Theorising Peri-Urban: Moving towards a Political Ecology Perspective

Kartik Chugh

A review of the literature suggests that there is no consensus on a single definition of the word “peri-urban”. Different authors have defined the peri-urban according to their needs and scope of work. However, they all agree that peri-urban is an area situated at the periphery of a city, having attributes of both rural and urban development processes (Rohilla, 2005). Therefore, as a place, peri-urban refers to the urban fringe – a midway between urban and rural spaces. 

Conceptualizing peri-urban

Peri-urban is often characterized by high population density, small landholdings, land tenure contestations, conversion of farmlands into residences, heterogeneity, environmental problems such as pollution, resource exploitation, and improper/inefficient governance. Authors suggest that these spaces have diverse social structures, multiple stakeholders having varied interests, and economic dynamism as people have diverse sources of income (Marshall et al., 2009). Other attributes include proximity to the city, industrialization, commercialization, rural values and changing agricultural practices. According to Allen (2003), peri-urban is a complex mosaic where one can either observe the loss of rural aspects (loss of agricultural land for instance) or the lack of urban features (infrastructure and services for instance). 

A peri-urban village on the outskirts of Delhi

Outlined by a heterogeneous mix of rural-urban features, the peri-urban is largely conceptualised as ‘place-based’ in popular parlance. Iaquinta and Drescher (2000) questioned this underlying tendency of defining the peri-urban as a situated geographical place by staging the importance of the institutional contexts. Other than the place-based understanding, “peri-urban” has been theorised in two more ways. Narain and Nischal (2007) point out that it also is used to denote a concept or a process. 

A place-based understanding of the peri-urban is also contrasted with a ‘flow-based’ understanding of the peri-urban. Here, the focus is on the flow of people (labour), goods and services, commodities, capital, waste, and pollution. The effects of processes of rapid social, economic, environmental and institutional changes in the peri-urban are also emphasised (Halkatti, 2003, as cited in Marshall et al., 2009). When thought of in terms of flows and processes, the notion of time and change becomes important. According to Dupont (2005) then, an important feature of peri-urban is that it experiences rapid and large changes over space and time. For instance, Allen (2003) points out that the composition and interests of the social groups in the peri-urban interface are in constant transition due to which effective institutional arrangements and regulations are difficult to achieve.

While a flow-based approach can be used to understand, for instance, the urban demand for fruits and vegetables, the economic linkages between the city and the peri-urban, and flows of waste and toxicity, a place-based approach can reveal how the peri-urban becomes a site where poor people are expelled to from the city, to achieve visions of development and modernization. Similarly, a process-based approach conceptualizes peri-urban as a transition (towards urban), where the transformation of rural activities is inevitable and therefore requires little attention (Marshall et al., 2009). 

From an environmental perspective, the peri-urban interface can be understood as a complex political, biophysical, socio-economic space where the productive (agricultural) ecosystem, urban ecosystem, and natural ecosystem are interwoven (Allen, 2003). 

These different approaches to the peri-urban (as place-based, flow-oriented, or as a process or concept) are consequential as they influence the processes of planning and policy, which then would have implications on the health and well-being of people and the environment.  

Towards a Political Ecology Approach

Since peri-urban is characterized by constant changes, regulatory void, dynamism, heterogeneity, and varied and changing interests of multiple stakeholders, it becomes a mosaic where the interdependence of environmental, economic and social aspects produces new opportunities, competition, contestations, exclusions and inequalities. For example, in the Hubli-Dharwad region, urbanisation created opportunities for farmers to grow cash crops as urbanisation facilitated the development of irrigation facilities and urban markets (Narain et al., 2013). In Basai village in Gurgaon, however, there was a shift from cash crop to subsistence farming as landholdings became smaller because of the land acquisition process (Narain, 2009).

