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Rural environments in the UK form a larger percentage of the total land area than urban areas, in fact, only 14% of the UK is classed as urban land by Defra in 2005. Much of the rural environment is agricultural land, although rural settlements are also an important feature. Land use and functions both within these settlements themselves, and their surrounding landscapes, has changed greatly and continues to do so. There is ever increasing pressure on these settlements and landscapes in terms of housing, industry, retail and business, recreational facilities and transport developments. There is huge scope for investigating the land-use, function and issues in rural areas, and their changing identity and character.

Here are some ideas for how you can get started with your study:

  1. Use an OS map to identify the boundaries of a potential rural study area

  2. Build up a good basic knowledge of the rural area you wish to focus on, visiting possible settlements in order to assess their accessibility and feasibility for study

  3. In addition, secondary data is an excellent source of background information for your study. Consult parish census data, electoral rolls, historical maps and photographs and newspaper clippings

  4. Based on the knowledge you have acquired, identify a pattern or issue for investigation, and decide on a title, question or statement for your study

  5. Develop a strategy for your data collection based on the aims of the investigation and your knowledge of the study sites

Land-use and function surveys

Aims within an investigation

  • To investigate changes in the form, size, population structure and function of rural settlements over time

  • To investigate the site and situation of different settlements

  • To examine the spacing and hierarchy of settlements in a given rural area

  • To map services and amenities within rural settlements and relate this to their function within the area

  • To compare the functions of neighbouring settlements, for example a tourist honey-pot with a regular residential village

  • To investigate rural issues such as employment, migration and housing


  • OS map of the study area

  • Historical census data

  • Historical maps

  • Large-scale base-maps or GOAD maps of the study areas (in paper or digital formats)

  • Keys to classification of land use and functions

  • Coloured pencils

  • Field sketching materials

  • Digital camera

Ideas for possible fieldwork activities - land use surveys

  1. Decide on a sampling strategy (hyperlink to sampling section). This will depend largely on the size and number of settlements being investigated, and the time available

  2. Using a base map of each settlement, code the map to classify the different land uses. If you are using a GOAD map, it will be possible to code individual buildings in the settlement. GOAD maps can be purchased from the Experian website

  3. This can then be compared with other settlements or with historical maps

  4. As an alternative to using paper-based maps and colouring, digital maps can be uploaded into a mobile GIS software program such as ArcPad and completed digitally in the field using a PDA

Ideas for possible fieldwork activities - studying site and situation

  1. Draw and annotate field sketches or label photos to show the main physical features of the site. The BBC Scotland website includes an online tutorial for completing field sketches. As an alternative, you can provide your students with a part drawing or half a photo for them to complete

  2. Take further digital photographs on the day. These can be compared with historical photos to identify features which have changed or are no longer present, for example woodland areas

  3. Draw tracing overlays of OS maps to pick out the main physical features of the site and the location of the settlements. For example, contour lines can be traced to show relief, rivers and woodland can be identified and human features such as roads and railways can be marked

  4. An interesting study could relate the information collected to historical reasons for the location of the settlement and changes which have taken place in its growth, function and morphology

Ideas for possible fieldwork activities - function surveys

  • On a base or GOAD map of the settlements, record the function of each building using colours or codes and a detailed classification key as described above. Again, this activity can be completed digitally using a PDA and mobile GIS software

  • Analyse the number of buildings devoted to different types of function and identify a primary function for the village, for example tourism, where there would be a dominance of souvenir and gift shops, cafes and restaurants, hotels and B&Bs

  • Compare settlements and examine the different or changing functions

  • Function surveys can be linked with environmental impact assessments (for example, examining the environmental impact of tourism in the settlement) or with spacing, sphere of influence and hierarchy surveys of a rural area

Considerations and possible limitations

  • Ensure that the focus of the investigation is clear; otherwise the report will be too vague

  • There is often an expense involved in obtaining historical maps, GOAD maps and other forms of secondary data

