Von Thunen's Model & Land Use: Definition & Application

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  • 0:04 Human Geography
  • 1:01 The Von Thunen Model
  • 2:13 The Four Zones
  • 4:42 The Von Thunen Model Today
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Take your average piece of land. People could choose to use it in a dozen different ways. Can you guess which way they'll choose? Von Thünen believed he could, and he developed a model to do so, which we'll explore in this lesson.

Human Geography

If you look to your left and then to your right, you should notice that you exist in physical space. This may seem like an obvious statement, but we don't always talk about human history or experiences in spatial terms. The realization that this is important to do is the reason for the discipline of human geography, which examines how humans interact in real, physical space.

Human geography as a recognized discipline is relatively young among the social sciences. It can be difficult to test in a scientific way, but one of the first people to clearly present a method of testing human geography was German economist and farmer Johann Heinrich von Thünen, who lived from 1783-1850. Von Thünen kept meticulous notes of his farm's transactions and used these records to help formulate a theoretical model to explain the ways humans use agricultural land. We call this the Von Thünen model.

The Von Thünen Model

The Von Thünen Model is based on a book that von Thünen published in 1826 entitled The Isolated State. In it, he presents a hypothetical country completely isolated from external factors. The state, he asserted, had completely uniform soil and climatic conditions, and only one city. Does a city like this actually exist? No. What von Thünen had done, in essence, was to create controlled, laboratory-style conditions in which he could conduct an experiment on human land use. His model was a space to hypothesize over land use without the influence of other factors, which could then be applied and compared to the real world.

So, what exactly did von Thünen's model predict? Based on his own research on land use, von Thünen predicted that agricultural land use was defined by a relationship between the cost of the land and the cost of transporting agricultural products to market. Think of it this way: outside the city limits, there is available land. How should people use this land? Are they more likely to use it for growing fruit, for ranching, for growing wheat, or will they use it for timber? Von Thünen's model is a way to predict this.

The Four Zones

In von Thünen's land-use model, he predicts that people will organize their systems of land use into four concentric circles, radiating outwards from the city (where the markets are located and agricultural products are actually sold). Each zone has a different character, based on the cost of land and the cost of getting the products to the city.

The first zone, according to von Thünen, will be used to produce products that spoil quickly, like fresh fruit, vegetables, and dairy. These have to be close to market because they can't be transported very far. The land closest to the city is most expensive, but these products also make the most money. The land in this entire zone is, therefore, most likely to be used for produce and dairy because the expensive land demands a high-yield product, but the low cost of transportation to market allows for expensive, spoilable crops.

The second zone is a little further from the city, beyond the point where spoilable products are lucrative. In the second zone, von Thünen predicted that most land would be maintained as a forest and used for lumber and fuel. It's important to remember that this was a time when people's homes were still heated by fireplaces and any new construction required accessible wood.

Beyond this, von Thünen predicted a third zone, this one used for grains and tubers like wheat or potatoes. Field crops like these could not be sold for as much money as fresh produce, so farmers couldn't afford the land right next to the city. Since they were further away, however, they needed crops that could be stored for a long time, reducing the number of trips the farmers had to take to the market. Rather than traveling to the city every day to sell their products, they only had to travel occasionally.

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