Central Place Theory
Settlement as a Central Place. According to central place theory, a central place provides services for its own population and the population around it. The services of the central place are the shops, markets, administrative units and recreation centres. Even though there is a difference in the services being offered by the towns, all big settlements are central places. For example, despite being cities of almost same size, Coimbatore and Bangalore are far different from each other. Bangalore is, by its services, far bigger a market centre than that of Coimbatore.
It is difficult to say that every settlement is a central place. Farmsteads, hamlets and villages do not offer any services to other places. Rather, they depend on the other central places for the services they need.
Settlements differ in their shapes and their importance. It is difficult to determine the differences among them. Population of a settlement may be used as a measure. Similarly, the types of services, their numbers, the employment opportunities and so on could be used as measures, too. These are very closely related to each other. In the settlements with a large population, there will be innumerable types of shops, amenities and job opportunities.
Using the size and significance of the settlements, they may be defined as a four-tier. At the top are the large towns and cities and at the bottom are the small settlements. This is known as the 'hierarchy of settlements'. In the hierarchy, there is a large number of hamlets and villages at the lower (fourth) rung. There is a small number of towns and cities in the next higher level (third) of the hierarchy. A still smaller number of intermediate cities are found at the second level. At the top are the very big cities and metropolises. Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata are of the top level of the hierarchy.
It was Walter Christaller who had developed the central place theory. This theory explains the size and the interval between the settlements. It makes clear how the settlements that offer quality products are distributed. It is possible to make the distribution of settlements quality orientated by making available the commodities needed by the people. Some simple principles that show the
significance of distance and its influence on the morphology of the central places are described in the theory.
1. In a sense, all settlements may be treated as central places. Provision of commodities and services are their important functions.
2. People obtain almost all their requirements of commodities and services from the neighbouring settlements.
3. Market areas of the central places are hexagonal. The central places developed in flat plains. In this area, the soils, climate and topography are in equilibrium. Transport costs are equal on all directions from the central place. Population distribution is equally randomly spread. All central places are easily accessible.
Central place theory explains how the pattern of settlements is organised if we follow the assumptions and principles of central places above. Number and types of services are influenced by the power to attract the customers. Each of the central places requires a certain level of threshold population. The minimum population required for supporting the services offered by a central place is known as its 'threshold' . In larger hamlets and villages, we find services such as the post office, petty shops, provisional stores and the like. Only 'essential commodities' are sold through these outlets. Hence, there is only a small threshold. The least they may have is between 200 and 300 people. In the same logic, a settlement with a larger threshold will have a bigger market area. The commodities sold here will be both essential and luxurious, which are however expensive. Clothing, footwear, electrical appliances, automobiles are some of the things sold in such markets. In comparison with essential items, the luxurious commodities are bought only at times. Therefore, in comparison with lower level central places, higher level central places offer luxurious items and attractive services besides a large market.
As there is a threshold for every service offered at a central place, there is also a minimum distance for every such service. This is known as the 'range of a good' . This means that every product, depending upon its characteristics, can only be sold within a specific radius. For example, a petty shop distributes a certain set of items within a certain distance. This distance may be called as the ' inner range of a good'. Let us assume that a customer of the petty shop asks for a commodity from the shop keeper. But he says that it is out of stock. If the item is very essential, the customer would walk over to another shop, further from the earlier one, and get it. We may therefore conclude that the item in demand has an 'outer range of good'. This forms an important idea of the central theory.
Further, Christaller's central place classifies the settlements using the size of the 'market area'. This theory cannot be entirely used to compare the state of the urban places, because there is no urban market with a hexagonal shape in reality. For instance, in river tracts and hill regions, the population is not evenly distributed. As such, the central place theory when tested against reality is at variance in natural regions. Even then, Christaller's theory has been used in classifying settlements. For example, in Tamil Nadu, all district headquarters are the first level central places (Madurai, Tiruchy, Coimbatore, Salem and the like) whereas the centres around them may be considered as the second level central places. It is at the bottom of this hierarchy, the villages are found.