Human Geography of North America

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.

Sure, you've studied geography before, but have you ever wondered what impact it has had on where people decide to settle? What about how they live? This lesson provides those answers within the context of North America.

Human Geography

As you may know, North America is the third largest continent and has the fourth largest population. However, that population is not spread out evenly across that territory. In fact, the land itself has a major impact on how the population has settled across it.

The study of this impact is called human geography. In this lesson, we're going to take a look at how human geography has an impact on settlement patterns in North America. We'll see how history has influenced many of those, but all the while we will pay attention to the landforms and climates that made such patterns possible.

Big Cities Growing Naturally

Let's start with the big cities. We will look at three major cities, as well as the capitals of the United States and Canada.

The biggest city in North America is Mexico City, which has a long history of being a big city. This is because it was founded in the middle of the fertile Valley of Mexico, which is where the whole country gets its name from. It is also centrally located and, as it is the capital of Mexico, has plenty of draw to get people to move there. However, it is unlikely that the city would even exist if not for the hinterland that keeps it well stocked with everything it needs.

The next two largest cities in North America are both in the United States - New York and Los Angeles. New York got its start as a port, and it remains so today. The oldest part of New York, Manhattan, is an island that is part of a large harbor. Soon, a huge amount of trade flowed through New York, and banking became popular. As a result, New York is a powerful financial center. It was not alone in this. In fact, a stretch of cities from Boston to Washington, D.C. remains one of the most heavily urbanized areas in North America.

On the other side of the coin is Los Angeles. If there was ever a city that was both limited and encouraged by its geography, it's LA. For years, the city was tiny because of a lack of water and money. However, once prices to build aqueducts plummeted, major entertainment companies moved into town in order to take advantage of the varied scenery around the town. As a result, LA is one of the entertainment capitals of the world.

Capital Placement

Finally, we come to the capitals of Canada and the United States, Ottawa and Washington, D.C. Believe it or not, both of these cities also have human geography to blame for their settlement, even if it was less their geography and more the decision of humans.

In early Canada, there was a lot of tension between French and English speakers. Likewise, there was plenty of tension in the United States between Northerners and Southerners. As a result, the decision was made to put each country's capital between the two power bases. Because of this, Ottawa is one of the coldest capitals on earth, while Washington was built in a swamp.


Cities offer a great example to see just how humans interact with geography. Now let's shift to the other side of things. There are enormously rich farming regions throughout North America. From the Great Plains to the Deep South to the Valley of Mexico, plenty of produce comes from North America.

In all of these places, you'll find that settlement is historically thinner than it is in the great industrial regions. In fact, the transportation networks of these places were largely built to get crops and other raw materials out rather than efficiently move people around. Only recently have some of these regions, especially the warmer ones of the Deep South, seen population levels rise as people begin to move for other reasons to these regions.

Wheat is grown throughout North America

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account