GaWC Research Bulletin 272

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This Research Bulletin has been published in Siedlungsforschung. Archäologie - Geschichte - Geographie, 26, (2008), 235-240, under the title 'A Geographical Appreciation of Historical Research on Urban Networks'.

Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


The External Relations of Cities in the Low Countries: A Geographical Appreciation of Historical Research on Urban Networks1

R. Verbruggen*


Towns and cities cannot be understood when studied in isolation from their environment. Since their early origins, urban settlements have been characterised by the existence of various interactions with a wider world. Historians and geographers have been investigating the external relations of towns and cities in a large variety of ways. Much of this research has concentrated on the study of the relations between towns and cities in urban networks. This paper attempts to give an overview of the systematic historical research on urban networks in the Low Countries during the late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period, focusing on economic rather than on political or cultural linkages. Such an overview will allow to theoretically clarify the different processes behind the external relations of cities and towns, and to suggest strategies for future research by exposing some of the strengths and weaknesses of the historical research undertaken so far.

In this overview, a first distinction will be made between comparative research and the study of connections between places. Secondly, the study of local relations between towns and their hinterlands will be discerned from the study of non-local inter-city relations. And finally, an approach focusing on agency will be contrasted with an infrastructural approach to external urban relations.


A first important distinction has to be drawn between a comparative analysis of towns and cities and a network analysis of connections between places. In comparative research, different urban settlements are ranked according to one or more variables, especially population size. Although such rankings describe formal relations of similarity and dissimilarity between urban settlements, they cannot procure direct information about substantial relations of connection and interaction between towns and cities (Sayer 1992, 88). Ranking lists of urban settlements can describe settlement or urbanisation patterns for a certain area, but they do not prove the existence of an urban network or hierarchy2 since these require the presence of substantial relations. Therefore, the study of urban networks implies the collection and analysis of relational data about flows between towns and cities instead of attribute data about them (Derudder 2008; Taylor 1997, 324-325)3.

However, because of a lack of relational data (Lesger 1990a, 137), many studies of so-called urban ‘networks' and/or urban ‘hierarchies' have necessarily been confined to rankings of attribute data. In some cases this has led to a confusion of networks with rankings of statistical data, despite repeated warnings against such confusions by scholars like Blockmans (1992, 245-247), Bruneel (1992, 95-101), and Prevenier et al. (1992, 158). Accordingly, many historians have been investigating flows between urban settlements through the analysis of relational data. Among others, attention has been paid to migration patterns, flows of commodities, and dispersal patterns of innovations (Kooij 1992, 514).


Consequently, urban networks and hierarchies always imply substantial relations between urban settlements. Recently, Taylor (2007; Taylor et al. 2008) has drawn a distinction between two relational urban processes: town-ness and city-ness. Town-ness is a generic process that links central places to their hinterlands through the offering of central goods and services. Consequently, town-ness operates on a local scale in bounded territories (the hinterlands), and generates vertical relations between central places and their service areas (a hierarchy). The best-known model of town-ness is central place theory, as developed by Christaller (1933) and others. City-ness is a generic process as well, linking different cities with each other beyond their hinterlands. City-ness is a non-local process, generating horizontal rather than unequal relations between cities by means of a mutual exchange of goods, capital, etc. (a network). Taylor et al. (2008) present a central flow theory as a geographical model of city-ness. While town-ness is a rather stable and static process, city-ness is much more dynamic and prone to change. Being processes, city-ness and town-ness are not mutually exclusive but can and do occur in one and the same place at the same time. Consequently, both processes are present in towns as well as in cities, although one can expect that city-ness is proportionally more important to understand the economies of large cities than those of small towns and vice versa.

In most cases, the systematic study of the external relations of towns and cities has been confined to the investigation of urban hierarchies, focusing on the town-ness relations between urban settlements. Hereby historians often applied Christaller's central place theory as an analytical tool (e.g. Lesger 1990a). For the explanation of urban settlement patterns, central place theory has its shortcomings however. Firstly, central place theory only explains hierarchical relations between urban settlements, whereby a central place of higher order offers central goods and services to the central places of lower order situated in its hinterland. For the explanation of relations between central places of the same level, another process is needed. Secondly, many historians have stressed the importance of non-local relations between cities for the explanation of urban settlement patterns, especially in export-oriented environments such as the Low Countries (Lesger 1990a, 142-144). When the scale of analysis becomes larger, the external relations of urban settlements become more determined by city-ness than by town-ness. Finally, being a rather stable process, town-ness is not able to explain the dynamics of urban networks.

