Impact of urban expansion on rural hinterland and local responses in the Mekong Region: A study in Khon Kaen, Thailand, and Vang Vieng, Lao PDR

This research project is to study the perceived impact of urbanization in two urban centers, one in Thailand and the other in Lao PDR. The project also aims to study the responses of local communities and households to the urbanization process and its impacts, and to formulate policy options to enhance a more balanced and sustainable urbanization.

Partnering institutions

  1. Center for Research on Plurality in the Mekong Region (CERP), Thailand
  2. National University of Laos (NUOL), Lao PDR
  3. Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (HUSO), Khon Kaen University (KKU), Thailand

Countries covered


Lao People’s Democratic Republic

Vision and mission

The Mekong Region is experiencing urban explosion. Urban areas are growing at the rates of 4.9 per cent in Lao PDR, 4.3 per cent in Cambodia, 3.6 per cent in Vietnam, and 2 per cent in Thailand. These rates are around 2.5 times the national population growth averages. At present in the Mekong Region, 31 per cent of the population lives in urban areas, and this is expected that to exceed 50% by 2050 as the urbanization continues. (UN Habitat, retrieved 2011).

Urbanization is defined as a massive growth of, and migration to city, that yield positive and negative consequences. Urbanization is driven by a combination of population growth, migration, and incorporation of rural areas into urban areas (Middleton, Krawanchid and Johnson, 2011). Concern of rapid urbanization extends beyond the challenges faced within urban areas to the impact on its peri-urban and urban hinterlands, as rural and urban economy and social life are becoming increasingly intertwined, due to various factors including the growth of peri-urban areas, migration, lengthening commodity chain, an extraction of resources from rural areas for consumption and processing in urban areas, investment of income earned from urban areas back in agriculture. Urban hinterland can be defined as the landscape interface between town and country, or also as the transition zone where urban and rural uses, interact and often clash. Alternatively, it can be viewed as a landscape type in its own right, one forged from an interaction of urban and rural land uses. The documented impact of urbanization on rural hinterlands include, for example, changes in ecological balance, loss of agricultural land, land speculation, changes in farming practices, livelihoods and life-styles, and pollution (Brockherhoff, M P, 2000). Urbanization also has many positive impacts on the hinterlands such as greater income and job opportunities, better access to education and health care and other services. Such impacts are expected to increase, particularly in the hinterlands areas of small and medium-sized cities, which form the major characteristics of urban areas in the Mekong Region (Kammeier, 2003).

While a number of research on urbanization focused on its environmental consequences (World Bank, 1997), studies on responses of households and communities in urban hinterlands to city and town’s expansion are very limited (Van den Berg, L M, et. al., 2003). It is the intention of this research to fill up this gap.

It is now well recognized that “master planning” urban development largely failed to meet the needs of cities and their inhabitants, especially those in the shadow economy (UN-Habitat, 2009 cited in Middleton, Krawanchid and Johnson, 2011). There is also greater recognition that sustainable neighborhood within urban areas are the foundation and building blocks of sustainable urban development, and hence there is a growing trends globally for decentralization and greater participation of urban citizens, local communities, local business, civil society groups in urban planning (Middleton, Krawanchid and Johnson ,2011). In the Mekong countries, this concept of participatory urban planning has not yet received the recognition it deserved, as urban planning are either done by experts or in many cases, small cities and towns grew without planning. It is expected that the study on the responses of local people in the hinterlands will reveal the strength and potentials of local people to cope with changes, and make use of the new opportunities and challenges that accompany urbanization, and as a consequence, their roles in urban planning should be more recognized. In addition, the study will reveal the problems of urbanization faced by local people that need proper urban policy, planning, and action.

The study of urbanization process that focuses on both the impact and local responses has both academic as well as development significance. Firstly, the study will fill the knowledge gap since past studies usually gave partial facts by taking human agencies as passive recipient of negative impacts. This study that contains additional focus on communities and households responses will help in the formulation of more appropriate policies and programs. Secondly, past research indicated that the nature, severity and scope of urbanization differed from place to place and over time and therefore rather than developing universal strategies, a city specific development strategies based on environmental and socio-economic diversity is required (Kammeier, 2003). In addition, a thick description and clear analysis of the context and process will generate clearer understanding, thus making it possible for wider application. Thirdly, it has been argued that in order to understand the impact of urbanization on the environment and people, there is a need for more local-level studies (Boyle, 2005) in medium and small cities rather than in over-studied large and megacities (Redman and Jones, 2004).

