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Rural Settlement FOrms




The basic human needs are food, clothing, and shelter. Of these, buildings reveal the most about a culture and those who build them, as a visible expression of the culture. When large permanent settlements evol ved buildings became more substantial, specialized, and permanent. As culture became more complex the simple practicality of adaptation to, and protection from, the elements was expanded to include functional differentiation, reflecting the changing needs of people and culture.

Where People Live

Early humans all lived in “rural” areas. They were few in numbers and generally mobile. It was not until the development of agriculture that permanent” settlements became the norm. As recently as several hundred years ago the vast majority of humans still resided in rural areas, generally in agricultural villages raising crops or livestock to support themselves. Towns and cities were few and the exception rather than the norm. It was a very different world than residents of modem, technically advanced cultures experience today.

In the late l990s, about half the world’s population still resides in rural areas. This is because the vast majority of humanity still farms the land, often in ways that have not changed significantly. In por tions of East and South Asia as many as three out of four residents may live in a rural area. By contrast, in the United States, Canada, Western European countries, Japan, and Australia there are far more urban than rural dwellers, reflecting changes in industrialization, transportation, and urbanization over the last 100 years.

Rural Dwellings

The cultural landscape is the human imprint on the Earths surface, and no human activity produces a more visible cultural landscape than agriculture. Much can be learned about a culture by observing rural settlement patterns. The forms, functions, building materials, and the spacing of rural dwellings reveal much about a region and its culture. The compact, crowded agricultural villages of India, for example, designed to conserve land for actual farming, stand in sharp contrast to the widely scattered individual farmsteads of the American Great Plains where more land may be actually occupied by buildings on each farm than the Indian farmer has for cultivation.

Social and economic opportunities and needs, natural environments, and traditions are also cul tural characteristics that are revealed in the rural settlement scene. Large, elaborate dwellings reflect pros perity or social standing while a church, temple or other place of worship reveals something about the priorities of the culture. Dwellings may be concentrated along and near a road or waterway, suggesting available transportation, on high ground suggesting concern about frequent flooding, or on, say, southern slopes reflecting concerns about the winter months (this could also indicate a location in the Northern Hemisphere).

Building Materials

Except in the wealthier societies, most humans construct their dwellings of whatever local material is available commensurate with their experience and the natural environment. Wattle, wood, brick, and stone are among the building materials used in domestic architecture. The selection of the building material is also an indication of the climate of the region. Traditional rural societies are not wealthy and therefore cannot afford, for example, to import wood from great distances if it is not immediately available locally.

Log houses require considerable labor, to say nothing of available timber and transportation needs. They usually indicate a period of severe winter. Cut wood (lumber) is not immediately available in many areas and is expensive. The appearance of elaborate wood or brick dwellings in a region such as the North American Great Plains indicates wealth and an elaborate transportation system. Stone is a common building material if available locally and has great durability. Like wood, its appearance in the dwellings of a region considerably removed from local supplies indicates something about the affluence and social standing of the culture and its inhabitants.

Settlement Patterns

The form or layout of rural villages reflect historical circumstances, the nature of the land, and economic conditions. They range from linear and clustered to circular and grid pattern. Each has something to say about the culture that built them.

Early villages had to be near a reliable water supply, be defensible, and have sufficient land near by for cultivation to name but a few concerns. They also had to adapt to local physical and environmental conditions, conditions which can be identified with a practiced eye. In Nepal in the Himalayan Mountains, villages cling to the slopes above the river bottoms, indicating awareness of spring floods with the melting of winter snows. Villages in the Netherlands are linear, crowded on the dikes surrounding land reclaimed from the sea. Grid-patterned villages in much of Latin America reflect the influence of their Spanish founders while circular villages in parts of Africa indicate a need for a safe haven for livestock at night. A careful examination of the rural settlement of a region reveals much about the culture, its history and traditions.