low order goods such as newsagents. This means they need a higher number of people to support them and make them profitable, therefore they will only be found in larger settlements. It also means that there are fewer big department stores than small newsagents.

The range of a service or product is the maximum distance people are prepared to travel to purchase it. The range of a newspaper is much lower than an item of furniture for example.


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