Functional Classification of Cities by Harris

Functional classification of cities by Harris is the a sophisticated classification of towns based on sound quantitative techniques. C.D. Harris published this classification in a research paper “A Functional Classification of Cities in United States” in 1943. Prior to Harris, other urban geographers and planners presented the classification of cities based on their experience and observation, therefore, they lacked objectivity.

Historical Background of Functional Classification

Marcel Aurousseau was the first social scientist to classify the cities on the basis of function in his book The Distribution of Population: A Constructive Problem (1921). He classified towns into six major and 28 minor in 1921. These categories are as follows.

  1. Administrative Towns
  2. Defense Towns
  3. Cultural Towns
  4. Production Tows
  5. Communication Towns
  6. Recreation Towns

His classification of towns is very comprehensive. However, there are certain limitations to this classification.

  1. He categorized the cities and towns based on his subjective judgement and did not define the method of arriving at cut-points or percentages for putting a town in a certain category.
  2. Aurosseau mixed functional and locational characteristics of a town to put it into a certain category. For example, a bridgehead town can point towards a locational aspect but may be a transport town, a religious town or trading town etc.
  3. Further, the dominance of an economic activity in comparison to other economic activities has also been ignored.

Despite these limitations, Aurosseau provided a launchpad for constructing better classification of towns. Subsequently, Harris developed a method to recognize the most dominant function of a city out of various city functions through quantitative indicators. He chose Employment and Occupation as the parameters for representing the most dominant economic function of a city..

Photo for representational purposes only.

Major City Functions

  • Harris believed that most of the cities are specialized in a certain function.
  • He extracted employment and occupation data for  nine categories of industries from the census of 1930.
  • These industries are 1) Manufacturing (M), 2) Retailing (R), 3) Diversified (D), 4) Wholesaling (W), 5) Transportation (T), 6) Mining (S), 7) Educational (E), 8) Resort or retirement (X) and 9) Others (P).

Harris’s Method of Classification of Cities

Harris chose cut-points for employment for determining the dominant city function based on his experience and observation. Any city having a higher proportion of workers in a certain industry was classified as specialized in that industry. Let us understand these cut-points as following.

1. Manufacturing (M)

Harris used the following criteria for classifying a town as a manufacturing town.

  • Subtype-A: 74 percent of the total workers of the city are in manufacturing, wholesale and retailing. Additionally, 45 percent of the total gainful employment should be in the manufacturing occupations.
  • Subtype-B: At least 60 percent of the total workers of the city are in manufacturing, wholesale and retailing. Additionally, 30-45 percent of the gainful employment should be in the manufacturing occupations.
  • Important: Please note that the employment in manufacturing sector is different from manufacturing occupation. A person may be an employee in a manufacturing firm but he/she may be just a human resource manager. Therefore, the nature of his/her job is like a service. Conversely, a machine operator is actually a manufacturing occupation because operation of machine is central to process of manufacturing.

2. Retailing (R)

  • At least, 50 percent of the workers should be working in  manufacturing, wholesale and retailing.
  • Further, retailing should contain 2.2 times more workers than the wholesale. For instance, if total workers in wholesale are 100 then there should be 220 workers in retailing to classify a city as a retailing town.

3. Diversified (D)

  • The workers in manufacturing, wholesale and retailing should be less than 60 percent, 20 percent, and 50 percent, respectively.
  • Additionally, the manufacturing sector should compose between 25-35 percent of total gainful employment.

4. Wholesale (W)

  • At least 20 percent of the workers should be in manufacturing, wholesale and retailing.
  • Additionally, 45 percent of the gainful employment should be in retailing alone.

5. Transport (T)

  • Transport sector should provide at least 11 percent of the total employment.
  • One third of total workers should be engaged in manufacturing and mechanics occupations. Further, two third of the total workers should be engaged in trade.

6. Mining (S)

  • The 15 percent of the total gainful employment of a city should be in mining activities to qualify as a mining city.
  • Please note that this condition only applies when the total population of the city is greater than 25000.

7. Education (E)

  • At least 25 percent of the population should be enrolled in educational institutions.
  • Usually, some cities develop around a large university. Subsequently, many colleges and other institutions also crop up in such cities.

8. Resorts & Retirement (X)

  • There is no specific statistical criteria for a town to qualify as a Resort & Retirement town.
  • However, some cities may be famous for tourist and leisure activities. Therefore, we can classify such cities as Resort and Retirement Towns.

9. Others (P)

  • All other towns which do not fulfil these criterions are classified as others.

Relevance of Harris’s Functional Classification of Cities

Harris’s classification of cities was the first step in the right direction. The planners can use such a classification for recognizing certain parts of the city and allocate budget for targeted development. For instance, a lot of manufacturing workers live in residential colonies near the industrial areas. The planners can use forestation policies to reduce these workers’ exposure to pollution.

Criticism of Harris’s Classification

This classification was limited in application and contained many drawbacks Therefore, it was criticized widely.

  1. The cities offer diverse functions whereas Harris’s limited their functions to a single industry. He ignored cities with diverse function. For instance, Mumbai is famous for Manufacturing as well as Financial Services but Harris will only attribute one function to Mumbai.
  2. Harris used too little information for classification of cities. The employment and occupation data should be used in combination with other economic parameters such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
  3. This classification puts too much emphasis on manufacturing, wholesale and retail sectors. Whereas in today’s world, high end services contribute more income to the economy of large cities than the manufacturing, wholesale and retail.
  4. This data was available at Metropolitan District level and not for the city as a whole. The data could not be clubbed due to sampling design.
  5. Harris chose the cut-points based on his judgement and does not offer any method to calculate these cut-points.
  6. He omitted a lot of work categories and did not provide any reason for choosing only nine industrial sectors. For instance, he excluded Telephone  workers from Transport & Communication and did not provide any reason.
  7. Harris ignores the city’s land-use, completely. Land-use defines the character of the cities because land-use is the visible feature of a city. Land-use determines Urban Morphology and Urban Functions.
  8. This classification is not relevant in the Indian context because most Indian cities perform diverse functions. The workers in the service sector are the largest group of workers in Indian cities. Whereas, Harris lays too much stress on manufacturing, wholesale and retail.


To sum up, we can argue that city’s economic function is a key parameter to judge city’s character. So, the classification of cities based on economic function is appropriate way to classify cities. However, the urban geographers should classify the cities in an objective and rational manner. Howard Nelson’s classification of Cities is an improved version of this classification.