Changes in the distribution of population constitute a primary focus for geographical investigation, both theoretical and applied. The single most important dimension at global level continues to be the process of urbanisation, with the proportion of the world’s population living in urban places rapidly approaching the 50 per cent mark (UNCHR 1996). At the same time, particularly in more urbanised countries but also in some parts of the developing world, there is clear evidence of the largest cities losing population to smaller urban centres, as well as of a wider dispersal process that has produced a rural population turnaround, sometimes referred to as counterurbanisation (Champion 1989). While academics are still locked in argument about the significance of the latter for the future evolution of settlement patterns, there is no doubt that these centrifugal population shifts can have just as impressive an impact on people and places as is already well documented for the urbanisation process, nor any doubt that, while these impacts are generally positive in their effects on human welfare, they may also generate problems, which policy makers attempt to tackle. This chapter examines the main problems caused by both urbanisation and counterurbanisation and gives examples of ways in which research on the nature and causes of these processes can help towards curbing their less desirable consequences.
Before going into detail about the problems caused by these two types of population shift, it is essential to provide some background to what they involve on the ground, for as with many words ending in ‘-isation’, things are usually more complex than they seem at first glance. At its most basic, urbanisation can be defined as a process of population concentration, the main result of which is an increase in the proportion of the population living in urban places. Additionally, however, it is associated with the faster growth of the larger urban places or, in more technical terms, a positive correlation between growth rate and settlement size. Meanwhile, counterurbanisation represents—for most people, including the originator of the term (Berry 1976) —the direct antithesis of urbanisation and thus a process of population deconcentration, yet it is rarely associated with a diminution in the proportion of people considered urban and is instead more commonly seen in terms of a redistribution from larger urban places to smaller ones, together with the outward expansion of individual urban centres into the surrounding countryside (for a review of the problems of studying counterurbanisation, see Champion 1998a).
Leading on from this, a second aspect needing clarification concerns the direct causes of these population shifts. If asked about this, most people would point to migration as being the key element in raising the level of urbanisation, and indeed this was undoubtedly true in the nineteenth century, when death rates in the industrial cities were very high and urban growth was possible only because of strong inward migration from rural areas or overseas. In theory, however,