Urban Functions

A function of a place develops over time depending on the people who choose to live there. The social, economic and natural environments determine the types of people that it attracts. From the mid - 1800s when mechanisation reduced the need for manual labour in fields, workers moved to industrial towns, cities and other urban areas. Industry developed according to their locations, whether it be near to a river or the coast, near to natural resources or situated in convenient nodal points and commercial centres expanded around them. From these hubs, the emerging middle class grew to host key administrative functions, such as banks, county courts and commercial enterprises. But what exactly does the term urban functions mean? Let's find out.

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Table of contents

    Urban settlement definition

    Before we go ahead and dive into the functions of urban areas, we first need to understand what the urban actually is. What exactly is the definition of an urban settlement?

    An urban settlement is a highly built-up area with a dense population. Greater London is an example of an urban settlement

    Functions of rural and urban settlement

    Urban and rural areas differ, so let's take a look at the different functions of these rural and urban settlements.


    Rural functions refer to the uses of rural spaces. These are mostly residential and primary activities such as farming.

    • Agriculture: e.g. farming or forestry
    • Residential
    • Environmental and ecological benefits
    • Leisurely activities: e.g. camping, hiking, festivals


    Urban functions refer to the use and functions of various urban spaces which include social, residential, commuting, administrational, and productive activities. Urban functions can include:

    • Selling expensive or rare goods and services
    • Provide jobs in industry or services
    • Act as an administration centre for the areas around it
    • An entertainment centre ranging from sporting facilities, shopping areas and restaurants
    • A cultural and religious centre
    • A transport hub
    • A residential area.

    Three Functions of Urban Settlement

    Let's explore some of these urban functions further. Here we can example three different functions of urban settlement; functions of industry, functions of places of worship, and functions of residential areas.

    Functions of industry

    In urban settlements, tertiary and quaternary economic activities are most common. These include trade, commerce, and service industries such as tourism and education.

    Functions of places of worship

    Places of worship often serve a very special function for people. They allow people to gather and share their faith whilst also creating a sense of community in an area.

    Functions of residential areas

    Over half of the global population now lives in urban areas. This means that urban settlements provide an essential function for many people; their homes. The increase in services provided by urban settlements has resulted in many more people moving to cities. This creates a demand for housing.

    Changing urban function

    Functions can change over time. For example, Newcastle was originally a coal-mining region with heavy industry and manufacturing but now is accommodating high-tech companies and focusing on education. There are a number of reasons for changes in urban functions.

    Urban Functions: Physical Factors

    Landscape changes can challenge the management of the land such as sea-level change and climate change causing rapid coastal erosion despite coastal defences. These challenges with climate change are shaping policy, architecture and land-use decisions. In south-east London, Greenwich Millennium Village was designed to cut primary energy use by 80% by using low energy building techniques and renewable energy technologies.¹

    Urban Functions Greenwich Millennium Village StudySmarterFig. 1 - Greenwich Millennium Village

    Urban Functions: Accessibility and Transportation

    The development of transport has changed the importance of different towns and cities around the UK. For example, railway towns such as Crewe and Nuneaton have seen a relative decline from the development of the motorways after the 1960s. With the development of the High-Speed railway line between London and the Channel coast, Essex and Kent became popular rural alternatives for people who could not afford London property prices or preferred quieter locations.

    As transport infrastructure improved, it influenced the flow of migration both within the UK and into the UK. Regional airports in Newcastle and East Midlands have facilitated immigration from Eastern Europe.

    Urban Functions: Historical Development

    The history of a place can be reflected in the current characteristics and layout of a place. For example, there were transition town projects in Totnes to protect their local culture and history. There was an establishment of the Totnes Pound, the local currency that helped local businesses by keeping the spending within the town. Cultural attractions such as St Mary's Church and Totnes Castle bring visitors from outside of town.

    Urban Functions Totnes Castle  StudySmarter Fig. 2 - Totnes Castle

    Urban Functions: Local and National Planning

    In the UK, there is a struggle to tackle the chronic shortage of housing stock. This led to projects by the UK government such as the National Infrastructure Plan which designated towns to be new garden cities. An example is Bicester, which had up to 13,000 new homes, a new railway station² and an expansion of the retail outlet Bicester Village. As the urban areas expanded, there were risks of surrounding rural villages being overrun. There have been cases such as Milton Keynes' growth incorporating the villages, Middleton, Great Linford and also towns Bletchley and Stony Stratford. The government plan an east-west rail link between Oxford and Cambridge which can affect the house prices and congestion for surrounding areas such as North Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, making it a more attractive place to live.

    Garden city - Self-contained community surrounded by a greenbelt.

    How have Urban Functions changed?

    The economic and social characteristics of a place are influenced by the past and present connections to other places.

    Urban Functions: Regional and National Influences

    There is a north-south divide between UK cities, where there was a focus on new growth in towns and cities in the south, while cities have shrunk in the north. Once famous for heavy industry, those cities have been affected by globalisation and technology leading to fewer workers.

