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Settlement Hierarchy: Definition & Categories

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  • 0:04 Settlement Hierarchy
  • 0:50 Function of a…
  • 2:09 Hierarchy Levels
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

It can be useful to understand the relationship between different places where people live. In this lesson, we're going to explore the concept of a settlement hierarchy and see what it can teach us about human settlements.

Settlement Hierarchy

The ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, and Mayans all developed architectural styles based around pyramids. How did they all learn to do this? Was it aliens? No. A pyramid is simply the easiest way to stack lots of rocks on top of each other without the roof collapsing. You start with a large base and work your way up to a narrow pinnacle. Not only is this structure good for building, but it's also pretty useful for categorizing information.

As you may have noticed, we organize a lot of things into pyramids (the food pyramid, the exercise pyramid, etc). What if we need to organize information about places where people live by size and number of services? There's a pyramid for that too. It's called the settlement hierarchy.

Function of a Settlement Hierarchy

A settlement hierarchy is a chart used to model the relationship between various human population centers based on their size, population, and available services. To really understand this, however, we need to first break down the term 'settlement hierarchy' itself.

A settlement is a place where people live. Throughout human history, there have been permanent settlements and temporary settlements, large ones and small ones. A hierarchy is a ranking of items. So a settlement hierarchy is a ranking of settlements. This term, used primarily in the United Kingdom, is problematic for some people since a hierarchy can sometimes imply that the things on top are better than things on the bottom. Keep in mind that this isn't an actual goal of the settlement hierarchy.

What does a settlement hierarchy look like? On the bottom you have the settlement with the lowest population and therefore the lowest number of expected services. In general, however, we expect these to be the most commonly occurring settlements since they require less effort to sustain. As you move up the chart, the settlements grow in size and services but also become less frequent. So we depict the broad and common settlements as wide bars and the large but uncommon ones as progressively smaller bars, slowly but surely building up a pyramid of settlements.

Hierarchy Levels

Now, let's look at the levels of a settlement hierarchy. The base of this chart is the isolated place, which is a settlement with only a few households. Isolated places require very little in the way of services and may have none at all. Above that is a slightly larger and slightly less common settlement called a hamlet. Hamlets generally have populations of 100 people or less and might have a few very basic services. If we add a few more people and expand the borders a bit, our hamlet becomes a village. Villages have a few hundred people, making them large enough to contain basic services like post offices, gas stations, or churches.

Our next size of settlement is the small town, which has a population of between 1,000 and 20,000 people. Small towns have enough basic services that people don't have to always leave this settlement in order to fulfill their basic needs. This means that basic stores, grocers, and restaurants are available. When a town's population grows to be over 20,000 people, it can become a large town and attract more varieties of these services.

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