Should urban growth in MEDCs be allowed to encroach on the surrounding countryside?

Large urban areas in More Economically Developed Countries (MEDCs) generate political, social, economic and environmental problems. The purely physical growth of cities both upwards and outwards destroys valuable agricultural land and ultimately may become detrimental to the urban way of life. It may be difficult in particular to make provision for adequate food and water supplies, sewage and rubbish disposal. Urban decay and problems in the inner cities and shantytowns become difficult to overcome along with severe traffic congestion, air, water and land pollution. There is a need to control urban growth. To do this, sections of Green Land especially in the More Economically Developed World (MEDW), have been designated Green Belts, wedges, buffers or hearts.

Green Belts encircle towns. They are broad rings of countryside often up to ten kilometres wide in which urban development is restricted. The aims of Green Belts were to stop urban sprawl, prevent neighbouring towns from merging and to preserve special character of towns. Since then other functions have been added including provision for recreation, safeguarding agricultural land and assisting in urban regeneration. In the UK there are twenty-one Green Belts covering nearly two and a half million hectares of land (about fifteen percent of the land area).

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Closely associated with the implementation of Green Belts was the development of new and expanded towns in order to house the overspill population from the cities. In some locations a complete ring or belt of preserved land was not possible or desirable. In these areas wedges or buffers have been used; these are small zones of ‘green’ land protected from development. This was typical of areas beyond London’s Green Belt. However, the pressures for development have continued for new housing, industry, retailing developments and recreational facilities. As a result there have been calls for Green Belt land to be released for development. This has led to considerable opposition from interested pressure groups.

The causes of accelerated decline of business in city centres include the redistribution of the population through the process of suburbanisation and counterurbanisation. The decline was also encouraged by a combination of both push and pull factors. The push factors are the relative disadvantages of the city centre locations while the pull factors represent the relative advantages afforded by alternative locations most often in the periphery of the urban area. The typical features of the Central Business District (CBD) that once provided advantages for commercial and business enterprises now present some disadvantages and disincentives for those same functions.

The push factors are the disadvantages of the CBD forcing businesses and urban growth out of city centre locations. Traditionally the CBD has high land values. These resulted from the competition between businesses to locate in the CBD. The lack of space led to high-density construction and the need to build upwards creating a skyline of multipurpose skyscrapers in many CBDs. The modern trend towards shopping under one roof and the modern one storey factory and business units with landscaped grounds and large car parks require vast areas of land. The CBD location is prohibitive due to lack space and the high cost of land.

The residential population is small in the traditional CBD, which means that most people live further away. This leads to commuting on a massive scale by local populations in order to access work, shopping, entertainment and other services. In London over one million people commute in and out of the city each day presenting huge problems especially during the rush hours. In many cities there are severe problems of traffic congestion, environmental pollution, and car parking problems. There are also the increased costs of petrol, the travelling times and the consequent stresses and strains for commuters that all combine to make city centre locations less attractive for businesses.

In some city centres redevelopment schemes to create new facilities such as shopping arcades have seen the loss of smaller, often independent retailers who are unable to compete or pay the increased business rents and rates being charged by local authorities. The traditional CBD once had the advantage of being the focus of communications. CBDs have a high concentration of buses and taxis, the bus and rail stations are nearby and many A-class roads focus on the city centre with traffic movements assisted by inner and outer ring roads and urban motorways and flyovers. However, the massive increase in car use especially since the 1980s has meant that most town centres cannot cope with the volume of traffic; car park provision is inadequate and levels of pollution reach danger levels.

In many city centres certain types of business clustered together, such as in London, for example the financial institutions in the City, jewellers in Hatton Gardens in London aswell as the newspapers in Fleet Street in London also. This clustering of similar business benefited the consumer in terms of choice and competition but also benefited the businesses by allowing close communication. The need for communication is largely redundant toady with the advent of modern telecommunications including fax, modem, video conferencing and the Internet. Most businesses today are footloose and are not tied to specific locations.

The pull factors are the advantages of out of centre locations that attracted businesses to the outskirts of cities. Greenfield sites are areas of land that are usually located in the rural-urban fringe that has never previously been built upon. Before development they are occupied by rural land us such as fields, woodlands or heath. Such greenfields sites offer good accessibility to motorways and A-roads in the rural areas and plenty of space for car parking and later expansion. The Greenfield sites offer the developer, land at much cheaper costs than in the traditional CBD. This has been helped by the demise of the farming industry where crises caused by animal diseases such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and Foot and Mouth and collapses in the market price for sheep encouraged farmers to sell up. Greenfield sites also offer a more pleasant working environment with less pollution. These factors have been crucial in some areas in attracting high quality employees and a large customer base.

