Types of Human Settlements: Definitions & Comparisons

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  • 0:03 Settlements
  • 0:58 Rural vs. Urban
  • 2:58 Compact vs. Dispersed
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Most people don't live completely alone. They live in cities, towns, and rural areas near others. In this lesson, we'll examine types of human settlements, including common settlement designations and some of the challenges in categorizing settlements.


Joan lives in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else. The town consists of one main street and a few side streets. Everyone in the town lives on one of those streets.

Joan's cousin Nell lives in a big city. There are tons of people; it would be impossible to know all of them! Not only that, but there are many, many streets, some with businesses and some with residences and some with both.

A settlement is organized human habitation. It can be a single home or a bustling metropolis. Take Joan and Nell: they live in two very different places, but they are both living in a settlement. Let's look closer at some of the types of settlements, including rural vs. urban, and compact vs. dispersed.

Rural vs. Urban

Joan and Nell live in very different places. Nell is in a big city with lots of other people, and Joan is in a small town with just a few other people. But they are both in settlements. To distinguish between different types of settlements, people often classify settlements as either urban or rural.

Urban settlements are usually large. That is, they are densely populated with many people. Nell's city is an example of an urban settlement. There are many people in the city!

Rural settlements, on the other hand, are generally small. That is, they are sparsely populated. There's a low density of population, so there are few people in rural settlements. Joan's small town is an example of a rural settlement. There just aren't that many people there.

Often, urban settlements have mostly non-agricultural occupations, while rural settlements have mostly agricultural occupations. For example, many farmers live in a sparsely populated area, and far fewer of them live in a densely populated city.

Defining settlements in terms of urban and rural makes sense. After all, there are many differences between the two. But there is a major problem with defining rural and urban settlements. There's no consensus on what makes a rural settlement and what makes an urban one.

For example, some small villages in India or China are more populated than large towns or small cities in America and Europe. Are those small villages rural or urban, then? It depends on who you ask!

Likewise, in the United States and other countries, several small towns can blend together, which makes it seem like an urban area even though it's not. Each country deals with this differently, by defining urban areas differently. But the problem remains; there's no agreement on what, exactly, makes a place rural or urban.

Compact vs. Dispersed

Another way to classify types of human settlements involves how close together people live. For example, Nell lives in an apartment building with many other people. Her home is separated from others' homes by thin walls.

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