1.4 The Human Landscape

The physical setting of the world’s places has undoubtedly influenced the human setting; just as human activities have shaped the physical landscape. There are currently around 7.4 billion people in the world, but these billions of people are not uniformly distributed. When we consider where people live in the world, we tend to cluster in areas that are warm and are near water and avoid places that are cold and dry. As shown in there are three major population clusters in the world: East Asia, South Asia, and Europe.

Just as geographers can discuss “where” people are located, we can explore “why” population growth is occurring in particular areas. All of the ten most populous cities in the world are located in countries traditionally categorized as “developing.” These countries typically have high rates of population growth. A population grows, quite simply, when more people are born than die. The birth rate refers to the total number of live births per 1,000 people in a given year. In 2012, the average global birth rate was 19.15 births per 1,000 people.

Subtracting the death rate from the birth rate results in a country’s rate of natural increase (RNI). For example, Madagascar has a birth rate of 37.89 per 1,000 and a death rate of 7.97 per 1,000. 37.89 minus 7.97 is 29.92 per 1,000. If the result is divided by 10,  the answer will be 2.992 per 100 or 2.992 percent. In essence, this means that Madagascar’s population is increasing at a rate of 2.992 percent per year. The natural increase rate does not include immigration. Some countries in Europe, in fact, have a negative natural increase rate, but their population continues to increase due to immigration.

The birth rate is directly affected by the total fertility rate (TFR), which is the average number of children born to a woman during her childbearing years. In developing countries, the total fertility rate is often 4 or more children, contributing to high population growth. In developed countries, on the other hand, the total fertility rate may be only 1 or 2 children, which can ultimately lead to population decline.

Several factors influence the total fertility rate, but it is generally connected to a country’s overall level of development. As a country develops and industrializes, it generally becomes more urbanized. Children are no longer needed to assist with family farms, and urban areas might not have large enough homes for large families.

Women increasingly enter the workforce, which can delay childbearing and further restrict the number of children a family desires. Culturally, a shift occurs when industrialized societies no longer value large family sizes. As women’s education increases, women can take control of their reproductive rights. Contraceptive use becomes more widespread and socially acceptable.

This shift in population characteristics as a country industrialized can be represented by the Demographic Transition Model (DTM). This model demonstrates the changes in birth rates, death rates, and population growth over time as a country develops. In stage one, during feudal Europe, for example, birth rates and death rates were very high. Populations were vulnerable to drought and disease, and thus, population growth was minimal. No country remains in stage one today. In stage two, a decline in death rates leads to a rise in population. This decline in death rates occurred as a result of agricultural productivity and improvements in public health. Vaccines, for example, significantly reduced the mortality from childhood diseases.

Stage two countries are primarily agricultural, and thus, there is a cultural and historical preference for large families, so birth rates remain high. Most of Sub- Saharan Africa is in stage two. In stage three, urbanization and increasing access to contraceptives lead to a decline in the birth rate. As a country industrializes, women enter the workforce and seek higher education. Population growth begins to slow. Much of Middle and South America, as well as India, are in stage three.

In stage four, birth rates approach the death rates. Women have increased independence as well as educational and work opportunities, and families may choose to have a small number of children or none at all. Most of Europe, as well as China, are in stage four. Some have proposed a stage five of the demographic transition model. In some countries, the birth rate has fallen below the death rate as families choose to have only one child. In these cases, a population will decline unless there is significant immigration. Japan, for example, is in stage five and has a total fertility rate of 1.41. Although this is only a model, and each country passes through the stages of demographic transition at different rates, the generalized model of demographic transition holds true for most countries of the world.

As countries industrialize and become more developed, they shift from primarily rural settlements to urban ones. Urbanization refers to the increased proportion of people living in urban areas. As people migrate out of rural, agricultural areas, the proportion of people living in cities increases. As people living in cities have children, this further increases urbanization. For most of human history, we have been predominantly rural.

By the middle of 2009, however, the number of people living in urban areas surpassed the number of people living in rural areas for the first time. In 2014, 54 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. This figure is expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050.

The number of megacities, cities with 10 million people or more, has also increased. In 1990, there were ten megacities in the world. In 2014, there were 28 megacities. Tokyo- Yokohama is the largest metropolitan area in the world, with over 38 million inhabitants.

Regional Thinking

The world can be divided into regions based on human and/or physical characteristics. Regions refer to spatial areas that share a common feature. There are three types of regions: formal, functional, and perceptual.

Formal regions, some- times called homogenous regions, have at least one characteristic in common. A map of religions in Europe, groups countries based on the dominant religion, creating formal regions. This is not to say that everyone in Spain is Roman Catholic, but rather that most people in Spain are Roman Catholic. Other formal regions might include political affiliation, climate, agricultural zones, or ethnicity. Formal regions might also be established by governmental organizations, such as the case with state or provincial boundaries.

Functional regions, unlike formal regions, are not homogenous in the sense that they do not share a single cultural or physical characteristic. Instead, functional regions are united by a particular function, often economic. Functional regions are some- times called nodal regions and have a nodal arrangement, with a core and surrounding nodes. A metropolitan area, for example, often includes a central city and its surrounding suburbs. We tend to think of the area as a “region” not because everyone is the same religion or ethnicity, or has the same political affiliation, but because it functions as a region. Los Angeles, for example, is the second-most populous city in the United States. However, the region of Los Angeles extends far beyond its official city limits. In fact, over 471,000 workers commute into Los Angeles.