As a result, many historians started to distinguish between local and non-local urban relations. According to Hohenberg and Lees (1995, 47-73), on the one hand cities and towns belong to a central place system, while on the other hand they are part of a larger network system. This dual model of urbanisation is similar to Taylor 's distinction between town-ness and city-ness, the fundamental difference being that the latter are processes instead of systems. Lesger's (1990b) investigation of the evolution of Hoorn 's position in its network system and its central place system in the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period illustrates the applicability of Hohenberg and Lees' theory very well. However, studies such as Lesger's were still limited to the analysis of the network from the perspective of individual gateway cities (Kooij 1992, 514-517), focusing upon their role as intermediaries between an extra-local city network and a local central place hierarchy. Only recently and undoubtedly under the influence of present-day globalisation processes, historians have been showing more and more interest in the study of transnational city networks as a whole (e.g. Harreld 2004, 95-100).

A critique that deserves more attention is Blockmans' (1992, 245) assertion that the unit of analysis should be the network itself, as defined by the intensity and the nature of the relations between the components. Town-ness operates at the scale of hinterlands, which vary in extent according to the central goods or services offered. City-ness on the other hand is not bounded by hinterlands or territories, and results in transnational rather than national city networks. Consequently, the size of hinterlands and networks should not be taken for granted, but has to be determined empirically through the investigation of the flows linking towns and cities with each other or with their surrounding area, implying the need for relational data rather than attribute data. However, often administrative and political boundaries have been used to define hinterlands as well as networks, a practice that is defensible when analysing administrative central functions or networks, but not for other – especially economic – relations (Klep 1992, 204). In particular the scale of the state has been very popular as a scale of analysis for urban hierarchies and networks. Sometimes inspired by the geographical research on national urban systems, historians have investigated the urban networks and central place hierarchies of pre-modern principalities such as the county of Flanders (Prevenier et al. 1992; Stabel 1997) or modern nation-states such as the Netherlands (Kooij 1988). Although state power clearly influences the configuration of urban hierarchies and networks, Taylor (2004, 15-20, 49-51) has shown national economies to be a myth, upheld by a state-centric social science. The false scale of the state has also led to a confusion between networks and hierarchies, biasing the research towards a search for national urban hierarchies (Taylor et al. 2008). Accordingly, only recent transnational studies of city networks have stressed the horizontal character of relations between cities (e.g. Lesger 2006).


Urban hierarchies and networks can be investigated in two different ways. A first approach focuses upon the communication and transport infrastructures linking places to each other, such as road or canal networks, mail services etc. Although studies of infrastructures yield valuable descriptions of the configuration of the external relations of towns and cities, they are deficient in explaining the mechanisms of network formation (Derudder 2008). Infrastructures tend to stabilise the external relations of urban settlements rather than creating them. Besides, many infrastructures are typically produced by modern states, attracting the attention towards national instead of transnational networks in the Early Modern Period.

Consequently, historians such as Murray (2000, 3) and Harreld (2004) recently have called for an agent-based approach to urban networks and hierarchies. Focusing on the agents of town-ness and city-ness formation, respectively retailers and consumers, and transnationally operating wholesalers and financiers, allows to gain a better understanding of the way in which urban networks and hierarchies develop. Moreover, such an approach avoids the problem of reifying cities and towns.


The critical attitude of historians in their use of geographical theories of external relations has resulted in a number of theoretical refinements and a varied historical urban networks research field. Historians have distinguished between a network system and a central place system, both of which need to be investigated at the appropriate geographical scale to avoid confusion between them. These processes can be studied via different approaches, some of which are preferable to others. On the one hand network analysis of flows, unlike comparative analysis of towns and cities, allows to demonstrate the existence of relations between urban settlements. On the other hand the focus on agents of network formation rather than on network infrastructures can lead to a more dynamic and better understanding of the mechanisms generating urban external relations.


I would like to thank Professor Peter J. Taylor and Michael Hoyler from the Geography Department of Loughborough University for their valuable feedback on this paper.



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* Raf Verbruggen, Department of Geography, Loughborough University, UK. Email:

1. For a preliminary version of this paper, see Verbruggen (2007).

2. The term ‘hierarchy' is ambiguous since it can be used (according to the Oxford Dictionary) both as a synonym for ranking, as well as in the sense of a system in which unequal substantial relations exist between the different levels. I will use ‘hierarchy' in the latter sense.

3. Some attribute data however provide indirect evidence for the existence of flows between places. Geographers investigating the current relations between world cities for example use attribute data about the presence of offices of multinational corporations in cities, implying the existence of intra-firm flows between the different offices of these corporations (Taylor 2004).


Edited and posted on the web on 2nd June 2008

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Siedlungsforschung. Archäologie - Geschichte - Geographie, 26, (2008), 235-240