This research thus has a vision to generate a sound knowledge on rural-urban relationship that will help policy makers and city/town planners to realize the importance of this inter-relationship and to make better plans that will create a more balanced development, as well as to create urban and rural collaborative partnership in specific localities.

The visions of the research are:
1) to create a more balanced development policy and strategies based on sound knowledge of rural-urban relationship;
2) to create and strengthen urban and rural collaborative partnership in specific localities to generate long term impacts.

The missions of the research are:
1) to generate a clear understanding on the impact of urbanization on the hinterlands and local responses to mitigate negative impacts and capture benefits of the urbanization process;
2) to create and strengthen academic and developmental collaboration and partnership among relevant partners and stakeholders for sustainable development.

Boundary partners

There are four groups of boundary partners with whom the project will interact directly and anticipates opportunities for influence. These are :

a) Government officials and policy makers:

- Khon Kaen Municipality,
- Khon Kaen Province
- Tambon (sub-district) Administration Offices (specific Tambon Administration Offices will be identified after the selection of hinterland communities).

- Lao National Tourism Administration
- Vang Vieng Town Development Organization.
- Vang Vieng Tourism Organization

b) Local community organizations and local leaders
These include various forms of community-based organizations (e.g. women’s groups, ethnic groups, youth groups, occupational groups, community-based cooperatives and enterprises, and churches) NGOs, as well as community leaders and religious leaders.

These groups and individuals are directly affected by the urbanization process both positively and negatively, and take up opportunities and challenges as well as endure and solve problems accompanying urbanization. They are the main agents that will influence the policy and policy implementation. Key members of these organizations will be consulted and interviewed, and some will be invited to join the meetings to be organized by the project.

c) Academic and Research Institutions and International Institutions

- Khon Kaen University (KKU)
- Research and Technology Transfer Office, KKU
- Research and Development Institute, KKU

-National University of Laos (NUOL)
-Faculty of Social Sciences, NUOL

International Institutions

These academic and research agencies will be consulted to improve this research. Their members will be invited to join research meetings and seminars, review research results and academic articles. It is expected that academic partnership will gradually be built up and strengthened.

Coordination Institutes:

Thailand : Center for Research on Plurality in the Mekong Region, Khon Kaen University (Management Unit)
Lao PDR: National University of Laos

Project’s objectives

(1) To understand the urbanization process of two urban centers in Thailand and Lao PDR;
(2) To understand the impact of urbanization on urban hinterlands as perceived by hinterland communities and households;
(3) To analyze the responses of local organizations, communities and households to the urbanization and its impacts;
(4) To provide recommendations on effective strategies and mechanism to enhance people’s participation in urban planning and plan implementation.


This research purposely selected two urban centers In Thailand and Lao PDR as case studies. The research aims to disclose the different forms of the urbanization process, the varieties of its impacts and local responses by taking two urban centers as case studies. These two urban centers have different sizes and emerged and grew over different periods of time, and are situated in different political - economic regime. The shared characteristics are that both localities grew as a result of state policy and support with the expectation that they would develop and integrate into world capitalism, where markets play an important role. Another shared characteristic is that both grew up from rural base. Khon Kaen was in the 1950s selected as growth center for the largest and poorest region of Thailand, for the green revolution and industrialization development under the economic growth and modernization model of rural development. Before such planned growth, Khon Kaen was just a tiny rural town, and had no historical township- base like other older towns in the northeast region (e.g. Udornthani, Ubonratchanani, Nakornratchasima). The growth of Khon Kaen was slow despite competitive basic infrastructural investment such as road network and train linking it to Bangkok, dams and the largest irrigation system of the region, as it cannot compete with Bangkok and other secondary cities.

Vang Vieng on the contrary grew after the socialist state of Lao PDR had adopted more open economic strategies after 1986. Vang Vieng, a small town on the main and only road from the capital city of Vientiane to the country’s tourist capital of Luang Prabang, slowly grew up as another tourist attraction sites for young backpackers. The government of Lao PDR welcomed this new trend of tourism and informally waved certain strict environmental and social measures to attract young tourists from the West and also from Asia. At present, Vang Vieng has a population of 46,000 persons, but the level of consumption of the town, lifestyles of people living in the town as affected by foreign tourist culture and service sector investors, investments, and the number of migrant workers from rural areas to work in the service sectors, is making the town becoming more urbanized than many other larger cities in Lao PDR. This research project wants to disclose these two different processes of urbanization, and to uncover the diversity and shared patterns of local responses to capture new opportunities and to solve and negotiate with the various problems that accompany the urbanization.

In order to examine the impact of urbanization on urban hinterland and rural responses, the study will use households and hinterland villages of these two urban localities as units of analysis. Village (Ban or Mooban in Thai and Ban in Lao) is the smallest administrative unit in Thailand and Lao PDR.