  • There may be practical considerations to carrying out investigations over large rural areas in terms of time, accessibility and workload. This is particularly the case for studies which concentrate on sphere of influence, spacing or settlement hierarchy

  • Data sets from different locations should be linked and used to identify and explain patterns, relationships and changes in a more meaningful way

Rural services provision


  • To analyse the quality of service provision within the community, perhaps from the viewpoint of different user groups, for example children and young people, elderly and disabled residents

  • To investigate changes to service provision in rural settlements over time and the reasons for these changes

  • To study the economic and social implications of amenity or service closure

  • To investigate the risk of closure amongst rural services, and the importance of these services in different settlements. Their importance may differ depending on the demographics in each settlement

  • To study the impact of service closure or alteration in rural settlements

  • To analyse the relationship between the number and type of services and the hierarchy or sphere of influence of the settlement

  • To predict the usage and viability of new services in the area, for example a recycling facility


  • Base maps of the study areas

  • Historical maps, photographs, directories, timetables and newspaper articles related to service provision

  • Sketching materials

  • Digital camera

  • Record sheets

Ideas for possible fieldwork activities - existing service provision

  1. Record the services on a base or GOAD map, coding them according to their function

  2. Identify usage patterns by carrying out counts at different times of the day, week or year or by questionnaire

  3. You could analyse the feasibility of a particular service remaining open by examining daily usage patterns, balanced against the cost of retaining it. Information can be gathered from the local council or through questionnaires with local residents and retailers

  4. The local council will also have information about future plans for service changes, for example the closing of Post Offices or bus routes. Again, questionnaires can be used to determine the perception of local residents of the need for the service, the amount of usage and the potential impacts of closure

  5. Adopting stratified sampling techniques would enable targeting of different user groups within the community, for example young people, working families, elderly people, disabled resident and second home owners. Results could be used to analyse the quality of provision for different user groups, and the potential effects of the loss of a particular service

  6. The quality of a particular ‘function' of service can be targeted, for example bus services. Current and former timetables can be analysed to identify changes in the frequency, destinations (mapped), and journey times of bus routes. These could be compared to an urban area

Ideas for possible fieldwork activities - services and hierarchies, sphere of influence

  1. Record the services of selected settlements within a given rural geographical and collect 2001 census population data for the area from the Office for National Statistics website

  2. Compare the links between the size of settlement and the number of services provided. Findings can be related to geographical models of settlement hierarchy, and any anomalies in service provision explained - for example if there was a higher number or order of services than would be expected in a settlement of a particular size

  3. Conduct questionnaires within the settlement or outside chosen services to determine distances travelled by consumers to access different types of services

  4. Ask residents (or students, if the fieldwork is being conducted in the local area) to keep a diary of their weekly visits to services in the area and to map the distance and time taken for each journey

  5. Analyse maps to identify any possible links between people's movements and their age, occupation, ethnicity or social group.

Considerations and possible limitations

  • A good knowledge of the area is required for this type of investigation, and as a result, extensive preliminary research may be necessary

  • Large scale area studies are time consuming and labour intensive, it's also easy to lose the focus if the scope of the project is too broad

  • Accessibility and transport between sites may be problematic in some rural areas

  • When carrying out questionnaires, the sampling strategy should be considered carefully in light of the population(s) being surveyed and the aims of the investigation

Rural changes and issues investigations


  • To investigate and explain changes in the morphology, demographics and function of settlements over time

  • To consider issues such as population and demographic change, housing, employment, service and amenity provision and transport in rural areas

  • To investigate the impacts of changes in rural areas, for example the withdrawal of a service (shop or school) or transport changes (bus routes and timetables)

  • To study changes to the sphere of influence or interdependence of a settlement following, for example, the construction of a new by-pass or changes to public transport services

  • To make the case for and against a particular proposal, for example a new road system

  • To identify and consider local issues specific to the settlement being studied, for example, the movement of heavy goods traffic through a village, and the management of such issues

