Ten Geographic Ideas That Changed the World
Adapted by James Hayes-Bohanan from the book by Susan Hanson.
Dr. Hayes-Bohanan is Associate Professor of Geography, Bridgewater State College. He is also co-director of the U.S.-Brazil Consortium on Urban Development.

More than most academic disciplines, geography has a bit of an identity problem, as people commonly assume that the discipline was exemplified by poorly-taught lessons of place-name memorization in grade school In an effort to remedy this unfortunate situation, Dr. Susan Hanson assembled a distinguished group of geographers to write about ten important geographic ideas. Their goal was not to describe the field of geography systematically or fully; rather, they set out to provide non-geographers with ten, solid examples of geographic ideas. They succeeded admirably, and have helped professional geographers everywhere to be more articulate about our profession. The following excerpts are meant to provide the briefest introduction, so that readers can follow up by getting hold of a copy of the book. A full citation appears at the bottom of the page.
Ten Geographic Ideas


1. The Idea of the Map
Anne Godlewska

"Of all the ideas explored and developed by geographers over the last several thousand years, the map has become the most central to Western civilization. Once the privilege instrument of monarchs and prelates, it is now the everyday tool of magazine readers, weather watchers, mall users, museum visitors, and the dwellers of labyrinthine modern office buildings....
"All maps are not born equal. The placemat map and the topographic map play radically different social roles, depending not only on their intrinsic nature but also on the context of their production and use.... Central to many of our most astonishing discoveries, from continents to the earth's history, the map is also a testament to our overweening desire to control and dominate others, nature, and even our past."

2. The Weather Map: Exploiting Electronic Telecommunications to Forecast the Geography of the Atmosphere
Mark Monmonier

"Weather is the soap opera we all watch.... An ongoing drama that affects our lives, the weather story is common ground for casual conversations and new acquaintances. What we rarely talk about, though, is the way the story reaches us. Instead of going outside to sniff the breeze, we merely turn on the television or check the daily paper for a wealth of information about today's weather, tomorrow's weather, and weather across the country. Weather maps have well-established slots on morning and evening TV newscasts and are the starring attraction on their own cable channel, available 24 hours a day.... Snapshot views of the state of the weather are so readily available, we easily forget they are one of the great inventions of modern geography."

3. Geographic Information Systems
Michael F. Goodchild

"Over the past three decades [now closer to four], as part of a more general trend toward the use of digital technology for information handling, a significant change has occurred in the nature of geographic information and its role in society. Unlike numbers and text, maps and images have created major problems for digital storage and processing because of their relative complexity and high density of information. The so-called 'geographic information technologies' that have appeared over the past twenty [or more] years and grown to form a major new area of application in electronic data processing are the result of significant research developments in hardware and software. The new technologies are likely to be every bit as the map has been on our thinking about the world. They broaden our perspective by offering new capabilities that are less constrained, but at the same time they impose new filters that may be just as subtle as the ones associated with paper maps."


4. Human Adjustment
Robert W. Kates

"The concept of human adjustment, applied fifty years ago to floodplains and now to global [climate] change, has served as a practical guide to action, as research paradigm, and as aspiration for humane coexistence with the natural world. The concept is rooted in antiquity as 'art in partnership with nature,' but it was first given its modern expression by Gilbert F. White.
Based on research in which he identified eight specific forms of human adjustment to floods, White identified four principles to ensure the optimal use of floodplains. "First, public policy should take into account all possible adjustments. Second, it should recognize that adjustments are not neutral but rather can favor one form of floodplain use over others. Therefore, third, society should consider carefully the various uses of the floodplains made possible by such adjustments, recognizing the differential need for floodplain use and location. And fourth, society should weigh the full range of social costs and benefits it incurs in employing these adjustments, not merely the costs and benefits that are easy to measure."
Kates goes on to describe how White's paradigm shift -- sometimes called (archaically) the Man-Land tradition -- has influenced public policy related to a wide variety of environmental hazards and constraints.

