Discuss the importance of von Thunen theory in our appreciation of rural geography

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The Von Thunen model of agricultural land use was created by farmer and amateur economist J.H. Von Thunen (1783-1850) in 1826 (but it wasn’t translated into English until 1966). Von Thunen’s model was created before industrialization it mean it was created in a rural environment concept and is based on the following limiting assumptions: The city is located centrally within an “Isolated State” which is self sufficient and has no external influences. The Isolated State is surrounded by an unoccupied wilderness. The land of the State is completely flat and has no rivers or mountains to interrupt the terrain. The soil quality and climate are consistent throughout the State. Farmers in the Isolated State transport their own goods to market via oxcart, across land, directly to the central city. Therefore, there are no roads. Farmers act to maximize profits.

In an Isolated State with the foregoing statements being true, Von Thunen hypothesized that a pattern of rings around the city would develop. There are four rings of agricultural activity surrounding the city. Dairying and intensive farming occur in the ring closest to the city. Since vegetables, fruit, milk and other dairy products must get to market quickly, they would be produced close to the city (remember, we didn’t have refrigerated oxcarts!) Timber and firewood would be produced for fuel and building materials in the second zone. Before industrialization (and coal power), wood was a very important fuel for heating and cooking.

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Wood is very heavy and difficult to transport so it is located as close to the city as possible. The third zone consists of extensive fields crops such as grains for bread. Since grains last longer than dairy products and are much lighter than fuel, reducing transport costs, they can be located further from the city. Ranching is located in the final ring surrounding the central city. Animals can be raised far from the city because they are self-transporting. Animals can walk to the central city for sale or for butchering. Beyond the fourth ring lies the unoccupied wilderness, which is too great a distance from the central city for any type of agricultural product. Given the assumptions adopted by Thunen, his locational theory serves as the primary basis for explaining the principle of declining intensity with distance from the city. To a certain extent, the assumptions used by von Thunen are considered to be too ideal to reflect the reality of the modern world (Jackson 1972; Barnbrock 1974).

Von Thünen’s classic model of rural land use does not deal with determinants of settlement pattern; in fact, it establishes an artificially simple pattern of settlement as one of its assumptions. But it is fundamental to this discussion because in modeling how land-use patterns are determined by spatial relationships to settlements, it builds a theory important to the determination of settlement location. The extension of this body of theory to settlement location is one of the major thrusts of Chisholm’s Rural Settlement and Land Use (1979). The von Thünen model is important because it was the original attempt to isolate the effects of one variable on the spatial economy. His main contribution was not the relationship between proximity to town and land use; that notion went back at least as far as Adam Smith’s (1776) Wealth of Nations. Rather, his originality lay “in his method of partial equilibrium analysis, or putting most factors at rest” (W. B. Morgan 1973:301). As Chisholm put it, “von Thünen himself was at pains to point out his particular findings had no claim to universality. But, as he rightly noted, the analytical method he employed could be applied generally, it is the method and not the particular finding that counts. The model establishes the land-use pattern that should result from a few fundamental and ubiquitous factors, and then considers how variability in other factors should affect the baseline pattern. The heart of the model is that maximization of economic rent in a theoretical “isolated state” a homogeneous agricultural region with one market town, produces a land-use pattern of concentric rings, because transport costs increase and profit margins decrease with distance from the town. This is an expression of a simple principle of unparalleled importance in settlement theory, which I will call the proximity-access principle. It simply states that the greater one’s need to access any landscape feature, the greater the premium on residing near that feature.

However, models of farmers producing little or nothing for the market must not only abandon monetary profit as a variable to be maximized but must also rethink the role of the maximization concept in general. In translating the von Thünen model into terms relevant to subsistence economies, Chisholm sought cross-cultural comparability by turning to the common currency of time; considerations of maximum cash return were translated into principles of minimizing traveling distances and labor inputs. The application of the concentric zone model to individual farms had originated with von Thünen, who had pointed out that time management on individual farms should replicate patterns produced by profit management in the region, leading to decreasing expenditure of labor as distance from the residence increases. At some point cultivation ceases to be profitable; therefore there is an optimum size of farm for any system of production and a limiting distance beyond which cultivation is disadvantageous. The von Thünen model has had an important if indirect impact on archaeological studies of settlement. The principle that he stated and Chisholm elaborated led to a set of expectations concerning villages and their agricultural radii. This was the inspiration for site catchment analysis in archaeology—the interpretation of site locations by analysis of resources available within given distances. Through catchment analysis (or more properly, territorial analysis), the von Thünen/Chisholm model has influenced the investigation of hunting-and-gathering settlement (Vita-Finzi and Higgs 1970) as well as agrarian settlement (Ellison and Harriss 1972; Flannery 1976a, 1976b; Zarky 1976; Rossman 1976). Although the method was developed for analysis of hunter-gatherer settlement, it is applicable to agricultural systems. Roper’s statement of the underlying theory underscores its close relation to the von Thünen and Chisholm models: “It is assumed that, in general, the farther one moves from an inhabited locus, the greater the amount of energy that must be expended for procurement of resources. Therefore, as one moves from that locus, it is assumed that the intensity of exploitation of the surrounding territory decreases, eventually reaching a point beyond which exploitation is unprofitable” (1979:120). Conclusion

Von Thünen’s argument was based around the concept of pure “economic rent” or surplus, which is the return on a factor of production that is inelastic in supply. In reality, soil quality varies, agricultural wages differ and the costs of inputs and marketing change with transport costs and with the bulk and perishability of produce. Thus, the real world is somewhat different than the isolated state that von Thünen used to develop his theory and there are many distortions from the perfect competition envisaged. however, the basic principles he expounded are a very useful tool for looking at agricultural land use. Thus, with urban expansion peri-urban areas will be under the greatest pressure. The effective impact of this is that producers will adopt intensive production methods i.e. horticultural crops giving higher returns. As distance from the centre increases, cropping intensity is lower and arable crops prevail. Another important concept considered by von Thünen was the issue of transport costs related to marketing costs and margins. for example, a horticultural farmer may need to shift his or her production area; thus, the impact of urban expansion on agriculture may be an increase in overall costs. The farmgate gate price may increase as the costs of inputs are higher and transport costs from farmgate to market will also increase because of an increased distance to the urban area.


Atkins, PJ. 1987. The Charmed Circle: von Thunen and Agricultural Around Nineteenth Century London. Geography, Journal of rhe Geographical Association 72:313 Part 2 (April) 129-139

. Barlowe, R. C. 1958; 1986. Land Resource Economics: The Economics oj Real £sfCIte. 4th. ed. Englewood Cliffs , New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Chi sholm. 1962. Rural Settlement alld Land Use: All Essay ill Loea/ion.London: Hutchinson.

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