Prakash et al., (2015) exemplify how the farmers in the peri-urban are deprived of their water sources to fulfil the water needs of the city. Narain (2009) highlights how farmers in peri-urban Gurgaon who had their farms dispersed geographically were less vulnerable to the land acquisition process than those whose lands were concentrated. In the same paper, he mentions that the process of land acquisition for development has resulted in the erosion of natural resources like village commons (grazing lands, johads, etc.). The loss of CPRs would again have uneven impacts on different social groups, with small farmers and livestock owners being affected more. In other cases,

“It is through the exclusion of services, of regulation, of conservation and so forth, that opportunities are created.”

(Marshall et al., 2009)

What’s apparent from these examples is that risks and opportunities are distributed unequally in the peri-urban landscape. Changes in the environment have a heterogeneous effect on society. Differences in access to resources such as land and water can create huge disparities within and between different social groups. These differences often reproduce socio-economic inequalities among them. As I’ve demonstrated in this article, peri-urban is a complex, dynamic, transitional, and novel place/space/concept/process which should be examined in its own right. Refusing to acknowledge peri-urban as a distinct phenomenon entails ignoring inequalities that are produced by the processes of peri-urbanisation (Bartels et al., 2020). Acknowledging peri-urban as a concept is also significant because it questions the relevance of rural-urban dichotomy which is common in the state planning machinery.

Since changes in the environment affect a peri-urban society unevenly, socio-economic and political differences can account for uneven distribution of risks, opportunities, losses, and benefits. And because political power plays an important role in such inequalities, a Political Ecological approach to the scrutinize the peri-urban demands attention. However, the literature on inequalities, unevenness and power relations remain relatively scanty (e.g., Karpouzoglou et al., 2018). Against this background, a framework which analyses the uneven access of resources such as land and water and which looks at the political power play between different social groups can be very insightful as it will present a more complicated picture of the processes playing out in the peri-urban against the generalized policy interventions based on the rural-urban divide.

Utilising the combination of different approaches presented above, I’ll attempt to delve deeper to uncover the various motifs of peri-urban in the upcoming articles. I’ll engage with the issues related to agriculture, labour, food produce, health, water, livestock, solid waste, pollution, CPRs, metabolism, energy flows and much more.     

References

  • Allen, A. (2003). Environmental planning and management of the peri-urban interface: perspectives on an emerging field. Environment and Urbanization, 15(1), 135–148. https://doi.org/10.1177/095624780301500103
  • Bartels, L.E., Bruns A., & Simon, D. (2020). Towards situated analyses of uneven peri-urbanisation: An (urban) political ecology perspective. Antipode.
  • Dupont, V. (2005). Peri-urban dynamics : population, habitat and environment on the peripheries of large Indian metropolises : An Introduction. 
  • Iaquinta, D. L., & Drescher, A.W. (2000). Defining peri-urban: understanding rural–urban linkages and their connection to institutional contexts. 
  • Karpouzoglou, T., Marshall, F., & Mehta, L. (2018). Towards a peri-urban political ecology of water quality decline. Land Use Policy, 70:485–493
  • Marshall, F., MacGregor, H., & Mehta, L. (2009). On the Edge of Sustainability: Perspectives on Peri-urban Dynamics. 
  • Narain, V., & Nischal, S. (2007). The periurban interface in Shahpur Khurd and Karnera, India. Environment and Urbanization, 19(1),  261–273.
  • Narain, V., Anand, P. & Banerjee, P. (2013). Periurbanization in India: A review of the literature and evidence, Report for the project – Rural to Urban Transitions and the Peri-urban Interface. SaciWATERs. India
  • Narain, V. (2009). Growing city, shrinking hinterland: land acquisition, transition and conflict in peri-urban Gurgaon, India. Environment and Urbanization, 21(2), 501–512. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956247809339660
  • Prakash, A., Singh, S., & Brouwer, L. (2015). Water transfer from peri-urban to urban areas: Conflict over water for Hyderabad City in South India. Environment and Urbanisation Asia, 6(1):41–58.
  • Rohilla, S. (2005). Defining ‘Peri-urban’ – A review. In Dupont, V. (2005). Peri-urban dynamics : population, habitat and environment on the peripheries of large Indian metropolises : An Introduction. 

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