    In 2015 there was a government plan to develop a northern powerhouse that would enable good trade and industry connections to be made across the country. In the 1980s, there was a similar focus on enterprise by the Conservative government which led to free-market privatisation and growth financially.

    Urban Functions: International and Global Influences

    Due to colonisation and global connections, the UK is racially diverse. Especially in London, many would describe themselves with many different ethnic backgrounds. Ethnic groups suffer from prejudice, although many towns have benefitted from immigration. With an ageing population and declining skills, migrants are relied upon as a younger population with greater aspirations.

    The Windrush Generation- many people from African-Caribbean backgrounds were encouraged by the British Government to migrate to the UK to work. As British subjects, they had the right to work in the UK without documentation. Though part of the Commonwealth3, many migrants faced prejudice, racism and wrongful deportation 4

    Demographic changes

    As a country experiences rapid change, identity becomes increasingly important. Cities such as London bring together identity politics and minority influences. Southall in west London is known for a large Indian and Somali community. Many of the Somali diaspora work to provide financial support for families and communities back home. Identity politics is not limited to racial tensions but also civil rights issues and LGBTQ+ social movements. Canal Street in Manchester became the centre of the "gay village" when laws attacking civil liberties made the gay community cluster together for support. This area still caters to and supports this community. These interactions with the place itself is creating a lived experience that can influence the attachment and engagement of a place.

    Urban functions examples

    As an example of urban functions, let's take a look at Berbera. In north-western Somaliland, the self-declared autonomous region of Somalia is the city of Berbera. It has a seaport located along an oil route and closes to Aden which made the city an administrative and commercial hub. The exports from this port are goats and cattle to Yemen and Ethiopia. The infrastructure around this area is in need of maintenance, for example, the road linking Berbera with the capital Hargeisa is in a state of disrepair. Despite crowdsourcing attempts to raise money only a fraction of the funds were raised. There are many abandoned older Ottoman and merchant buildings, with squatters taking what remains.

    Currently, there are about 545,000 people living in the metro area of Berbera5. There are small-scale economic activities such as frying fish and selling ghat6. Many rely on diaspora living overseas to send money home. However, the beautiful beaches have become an attraction for water sports activities. The Sea of Aden is warm all year round with plenty of fish which would allow shore diving and reliable income for fishermen. The government is investing in Berbera's port to make it safe and attractive as it generates 50 per cent of Somaliland's GDP5.

    Urban Functions Berbera port StudySmarter

    Fig. 3 - Berbera ports

    Urban Functions - Key takeaways

    • Urban functions refer to the use and functions of various urban spaces which include social, residential, commuting, administrational, and productive activities.
    • Urban functions can change over time, changes can depend on physical landscape changes, accessibility and transport infrastructure, historical development and agendas of local and national planning.
    • There are influences changing urban functions on many scales such as regional, national, international and global.
    • As these changes happen, identity is part of an important urban function.


    1. Greenich Millenium Village Ltd. (2022). https://www.greenwichmillenniumvillage.co.uk/masterplan/history#:~:text=Greenwich%20Millennium%20Village%20Ltd%20was,facilitate%20a%20more%20sustainable%20lifestyle.
    2. GOV.UK (2014) https://www.gov.uk/government/news/ambitious-plans-for-housing-flood-defence-and-roads-set-out-in-national-infrastructure-plan-2014 3. https://www.gov.uk/windrush-prove-your-right-to-be-in-the-uk
    3. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (2022) https://www.jcwi.org.uk/windrush-scandal-explained
    4. MacroTrends (2022) https://www.macrotrends.net/cities/204111/berbera/population#:~:text=The%20current%20metro%20area%20population,a%204.39%25%20increase%20from%202019.
    5. Somtribune Staff writer. BERBERA: An Ottoman city in Somaliland. Somtribune, (2015). https://www.somtribune.com/2015/10/03/berbera-an-ottoman-city-in-somaliland/
    6. Loza Seleshie, Will Somaliland’s Berbera port be a threat to Djibouti’s?
    7. The Africa Report (2020). https://www.theafricareport.com/54136/will-somalilands-berbera-port-be-a-threat-to-djiboutis/
    8. Fig. 1: Greenwich Millenium Village (https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Millennium_Village,_Greenwich_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1472609.jpg) by Peter Trimming (https://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/34298) licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.it)
    9. Fig. 2: Totnes castle (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Totnes_Castle_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1972030.jpg) by Derek Harper (https://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/5089) licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Urban Functions

    What is a function of a place?

    The function of a place are defined by the activities that can be provided to satisfy particular needs of a society. 

    What is the main functions of urban areas?

    The main functions of urban areas are commerce, cultural and recreational activities, transport and communication, manufacturing and administration.

    What are the functions of towns and cities?

    There are many functions of towns and cities, such as trade centers, government administration, manufacturing centers and service centers.

    What are the functions of urban settlement?

    The functions of an urban area are commerce, cultural and recreational activities, transport and communication, manufacturing and administration.

    What are some urban problems?

    Urban problems include fiscal difficulties, crowding, housing, traffic, pollution and crime.

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