Planning policies encourage the movement of people and businesses to the suburbs and beyond, especially with the establishment of New Towns and the redevelopment of inner city areas, which forced many businesses to relocate. Initially there were few planning restrictions for out of town shopping areas and business parks. However, today local authorities and national government control planning applications for out of town shopping areas.

As wealth and mobility have increased urban populations have had a desire to improve their quality of life. The suburbs and rural-urban fringe offer larger, more modern homes with gardens; a more rural location with reduced pollution levels and lower density housing. Suburban dwellers also demand easy access to modern conveniences and services located at the edges of the built up area which has led to new developments in retailing such as shopping under one roof that require large single storey buildings with huge car parks. Location within a CBD would be impossible due to lack of space and the high cost of land. Examples of these vast, modern superstores and retail warehouses include Sainsbury’s, Homebase and Tesco. They provide self-service shopping and a large range and volume of stock, which is often at reduced prices due to the retailer’s ability to purchase in bulk and the high volume of trade. Customers can save time and money through shopping under one roof with free parking in these out of town locations rather than travelling into city centres.

The greater mobility and the increased use of the private car have further emphasized the advantages of the out of town location for businesses along with the building of motorways and intersections. These major lines of communication have improved the accessibility of the suburbs and rural-urban fringe for deliveries and customers. A survey at the Metro centre in Gateshead located on the A1 (M) Western Bypass showed that 41 percent of those visiting travelled from over 15 kilometres away.

In recent years there have been changes in people’s shopping habits. Due to increased mobility people travel further to shop. In response to demand the shops offer a much wider range of goods. Monthly pay packets and the use of deep freezers mean more people can buy in bulk and go shopping less frequently making the weekly or monthly visit to the out of town superstore more attractive. More women work full time, moving them away from the stereotypical image of ‘women do the shopping’ and thus have less time to shop. Access to airports, which are mostly located on the fringes of cities, is important for some industries and businesses. Many business parks prefer locations close to airports for the convenience of travel by their own and visiting executives.

The process of decentralisation brings both advantages and disadvantages. In general the advantages are mostly to be found in the out of town locations where the retail parks have been established. The disadvantages are concentrated in the city centre locations. Traditional CBDs have always exhibited constant change. Different areas experience growth (zones of assimilation) and decline (zone of discard) at different times. For example, in London, Fleet Street is barely recognisable today, as most of the newspaper companies have moved to Kensington, the Isle of Dogs or Battersea. Fleet Street became a zone of discard while areas in the Isle of Dogs became zones of assimilation. However, in some CBDs the trickle of movement of businesses developed into a ‘flight to the fringe’. This accelerated movement of population and businesses from the CBD was in danger of creating many dead hearts in city centres.

The consequences of the decline of city centres are that a downward spiral of decline occurs in city centres and the inner city increasing areas of discard. Environmental decay and degradation leads to vacant buildings; crime and vandalism increases in unoccupied properties. A dead heart is created in city centres and intensity of land use decreases. The trickle of people and businesses becomes a ‘flight’. Commuting and traffic congestion increases in out of town locations. Ghettos and slums from in the inner city where the disadvantaged sectors of society become concentrated – the wealthy and more mobile sectors of the population having moved out to the suburbs or rural-urban fringe. Local authorities raise less money in taxation and rates leading to less investment. There is high unemployment in the inner city as the poorer members of society are unable to afford the increased travel costs to find work in the suburbs and beyond.

Green belts have many positive aspects and have played a major role in controlling the growth of many urban areas and in recent years have encouraged the redevelopment of brownfield sites within urban areas. However, there have been some negative effects. The pressure of a Green Belt forced urban developments further out into the countryside and often led to increased road building and commuting. In some cases the density of development within the urban areas increased along with land prices close to the Green Belt.

Since the 1960s some Green Belt areas have come under considerable pressure from planned development s due to continued population growth, a shortage of housing and high development costs within cities. Between 1960 and 1980 over 800 hectares a year were lost from London’s Green Belt including land for the M25 orbital motorway. Opponents of Green Belts claim that they ‘strangle’ developments in the cities and they instead advocate a policy of green wedges, which would allow development along certain corridors. The latest plans to control the growth of London is to allow housing to expand along some route-ways leading out of the urban area leaving green wedges in between each corridor.

In the UK controls on Green Belt land have relaxed and strengthened over time but the policy has remained intact and since the 1990s the policy has gained further support in order to preserve the countryside from out of town commercial developments including housing, shopping, industry and offices. However, despite public support for Green Belts most demands for new housing and commercial developments have been on Green Belt land for example, Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre (NEC), the Nissan car plant at Washington and the Blackbird Leys housing estate in Oxford. Parts of the Green Belt have been lost to new developments while others are already rundown as a result of mining and quarrying, landfill sites and derelict buildings. Farms in the rural-urban fringe also often suffer high rates of vandalism and feel hindered by the additional pollution and planning controls. The land may become underused and eventually derelict.

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