Urban geography

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New York City, one of the largest urban areas in the world

Urban geography is the subdiscipline of geography which concentrates on those parts of the Earth's surface that have a high concentration of buildings and infrastructure. Predominantly towns and cities, these are settlements with a high population density and with the majority of economic activities in the secondary sector and tertiary sectors.

Research interest

Urban geographers are primarily concerned with the ways in which cities and towns are constructed, governed and experienced. Contrary to neighboring disciplines such as urban anthropology, urban planning and urban sociology, urban geography mostly investigates the impact of urban processes on the earth's surface's social and physical structures. Urban geographical research can be part of both human geography and integrated geography.

The two fundamental aspects of cities towns, from the geographic perspective are:[1]

  1. Location ("systems of cities"): spatial distribution and the complex patterns of movement, flows and linkages that bind them in space; and
  2. Urban structure ("cities as systems"): study of patterns of distribution and interaction within cities, from quantitative, qualitative, structural, and behavioral perspectives.

Research topics

Cities as centers of manufacturing and services

Cities differ in their economic makeup, their social and demographic characteristics, and the roles they play within the city system. One can trace these differences back to regional variations in the local resources on which growth was based during the early development of the urban pattern and in part to the subsequent shifts in the competitive advantage of regions brought about by changing locational forces affecting regional specialization within the framework of a market economy. The recognition of different city types is critical for the classification of cities in urban geography. For such classification, emphasis given in particular to functional town classification and the basic underlying dimensions of the city system.[2]

The purpose of classifying cities is twofold. On the one hand, it is undertaken to search reality for hypotheses. In this context, the recognition of different types of cities on the basis of, for example, their functional specialization may enable the identification of spatial regularities in the distribution and structure of urban functions and the formulation of hypotheses about the resulting patterns. On the other hand, classification is undertaken to structure reality in order to test specific hypotheses that have already been formulated. For example, to test the hypotheses that cities with a diversified economy grow at a faster rate then those with a more specialized economic base, cities must first be classified so that diversified and specialized cities can be differentiated.

The simplest way to classify cities is to identify the distinctive role they play in the city system. There are three distinct roles:

  1. central places functioning primarily as service centers for local hinterlands
  2. transportation cities performing break-of-bulk and allied functions for larger regions
  3. specialized-function cities, dominated by one activity such as mining, manufacturing or recreation and serving national and international markets

The composition of a city's labor force has traditionally been regarded[by whom?] as the best indicator of functional specialization, and different city types have been most frequently identified from the analysis of employment profiles. Specialization in a given activity is said to exist when employment in it exceeds some critical level.[3]

The relationship between the city system and the development of manufacturing has become very apparent. The rapid growth and spread of cities within the heartland-hinterland framework after 1870 was conditioned to a large extent by industrial developments, and the decentralization of population within the urban system in recent years is related in large part to the movement of employment in manufacturing away from traditional industrial centers. Manufacturing is found in nearly all cities, but its importance is measured by the proportion of total earnings received by the inhabitants of an urban area. When 25 percent or more of the total earnings in an urban region derive from manufacturing, that urban area is arbitrarily designated[by whom?] as a manufacturing center.

The location of manufacturing is affected by myriad economic and non-economic factors, such as the nature of the material inputs, the factors of production, the market and transportation costs. Other important influences include agglomeration and external economies, public policy and personal preferences. Although it is difficult to evaluate precisely the effect of the market on the location of manufacturing activities, two considerations are involved:

  • the nature of and demand for the product
  • transportation costs


Urbanization, the transformation of population from rural to urban, is a major phenomenon of the modern era and a central topic of study.[4]

History of the discipline

Cities have played an important role in geographical studies dating back to Strabo. In a 1924 study of urban geography, Marcel Aurousseau observed that urban geography cannot be considered a subdivision of geography because it plays such an important part. However, urban geography did emerge as a specialized discipline after World War II, amidst increasing urban planning and a shift away from the primacy of physical terrain in the study of geography. Chauncy Harris and Edward Ullman were among its earliest exponents.[5][6]

Urban geography arose by the 1930s in the Soviet Union as an academic complement to active urbanization and communist urban planning, focusing on cities' economic roles and potential.[7]

Spatial analysis, behavioral analysis, Marxism, humanism, social theory, feminism, and postmodernism have arisen (in approximately this order) as overlapping lenses used within the field of urban geography in the West.[8]

Geographic information science, using digital processing of large data sets, has become widely used since the 1980s, with major applications for urban geography.[9]

See also


  1. ^ Carter (1995), p. 5–7. "[...] the two main themes of study introduced at the outset: the town as a distributed feature and the town as a feature with internal structure, or in other words, the town in area and the town as area."
  2. ^ Smith, Robert H. T. (1965-01-01). "Method and Purpose in Functional Town Classification". Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 55 (3): 539–548. JSTOR 2561571. 
  3. ^ See Duncan, Otis Dudley, and Albert J. Reiss. "Social characteristics of urban and rural communities, 1950." (1956).
  4. ^ Carter (1995), p. 17. "This latter fact emphasizes that 'the most conspicuous feature of today's accelerated world population growth is its even greater rapidity of urbanization. In many periods of history, populations have grown, but the tempo and dimensions of recent years have never been equalled' (United Nations, 1969). It follows that urbanization is the predominant process in the spatial organization of the world's population and it is this which makes its geographical study an imperative and perhaps puts the niceties of definition into proper perspective."
  5. ^ Carter (1995), pp. 1–4.
  6. ^ Kaplan et al. (2004), p. 4. "The first half of the 20th century saw the gradual emergence of the field of urban geography, which was based on several fundamental concepts developed by a limited number of scholars. The first courses in urban geography were not taught until the 1940s (by Chauncy Harris, the father of urban geography,at Indiana University and by Edward Ullman at Harvard University)> The second half of the 20th century then witnessed the development of urban geography as a major substantive subdiscipline in geography. At the dawn of the 21st century, only the technical field of geographic information sciences had more members in the leading and largest professional geography society, the Association of American Geographers (AAG) than the urban geography group did."
  7. ^ G.M. Lappo & N.V. Petrov, Urban Geography in the Soviet Union and the United States; Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992; ISBN 0-8476-7568-8; pp. 15–20.
  8. ^ Kaplan et al. (2004), pp. 8–11.
  9. ^ Kaplan et al. (2004), p. 11–14.


  • Carter, Harold (1995). The Study of Urban Geography. Fourth edition. London: Arnold. ISBN 0 7131 65898
  • Kaplan, David H.; James O. Wheeler; Steven R. Holloway; & Thomas W. Hodler, cartographer (2004). Urban Geography. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 0-471-35998-X

External links

  • Imagining Urban Futures
  • Social and Spatial Inequalities
  • Urban Geography Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers
  • Urban Geography Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers
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