Regional Geography

midwest region U.S.
States often considered part of the Midwest region, U.S.

Regional Geography has been around since the early days of global exploration, when travelers would use the physical and human characteristics of regions to describe places where they visited, helping to create the detailed maps of formally uncharted territories. This allowed early explorers to find new land and build colonies, demonstrating a country’s wealth and power.  In today’s society, regional geography is still important and is used by planners and geographers on a local, regional and international scale. Most geographers, however, specialize in a particular topic (e.g., economics, politics, urban sustainability) first, then secondarily focus on a particular region (e.g., North America, central Asia).

What is a region?

A region is a basic unit of space characterized by a physical or human feature such a language, landforms, economy, climate, topography, boundary or culture. All regions have an area, boundaries and a location with an individual identity which makes it different from all the areas around it. Boundaries between regions are normally marked by a gradual change rather than a sharp break in character. These transitional zones, which represent the edges of each region, are also of significant interest to geographers.

Different types of regions

The study of Regional Geography can be divided into a number of different areas. Each area focuses on a specific type of region, allowing different areas around the globe to be grouped together.

Formal Region – A formal region is an area defined formally, often by the government, where shared characteristics may be common human or physical features, such as the climate of an area. These are often demarcated by political boundaries. Cities, states and countries are all formal regions, along with ecosystems such as rainforests or mountain ranges. Examples include New York State, the country of Denmark and the Amazon Rainforest.

chicago functional region
The Chicago metropolitan area, or “Chicagoland”, is a distinct region that has formal, nodal, and functional characteristics.

Nodal Region – A nodal region is an area which connects one place to another with strong links. This may be through transportation links such as roads, railway links and airports. An example of this would be an area where people commute from the suburbs to the city on a daily basis for employment. Other links include communication such as telephone signals, Wi-Fi or TV signals. Physical barriers may interfere with these links, creating natural barriers and perhaps a new region. Finally, economic activities can have an impact on a nodal region. A newspaper company will only serve a certain area associated with a particular region. A paper delivery route illustrates a nodal region surrounding a business.

Functional Region – A functional region is an area organized through economic linkages. Within a functional region, certain types of industries and economic activity are common, and these business often share strong linkages. The functional region generally contains a central place (usually an urban center) and its surrounding market territory. The region will have a boundary related to a practical function within the given area.  For example, a fishing town where the main economic activity is based on the fishing industry will have a boundary along a stretch of coast where fishing occurs.

Administrative Region – Each district within a state would be classified as an administrative region. Local government functions would be carried out by the local authorities in these administrative regions. These functions include planning services, fire service, waste disposal and road maintenance.

Vernacular region – A vernacular region is based on a shared feeling or attitudes of the people who live in the area. The boundaries of vernacular regions are not always distinct, as they may be perceived differently from person to person.  Vernacular regions include concepts such as the region in the United States known as the Midwest. Each individual might have a different idea about the location of the boundaries of the area, potentially due to individual perception rather than any formally agreed-upon criteria.

Cultural Region – Cultural regions are areas associated with language or religion. Examples include the Gaeltacht region within Ireland, an all Irish language area, or the Flemish speaking north of Belgium.

What is a Realm?

A realm is a large regional area based on similar spatial characteristics. South America, for example, would be considered a realm. It is a single, contiguous continent that exhibits many similar social, cultural, and economic characteristics throughout its territory. Based on shared cultural characteristics and backgrounds, the world can be divided into 12 realms as highlighted in the map below. Realms, however, are subjective and it’s important to consider that not all geographers agree on how many realms there are or where exactly their boundaries should be drawn.

world geographic realms
World geographic realms. Credit: H.J. de Blij, P.O. Muller, and John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

The importance of Regional Geography

For Geographers, regional geography is a way to organize and simplify the vast amount of spatial information that exists in the world. Geographers also regard information gathered from regions essential in creating and analyzing spatial data gathered via remote sensing and other sources. Regional Geography offers an ideal field of application for geographical thinking and methods. It also helps to break down the world into areas to make information easier to process and display. Regional geography provides a long-standing means of conducting geographic research; comparing data or maps to understand trends, identify patterns, or predict future events is still a crucial part of the discipline.

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