Understanding the Concepts of Place & Region

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson explores two of the five themes of geography - place and region. You will learn to define each and their subcategories, along with several examples to help you remember them.

The World Around Us
Word geography written on chalk board

Every day we interact with the physical spaces around us, whether that is traveling to a distant country or finding our way home from the local store. How we get from place to place, the knowledge making these journeys possible is both a topic of study and a product of the work done by geographers. In the field of geography, professionals create maps of absolute space. Absolute space refers to a set of locations that exist regardless of how people use it, features within this space, and the ever changing borders and boundaries humans create. In fact, a geographer's work deals almost exclusively with five key themes of geography: location, place, human-environment interaction, movement, and regions. For this lesson, let's narrow the focus to two vital themes, place and region.

This Must Be the Place

Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon

What makes a place? What sets it apart from the space around it, gives it a unique identity? Basically, humans do this through the act of naming or describing how the place is different from its surroundings. Geographers define place as the physical and human characteristics of a location. The physical features might include the local climate, rivers, or valleys. The human characteristics include the culture of the people living in that place and all the ways they interact with it, like building a city or designing a park. Remember, location is another of the five themes of geography and while it is not our focus here, it is defined as a specific point in space regardless of features or human significance. Locations become places through human actions and thoughts. The physical characteristics used to define place in geography are primarily natural such as lakes, mountains, or local plants and animals. The human characteristics of place involve the people inhabiting the place, their culture, and way of life, as well as how they use and modify the environment around them.


Regions share similarities with places in that they are defined by people, separating them from the space outside their boundaries. However, they are much bigger than places, often with vaguely defined boundaries. Geographers define regions as conceptual tools people use to break up the wide world into smaller, easier to think about, units based on a characteristic, or set of characteristics. This helps them to identify the area and places within a region's boundaries. In fact, regions contain many places within them. Types of regions fall into three categories: formal regions, functional regions, and vernacular regions. Let's look at their definitions and few examples to help us remember them.

Formal Regions

Formal regions are the most defined type of region, possessing official, well-known, and clearly marked boundaries. These regions often appear on maps and official documents. Examples of formal regions include continents, countries, states, counties, cities, school districts, and any other way to define a space for legal and official purposes.

World Map
World Map

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