Jul 092011

A previous post – The four basic types of rural locality in Mexico – indicates that access to sources of goods, services, markets and opportunities is very important to the economic and social well-being of rural and farm communities. Such sources are called central places and may be a village, a small town, a large town or a city.

Farms in rural areas may still grow some of their own food, but they are far less self-sufficient than they were a century or two ago. In Mexico, farm families are definitely part of the cash economy and buy more of their household needs than they produce on the farm. Items purchased from central places include such goods as sugar, clothing, hardware, farm tools, kitchen utensils, fertilizer, pesticides, hybrid seed, oil or kerosene for lamps, matches, paper products, as well as medicines, soft drinks, beer and cigarettes. Rural areas are also dependent on outside services provided by schools, buses, doctors, dentists, beauticians, mechanics and churches. To pay for these goods and services they are also dependent on markets where they can sell their farm products or their labor to obtain the cash they need to make necessary purchases.

Central place theory

Considerable academic attention has been focused on central places which provide goods and services to their market areas or hinterlands. Walter Christaller analyzed the German rural economy in the 1930s and developed central place theory. The theory provides an idealized description of how goods and services are supplied in rural areas throughout the world. Central place theory describes the spacing and hierarchy of central places by focusing on the threshold demand needed to support specific goods and services, the market areas of central places, and the distances rural people travel to obtain specific goods and services.

According to the theory, every rural region is served by a hierarchy of central places. At the bottom of the hierarchy there are a large number of very small places providing services with very low threshold demands. These very small centers serve the population in the center and a small surrounding rural area.

As one moves up the hierarchy, there are a fewer number of places, providing a wider range of goods and services, and serving a larger market area. This occurs because for a service to be provided efficiently there must be sufficient threshold demand in the center and its surrounding hinterland to support it. For this reason we do not find new car dealers, heart surgeons or ballet schools in every small village. These activities can only survive in large centers where there is sufficient demand.

Rural residents must travel varying distances to centers to obtain needed goods or services. The center may be small or may be large depending on the specific good or service that is needed. Rural residents might have to travel less than a few kilometers to a center at the bottom of the hierarchy to buy basic food stables or to attend primary school. They generally have to travel farther to a higher level center to get more specialized items such as clothing, health services, or secondary schooling. They generally have to travel considerably farther to buy a pickup truck, board an airplane or obtain the services of a heart specialist.

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