5. Water Budget Climatology
John R. Mather

"Many knowledgeable individuals believe that water will be the next real environmental crisis for the world. Many regions of the word face difficult water problems, including quality and quantity of supply, ownership of water rights, the loss of fresh water sources through misuse, and even the need to create new supplies to meet growign demands. Comprehensive plans based on quantitative knowledge of our water resources are necessary if rational development of these resources is to occur.
"The concept of a climatic water budget is fundamental to any evaluation of what might happen as societies, either willfully or inadvertently, undertake both small- or large-scale modifications of their environments. Such a water budget results from a daily, weekly, or monthly comparison of the supply of water from precipitation with the climatic demand for water as given by evapotranspiration...."
These budgets are influenced both by "natural" factors and by changes in either precipitation, temperature, or land use invoked by humans (see Chapter 6 below). Land use matters greatly, because different surfaces can store dramatically different amounts of water in the soil, and can likewise evaporate dramatically different amounts of water from plant or inert surfaces.

6. Human Transformation of the Earth
William B. Meyer and B. L. Turner, II

"In the phrase 'human transformation of the eart,' the adjective is not superflous. For billions of years, the earth has been transforming itself, changing both ephemerally and irreversibly at scales from the local to the global. The recognition of natural environmental transformation is an idea with a long and interesting history of its own. Recognition of such change has often gone along with the idea that we should do what we can to stop it....  But as the twentieth century draws to a close, human action has become unmistakeably the principle force altering the earth's surface, and in the minds of many, it has become far more threatening than any natural force of change."


7. Spatial Organization and Interdependence
Edward J. Taaffe

"Evidence for the many ways in which spatial organization links individuals, cities, regions, and nations is around us every day. Driving through the countryside from Milwakee to Chicago, for instance, we notice that television antennas bein to change from north-pointing to south-pointing, and that the mailbox logos shift from Milwaukee newspapers to Chicago newspapers. The network television programs we watch in either city will usually emanate from New York, Washington, or Los Angeless -- and will often focus on events in far-off places such as London, Moscow, or Sarajevo. Understanding the spatial organization that links cities, regions, and nations is increasingly essential as improved transport and communications speed up the daily flows of peopl, goods, and information. As these linkages accelerate and strengthen, the interdependence of places at all geographic scales becomes increasingly clear.... The geographer's concern with spatial organization is reflected at all scales, within and among neighborhoods, cities, regions, and nations."

8. Nested Hexagons: Central Place Theory
Elizabeth K. Burns

"As Labor Day approaches, we travel with our children to a regional mall to buy back-to-school clothing, but for a pair of socks a small neighborhood store will usually suffice. We do our weekly grocery shopping at a neighborhood supermarket or discount warehouse, but when all we need is a half-gallon of milk or a bag of Doritos, we go to the nearest convenience store or gas station food mart. For a routine medical checkup we go to a nearby doctor's office or clinic, but for major surgery we travel to a large regional hospital.
"Similar patterns can be found in the largest metropolitan areas and smallest rural towns."
"Central place theory provides a comprehensive approach to understanding the spatial organization of human settlements, specifically the location of consumer goods and services. Its wide influence lies in recognizing predictable relationships among consumers, firms, and urban places."

9. Megalopolis: The Future is Now
Patricia Gober

"The idea of megalopolis was popularized by the French geographer, Jean Gottmann, around 1960. The term can be used in two ways: as the proper name for Gottmann's original study area -- the urbanized Northeast of the United States -- and as a generic term for the coalescence of metropolitan areas into a continuous network of urban development. Megalopolis symbolized an enlarged scale of urban life, new forms of spatial organization, changing modes of economic behavior, and the advent of information as the raw material of urban economic life. Gottmann went so far as to argue that megalopolis signaled a turning ponit in the history of human settlement.
"This chapter explores how and why did megalopolis become such an important idea, how it was used to explain the momentous geographic, economic, political, and social changes in American cities, what effects it had on the discipline of geography, how it entered the popular lexicon, and what it says about the future of urbanization worldwide."


10. Sense of Place
Edward Relph

"...sense of place can be a learned skill for critical environmental awareness that is used to grasp what the world is like and how it is changing."

Source: Hanson, Susan, ed. 2001. 10 Geographic Ideas That Changed the World. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

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