  • To investigate the impact of service closure, for example shops, post offices, schools or pubs. Issues to consider may include employment, community cohesion and service accessibility

  • To study the degree and impact of gentrification in a particular settlement through a comparison of different settlements

  • To investigate the provision and affordability of housing in the area, with particular consideration for first time buyers and the impact of second homes and new build developments


  • Census data, electoral register data

  • Range of OS and GOAD maps

  • Historical photographs, archive newspaper articles

  • Digital camera

  • Field sketching materials

  • Relevant record sheets, depending on study, for example environmental quality surveys, questionnaires

Ideas for possible fieldwork activities - investigating changes

  1. Patterns of growth Using a key (with pictures is helpful), identify and record the age of the buildings on a base map by using colours or codes. Age is identified by building style, architecture and materials. Findings can be analysed in terms of different phases of growth and changes to the shape and morphology of the settlement. This can then be related to the site and situation of the settlement, and to significant events in the history of the settlement

  2. Population changes Using census and electoral register data, draw graphs to show changes in the total population of a settlement over time. Annotate the graph with significant events in the history of the settlement, for example mine closure, railway or road opening or war, and link with the population changes shown in the graph. More detailed demographic information such as birth and death rates, ethnicity, gender and age ratios and the occupancy of properties can also be obtained and analysed 

  3. Function changes Map the current services provided in the settlement using the method described above. Compare findings with historical GOAD maps of the area. The changing fortunes of the settlement over time can be analysed by studying the data obtained

  4. Questionnaires can be used to obtain information about local people's experiences, opinions and perceptions of change in the area

Ideas for possible fieldwork activities - investigating issues

Issue one: A new development

  1. Identify an issue that is affecting the local area, for example the issue may be related to housing, industry, transport, recreation and leisure or tourism developments

  2. Research the issue using secondary sources of data

  3. Where possible, carry out interviews with relevant people, for example with a developer or a representative from the local council

  4. Collect data on; the type and extent of the development, its location and why this location was chosen (include maps, photographs and sketches), the need for the development and its anticipated benefits, any losses or problems associated with the development and how these will be managed or minimised

  5. Questionnaires with local residents and local businesses will provide information on the requirement for such a development in the area, along with perceived advantages and disadvantages

  6. A mental mapping exercise could be conducted with local residents. Individuals are provided with a base map of the proposed site and are asked to annotate the map with their opinions about the development

  7. Questionnaires and mental maps could be analysed to see whether there is any relationship between the age, gender or social group of the respondents and the opinions expressed

  8. This information could also be supported with an environmental impact assessment and environmental quality surveys

Ideas for possible fieldwork activities - other rural issues

  • Quarrying - Sketch, photograph and map the site, annotating with details. Historical photographs can be used to identify changes in the area over time. Interview the local planning authority and quarry manager to obtain information on the extent and duration of the licence, production rates, markets, employment data and plans for decommissioning the site. Questionnaires can be used to reveal the perceptions of the quarry amongst local residents, and older residents may be able to comment on how the area has changed over time. Environmental quality surveys, noise and air quality surveys can be conducted at sites around the quarry and the local area

  • Service provision - Investigate the closure of a service and the impact of this on residents and businesses in the settlement. Residents could be asked to map their journeys before and after the closure, to identify changes in terms of the distance they travel and time taken for journeys

  • Housing - The provision of affordable housing, the proportion of second homes and the prevalence of in- or out-migration could be investigated within a rural area, with a particular focus of the impact of these issues on the local community

Considerations and possible limitations

  • The focus of the investigation must be made explicit as there is potential for the study to become very broad. Similarly, it is important to plan data collection carefully beforehand

  • Bias is important here; it is easy to take sides with an investigation into an issue and (unwittingly) over represent one side of the argument

  • The sampling strategy should be carefully considered for any study, but particularly when examining the impacts of a development or quarry

  • Interviews with developers, planners or representatives from the local council may be difficult to organise. Individuals should be contacted well in advance of the fieldtrip