Three main research methods will be employed:
1. Secondary data collection and document review
Secondary data collection will be employed as follows:
1.1 Secondary data collection and document review to analyze the urbanization process of Khon Kaen and Vang Vieng
1.2 Secondary data collection and document review to find out existing knowledge and information on impacts of urbanization and local responses.

2. Preliminary Community-Profile Study
The preliminary study will be used to identify basic characteristics of hinterland communities and key issues on urbanization impacts and local responses. These data will be an important input for the design of the appropriate survey questionnaire (see next item). Another purpose is to identify the scope of the impacted hinterland communities. Semi-structured interview will be used to interview key informants from 4 hinterland communities each in Khon Kaen and Vang Vieng (altogether 8 communities).

3. Quantitative research method:
Household questionnaire survey will be conducted in 6-8 villages located at different distances to the fringe of each urban area to answer the second and third objectives of the research (see 2.4). The sample size will be determined after the population is known, but estimated to be 380-400 household for each city/town. Descriptive and bi-variate statistical analysis will be employed by using SPSS program.

4. Qualitative research method:
This method will be used to
4.1 Uncover the urbanization process of the two cities/towns as perceived by inhabitants of the rural and/or peri-urban hinterland
4.2 To analyze the impact of urbanization and local responses
4.3 To verify the research findings obtained from quantitative survey and analysis.

For each urban locality, at least four villages will be chosen for an in-depth study. Semi-structured interview, unstructured interview, group interview and focus group discussion will be used to collect data at household, community and organization levels. In-depth interview will be used to acquire data from city planners/ administrators and private sector in urban areas to answer the research’s third objective.

Expected outputs

The research outcomes and outputs, which are categorized according to the type boundary partners, include:

Research Outcomes
1. Relevant information and knowledge on urban-hinterland relationship are available for policy making and implementation
2. Increased understanding among POs on urban-hinterland relationship which will enhance their adaptive capacity and influence on urban policy and planning process
3. Long-term academic and development collaboration and partnership established and strengthened between collaborative research partners across countries

Research Outputs
1. Inception report on Khon Kaen and Vang Vieng urban and hinterland development policy, plans and planning process
2. Research report on impact of urbanization on hinterland and responses of hinterland communities and population to the urbanization
3. Policy brief and guidelines on participatory urban planning process to enhance more balanced rural-hinterland relationship.
4. Recommendation on participatory policy and planning process at local level.

Communication materials

This research project will produce a variety of communication material, namely
1. Academic papers:
- one peer-reviewed book chapter to be published by SUMERNET,
- two articles to be published in academic journals
- two articles to be presented in international conferences
2. Research Notes and Field Report
To be published in SUMERNET website, Khon Kaen University website and CERP website.

Planned project events

Vang Vieng
August 23-27, 2011 – Inception meetings in Vang Vieng and preliminary village profile study
September 19 – 29 , 2011 – Village profile study, secondary data collection and analysis
October 4-30, 2011 – Questionnaire survey in Vang Vieng
Khon Kaen
August 30-September 3 – Inception meeting in Khon Kaen and preliminary village profile study
September 19 – 29 , 2011 – Village profile study, secondary data collection and analysis
October 4-30, 2011 – Questionnaire survey in Khon Kaen

Focal point for contact
Dr. Maniemai Thongyou
Center for Research on Plurality in the Mekong Region,
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences,
Khon Kaen University, Khon Kaen 40002, Thailand,


Boyle, Torrey B (2004). Urbanization: An Environmental Force to be Reckoned with. Population Reference Bureau , retrieved on January 12, 2011.

Brockherhoff, M P (2000). “An Urbanizing World” Population Bulletin. 55(3):3-44.

Kammeier, Hans Detlef (2003). Rural Urban Sub-regional Linkages in the Mekong Region: A Holistic Approach to Development and Poverty Reduction. Manila: Asian Development Bank.

Redman, C L and Jones, N S (2004). “The Environment, Social and Health Dimensions of Urban Expansion” Population Environment Research Network. Cyberseminar “Urban Expansion: The Environmental and Health

Dimension” 29 November-15 December ,2004, www.

UN Habitat (retrieved 2011) typeid=19&catid=465&cid=2375, retrieved on January 26, 2011.

Van den Berg, L M, van Vijik, M S, and van Hoi, P (2003). “The Transformation of Rural Life in Hanoi” Environment and Urbanization. 15(1) 35-51.

World Bank (1997). Environmental Assessment Sourcebook, No 19.