Global mapping of urban-rural catchment areas reveals unequal access to services

Andrea Cattaneo*, A.D. Nelson, Theresa McMenomy

*Corresponding author for this work

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Physical access to services and employment opportunities shapes the lives of people everywhere. For 3.4 billion people living in rural locations, the size of nearby urban centers and the associated travel time affect the breadth of services and opportunities available and their accessibility. We identify catchment areas of urban centers of different sizes and how many people gravitate toward each city or town, providing a full spatial representation of the connection between rural areas and urban centers and fresh insights on the diversity of urbantextendashrural systems. The global dataset opens the door to applied research in various disciplinestextemdashsuch as poverty reduction, food systems, health, and educationtextemdashwhere a person’s place of residence is an important factor.Using travel time to cities of different sizes, we map populations across an urbantextendashrural continuum to improve on the standard dichotomous representations of urbantextendashrural interactions. We extend existing approaches by 1) building on central place theory to capture the urban hierarchy in access to services and employment opportunities provided by urban centers of different sizes, 2) defining urbantextendashrural catchment areas (URCAs) expressing the interconnection between urban centers and their surrounding rural areas, and 3) adopting a global gridded approach comparable across countries. We find that one-fourth of the global population lives in periurban areas of intermediate and smaller cities and towns, which challenges the centrality of large cities in development. In low-income countries, 64 which has major implications for access to services and employment opportunities. Intermediate and small cities appear to provide catchment areas for proportionately more people gravitating around them than larger cities. This could indicate that, for countries transitioning to middle income, policies and investments strengthening economic linkages between urban centers and their surrounding rural areas may be as important as investing in urbanization or the rural hinterlands. The dataset provided can support national economic planning and territorial development strategies by enabling policy makers to focus more in depth on urbantextendashrural interactions.Raster file (TIFF) data have been deposited in Figshare (DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.12579572). Map boundaries are based on the Global Administrative Unit Layers (GAUL) (58). Countries are grouped by income according to the World Bank classification for 2015 (59) and by the UN geographic region (60).
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2011990118
Pages (from-to)1-8
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jan 2021




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