fr The New England Transportation Institute

Research Issue Area Four: Rural Settlement Patterns and Mapping

Managers: Barry Lawson, PhD (1)

(1) Barry Lawson Associates


Many historical factors combine to influence the distribution of populations, industries and services – or settlement pattern – on a region. Transportation systems and facilities are significant among these factors. Whether it was the location of a settlement along a river in the early nineteenth century or a modern city served by one or more Interstate highways, accessibility has always been important.

Moving people or goods costs money and takes time. Minimizing these costs, every thing else being equal is a driving force in locating home, factory and services. Rural regions are particularly susceptible to the influences of transportation opportunities and costs. Transportation is not the only location factor, however, because quality soils, productive forest lands, the availability of dependable power, and many other parameters figure in the equation.

This research project focuses on the role of transportation as a determinant of settlement patterns in the largely rural Upper Connecticut River Watershed in the States of Vermont and New Hampshire. This two-state region, while having several small cities and urban areas, can be characterized as generally rural, reflecting its agricultural heritage and natural resource base. When planning for transportation services it is critical to understand the relationship between transportation and its effects of settlement. Such systems not only serve existing patterns but influence future patterns. It is not a simple, direct, one-way influence, but typically a complicated relationship, made more complex by other factors as well.

The Research Project

The research proposed will be based largely on extensive work now underway to produce an atlas that describes a multitude to natural resource, economic, environmental and historic aspects of the Upper Connecticut River Watershed. This atlas, a creation of a partnership among the Connecticut River Joint Commissions, Dartmouth College and Northern Cartographic, contains over three dozen sections, many of which are relevant to the study of settlement patterns and their relationship to transportation and economic development. The work undertaken for the atlas provides an exceptional foundation for this research. For example, the demographic section of the atlas portrays the decade-by-decade changes in population of every town in the watershed from 1790 to 2000. It also reflects the dynamic patterns of growth and decline over those two hundred years.

In addition, atlas sections on the historical development of the watershed from Native American settlement, through the agricultural to the industrial and post-industrial eras, describe the economic forces (both regional and national) that influenced population change. An entire atlas chapter devoted to transportation portrays the transformations induced by early water transportation, the hey-day of railroads, and to the modern highway system that has served the valley for over 40 years. Other sections of the atlas also provide views of other factors that combine with transportation facilities and systems to influence development patterns and opportunities.

Using the material gathered for this extensive atlas, the research team will present an historic analysis of change in the watershed in response to the unique characteristics including the River itself and its tributaries, topography, soil, ecosystems, historic development through various periods of settlement. The team will go beyond the characterization of the watershed presented in the atlas to a discussion of the interrelationships among all these factors, not just transportation and population distribution. Imparting a better understanding of the complicated dynamics of rural growth and change is one goal.

This research analysis will extend beyond this understanding of the effects of future transportation investments. On one hand, it might argue that the settlement pattern of the watershed was determined many years ago and that any investment in transportation facilities in this day and age is unlikely to modify that historic pattern. On the other hand, it is equally apparent that the traditional pattern is currently being modified as agglomeration of more and more people and services occurs in the so-called Upper Valley region encompassing Hanover and Lebanon, NH and White River Junction, VT and the surrounding area. Will this trend continue, how will it be affected by policy and investment? What may be the future of more rural areas removed from this evolving center? Before decisions are made, gaining an understanding of the response to transportation changes in rural areas is appropriate.