County from the surrounding region every day. Los Angeles, as with all metropolitan areas, functions economically as a single region and is thus considered a functional region. Other examples of functional regions include church parishes, radio station listening areas, and newspaper subscription areas.

Perceptual regions are not as well-defined as formal or functional regions and are based on people’s perceptions. The southeastern region of the United States is often referred to as “the South,” but where the exact boundary of this region depends on individual perception. Some people might include all of the states that formed the Confederacy during the Civil War. Others might exclude Missouri or Oklahoma. In your hometown, there might be a perceptual region called “the west side.” Internationally, regions like the Midlands in Britain or the Swiss Alps are considered perceptual.

Similarly, “the Middle East” is a perceptual region. It is perceived to exist as a result of religious and ethnic characteristics, but people would not necessarily agree on which countries to include. Perceptual regions are real in the sense that our perceptions are real, but their boundaries are not uniformly agreed upon.

As geographers, we can divide the world into a number of different regions based on formal criteria and functional interaction. However, there is a matter of perception, as well. We might divide the world based on landmasses since landmasses often share physical and cultural characteristics. Sometimes water connects people more than land, however. In the case of Europe, for example, the Mediterranean Sea historically provided economic and cultural links to the surrounding countries though we consider them to be three separate continents. Creating regions can often be a question of “lumpers and splitters;” whom do you lump together and whom do you split apart? Are fewer regions united by only a couple characteristics or more regions that share a great deal in common?

Most geographers take a balanced approach to “lumping and splitting,” identifying nine distinct world regions. These regions are primarily perceptual, however. Where does “Middle” America end and “South” America begin? Why is Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country, characterized as “South” Asia and not “Southwest” Asia? Why is Russia its own regions?

While it might seem like there are clear boundaries between the world’s regions, in actuality, where two regions meet are zones of gradual transition. These transition zones are marked by gradual spatial change. Moscow, Russia, for example, is quite similar to other areas of Eastern Europe, though they are considered two different regions on the map. Likewise, were it not for the Rio Grande and a large boundary fence dividing the cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; one might not realize that this metropolitan area stretches across two countries and world regions. Even within regions, country boundaries often mark spaces of gradual transition rather than a stark delineation between two completely different spaces. The boundary between Peru and Ecuador, for example, is quite relaxed as international boundaries go and residents of the countries can move freely across the boundary to the towns on either side.

When we start to explore the spatial distribution of economic development, we find that there are stark differences between and within world regions. Some countries have a very high standard of living and high average incomes, while others have few resources and high levels of poverty. Politically, some countries have stable, open governments, while others have long-standing authoritarian regimes. Thus, world regional geography is, in many ways, a study of global inequality. However, the geographic study of inequality is more than just asking where inequalities are present; it is also digging deeper and asking why those inequalities exist. How can we measure inequality? Generally, inequality refers to uneven distributions of wealth, which can be challenging to measure. By some accounts, the wealthiest one percent of people in the world have as much wealth as the bottom 99 percent. Wealth inequality is just one facet of global studies of inequality, however. There are also differences in income: around half of the world survives on less than $2 per day, and around one-fifth have less than $1 per day. There are also global differences in literacy, life expectancy, and health care. There are differences in the rights and economic opportunities for women compared to men. There are differences in the way resources are distributed and conserved.

Furthermore, these differences do not exist in a bubble. The world is increasingly interconnected, a process known as globalization. This increased global integration is economical but also cultural. An economic downturn in one country can affect its trading partners half a world away. A Hollywood movie might be translated into dozens of different languages and distributed worldwide. Today, it is quite easy for a businesswoman in the United States to video chat with her factory manager in a less developed country. For many, the relative size of the world is shrinking as a result of advances in transportation and communications technology.

For others in the poorest, most debt-ridden countries, the world is not flat. As global poverty rates have decreased over the past few decades, the number of people living in poverty within Sub-Saharan Africa has increased. Also, while global economic integration has increased, most monetary transactions still occur within rather than between countries. The core countries can take advantage of globalization, choosing from a variety of trading partners and suppliers of raw materials, but the same cannot always be said of those in the periphery.

Globalization has often led to cultural homogenization, as “Western” culture has increasingly become the global culture. American fast-food chains can now be found in a majority of the world’s countries. British and American pop music plays on radio stations around the world. The Internet, in particular, has facilitated the rapid diffusion of cultural ideas and values. However, how does globalization affect local cultures? Some worry that as global culture has become more homogenized, local differences are slowly erasing. Traditional music, clothing, and food preferences might be replaced by foreign cultural features, which can lead to conflict. There is thus a tension between globalization, the benefits of global connectivity, and local culture.

It is the uniqueness of the world’s regions, the particular combination of physical landscapes and human activities that have captivated geographers from the earliest explorers to today’s researchers. Moreover, while it might only be interesting to read about distant cultures and appreciate their uniqueness, geographers continue to dig deeper and ask why these differences exist — geography matters. Even as we have become more culturally homogeneous and economically interconnected, there remain global differences in the geography of countries, and these differences can have profound effects. Geographic study helps us understand the relationship between the world’s communities, explain global differences and inequalities, and better address future challenges.

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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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