How Physical Factors Impact Population Distribution & Livelihood

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Physical factors have a major impact on how populations choose to distribute themselves. In this lesson, we'll see what factors shape the desire to build a settlement.

Where to Settle?

Let's say that you are the leader of a small group of explorers that has been assigned to settle a sector of a new planet. There are other small groups going to different parts of the planet, but you've been assigned a varied territory.

How do you decide where to settle? Sure, you could just throw a dart at the map, but wouldn't it be nice to incorporate thousands of years of combined human intelligence in determining the best place? Luckily, human patterns of settlement usually follow basic rules that, acknowledged or not, can be used to describe much of the settlement on our own planet. Let's look at a few of the factors that determine location of human distribution.

Landforms and Resources

First things first, check for landforms. Large human settlements prefer relatively flat areas, while you'll see less dense settlements on the hills. After all, you probably don't know of that many cities that were built in the middle of mountain ranges.

Oh, yeah, there are some. Denver, for example, is a large city in the mountains. So are many cities in the Andes Mountains. The reason for this is simple. The desire for flat land, useful for farming and trade, has often had to be balanced with the mineral wealth that can be found in more mountainous terrain. Colorado made $3 billion off of mineral revenue in 2008, and Colombia (which has the Andes running through it) had $3.6 billion in mining investments in 2013. So wherever you decide to settle, keep resources in mind.

Not ideal for a metropolis


Of course, the land itself isn't everything. Climate, or the average weather over a period of time, matters too. You won't want to put your settlement someplace too cold, or else you won't be able to grow your own crops. However, someplace too hot could be uncomfortable and breed diseases that limit the productivity of your people.

Climate doesn't just mean temperature, however. Rainfall amounts matter here too. Remember that food you were supposed to be growing? Rainfall or some other source of water, will help with that. After all, with water from the Nile River you could build a city as big as Cairo, with more than 20 million people in its metro area. Without it, and you're stuck with one of the small desert oases that can be found just 100 miles away from that metropolis.


Finally, as in the real estate business, location matters. In the past, defense was important, so many cities were on small hills so they could have a good view of the area and foresee potential attack. Switzerland is full of mountains but has little in the way of mineral resources. Instead, the Swiss used their homeland's natural defensive capabilities as an advantage (and now also as a tourist attraction). Armies don't do well conquering mountainous regions, so the Swiss were able to better guarantee the security of valuables deposited with them. Rome too was built on top of seven hills for the defensive reasons.

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