What and where is the urban fringe? A precise definition and map are not possible, but generally the urban fringe means those areas just beyond the built-up part of a city, although still close enough to the city to be subject to intense development pressures (for a discussion of definitions, see Bourne and Simmons 1978: pp. 18-41). The fringe is not a line on a map; it is a zone of radially diminishing urban-style activities. It is the existence of a fringe that prevents one being able to distinguish the urban from the rural, since the fringe has features of both. Yet it is more than an amalgam of the two; the fringe is a distinctive place with features of its own. It is, above all, a place of heightened land-use conflict, uncertainty and profit potential, hence its interest to geographers.
Arguably every section of every city was once on the fringe of the built-up area at some point in the city’s history—St Martin-in-the-Fields, now in central London, was once precisely that. How land evolved when on the fringe will have left a stamp on the built form of the area that will have endured long after the fringe has been swallowed up by the expanding city. Equally, how a society has dealt with its urban fringes tells us a great deal about how that society works, the values it holds to be important and how these have evolved.
The earliest geographical models of cities did not recognise the concept of an urban fringe. The city met the countryside and there was no transition between them, each being distinctive in terms of economic and social structures and culture. This approach was replaced by what might be called ‘stage’ or ‘gradient’ models. Some of these identified broad categories of area from the urban and peri-urban out to the rural and very rural. Others built on the work of von Thünen and the classic models of urban structure by Burgess and Hoyt (for a review of these models see Johnson 1972; Northam 1975). In these models, a continuous gradient runs from the city centre to the deepest countryside, with an inexorable decline from the former to the latter in land values, profits per unit area, and the density of building and population (Figure 21.1). In these models, the urban fringe is an area where land values rise over time as more productive and intensive land uses replace, for example, agriculture. This is shown in Figure 21.1 by the rise in land values at point UF. A revision of the model by Sinclair (1967) suggested that, although development value rose as one approached the city centre, agricultural value fell because vandalism and the high probability of urban building increasingly reduced farming’s profitabilities towards the city’s edge.
The twin themes of ‘urban influence on the countryside’ and ‘the transition from rural to urban’ have inspired much research at the urban fringe by geographers. This has sought to examine urban influence and urban transition as processes. What happened and how did it occur? There were studies at the urban fringe focusing on the intensification of farming, the increase in building, recreational development, and how the land market operates (for reviews see Pacione 1984; Gilg 1985; Mather 1986; Robinson 1990).
Another strand of research has been concerned