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Urban functionsFunctional zonesUrban problems in First World | Urban problems in Third World

Urban Studies

Questions on towns and cities can occur in any part of the Geography exam. There will often be questions asked on the location or functions of a town in the Ordnance Survey and Aerial Photograph sections.

However, partial or complete questions will also be asked in the rest of the paper. These questions will usually concentrate on urban functions, urban problems (in both the First World and Third World) and many ask for brief case studies on the development of particular cities.

Urban functions

This term refers to the services provided by a particular town for its inhabitants and for those in its hinterland i.e. the land surrounding the town or city.

All towns provide certain basic functions such as living space for the inhabitants but the importance of functions will vary from town to town. Today all towns are multi-functional although one particular function may stand out more than others. Functions may change over time and the function that was originally very important with regard to a particular town may no longer be of major significance e.g. Trim Castle was very important in the defence of that town in the past. Trim no longer needs to be defended in the same way.

Major functions of towns (now or in the past) include the following:

  1. Trade: many towns are important marketing centres for their hinterlands e.g. Wexford. Ports would also fit into this category. 
  2. Dormitory: those who work in nearby cities often live in these towns e.g. Swords, Co. Dublin.
  3. Defence: many towns developed as defensive sites with castles and town-walls e.g. Limerick. 
  4. Educational: not just schools but in some cases Institutes of Technology and universities e.g. Maynooth, Co. Kildare. 
  5. Recreation: certain towns such as Tramore, Co. Waterford are best known for the entertainment facilities they provide. 
  6. Resource based: a fishing port such as Killybegs, Co. Donegal or a mining town like Navan, Co. Meath. 
  7. Ecclesiastical: this refers to the religious facilities provided by a town. These include pilgrimage centres such as Knock, Co. Mayo and cathedral cities such as Galway.

The above list is not exhaustive but it is obvious that most centres provide more than one function although one may dominate over all others.

Functional zones within a city

Within larger urban areas there are a number of different functional zones. This term refers to different activities, which tend to take place in different parts of a city. These functional zones include the following:

  • The C.B.D. (Central Business District): is usually found in the city centre and contains major shops, government buildings and headquarters of financial services.
  • Zone of transition: this is an area which is undergoing change. Many of the buildings have been allowed to decay and the area has a ‘run-down’ look to it. Often referred to as ‘the inner city’ and usually considered a problem area. Many of these areas have recently become part of urban-renewable schemes with new offices and housing being put in place together with the refurbishment of some older buildings.
  • Industrial zones: found near the port area and in industrial estates on the outskirts of the city.
  • Residential zones: the quality of housing will vary within a city. The best (and most expensive) housing is usually located in the most attractive and scenic areas. Middle-class housing will then usually be found separating the ‘best’ areas from the large stretches of government funded public housing. In general, the further you go from the city centre, the newer the buildings. The city centre (C.B.D.) such as in Dublin will have a mixture of the very old e.g. Trinity College and the very new, the IFSC.

Urban problems in the First World

Typical problems of cities in the developed world include:

  • Shortage of space for building and recreational use. This can lead to very expensive housing such as currently found in Dublin.
  • Traffic congestion. Too many people using cars at the same time i.e. the early morning rush can lead to frustration, stress and exhaustion. Traffic congestion slows down business and costs money. Ring-roads, improvements in public transport (e.g. the Luas line), restrictions on the use of private cars and flexi-time (workers beginning work at different times) can all be used to try to cut down on traffic congestion.
  • Waste disposal: Dublin is running out of landfill sites and other areas do not want Dublin’s rubbish. The suggested building of an incinerator has also met with objection from many groups.
  • Fresh air and fresh water: both of these vital commodities are often in short supply in large built-up areas.
  • High crime rates: Many urban areas, especially those run-down inner city areas, have higher than average crime rates. This can be tackled by renewing these areas through improved housing and clearance of derelict sites. Examples include the Temple Bar and Patrick St. areas of Dublin.

Urban sprawl: This refers to the unplanned spread of suburban areas. It leads to the loss of land which was formerly used for farming and recreation. It also causes huge traffic problems as city workers join long traffic queues to reach their jobs each day. Some of the outer suburbs of Dublin are examples of this phenomenon. Stricter planning laws and the building of more high density housing are essential if Dublin is ever going to overcome this problem.

Urban problems in the Third World

Urban centres in the Third World do not have the same capacity to cope with growth as First World cities. Despite their lack of facilities, these cities are among the fastest growing in the world.

Typical problems of these urban areas in the Third World include:

  • A lack of basic services such as sanitation and fresh water.
  • Poor housing: people often live in poor quality shanty towns. In cities like Calcutta, many people live all their lives on the street.
  • Medical and educational facilities are all inadequate in Third World cities.
  • Death rates are high, particularly among children. This is due to the poor sanitary and housing facilities together with the general poverty of the people.


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