What We Study in Urban Geography

Geography is the study of the physical and human/social environments of the Earth, while urban inquiry focuses on the people and processes of cities and towns — which now account, for the first time in human history, for a majority of the world’s population.  Urban geography, then, is concerned with the relations among people, and between people and their environments, in cities and towns across the world.

Such a simple definition is indeed helpful, but it’s only a first step.  Consider both terms in the phrase “urban geography.”  The “urban” is often a debated category:  for some, the term includes a wide range of comparatively dense settlements, from big cities all the way to small towns and even low-density suburbs out on the edges of cities; for others, the word is only useful if it refers to the densest parts of the biggest cities with millions of people.  There is also some disagreement, moreover, on what is distinctively and fundamentally urban about the important social, economic, and political changes of our era:  yes, we see a lot of fascinating things happening in cities, but does the city change any of the processes underway in society?  Despite these disagreements — and perhaps because of them — the “urban” is at the heart of the most urgent questions being asked in many fields today.  One of the most prominent urban geographers sums up the history this way:

The study of urban places is central to many social sciences, including geography, because of their importance not only in the distribution of population within countries but also in the organization of economic production, distribution, and exchange, in the structuring of social reproduction and cultural life, and in the exercise of political power.  Sub-fields of the different social science disciplines were established in the decades after the Second World War to study these separate components, such as urban anthropology, economics, geography, politics, and sociology; later attempts were made to integrate these under the umbrella title of urban studies.”  (Johnston 2000, p. 870).

The second part — geography — brings us into interesting territory.  Many people don’t really understand what geography is, other than the elementary-school memorization of countries, capitals, and commodities.   Don’t we already know where everything is?  But even once we get past those widespread popular misconceptions, it can still be rather difficult to categorize geographers.  “Like other aspects of human geography,” Paul Knox and Linda McCarthy write, “urban geography is concerned with ‘local variability within a general context.’  This means that it is concerned with an understanding of both the distinctiveness of individual places (in this case, towns and cities) and the regularities within and between cities in terms of the spatial relationships between people and their environment.”   (Knox and McCarthy 2005, p. 2, citing Johnston 1984, p. 444).  Environment means both the physical-natural and human-social worlds, reflecting the shared heritage of human and physical geography.  In turn, the human-physical duality in the field hints at the sense of ambiguity that you probably detect when you talk with geographers:  they’re pretty hard to pigeonhole, not only because some of them study physical phenomena (climate, rivers, mountains, forests) while others focus on human processes (social, economic, political).  But they also seem to go about their work in very different ways, using different tools, languages, and styles of communication.  As a result, geographers might very well be best described as undisciplined members of an elusive discipline.  If you’re a bit unsettled by all this ambiguity, you’re in good company.  The eminent historian of geography David Livingstone describes efforts to summarize the field this way:

“Because the term ‘geography’ means, and has meant, different things to different people in different times and places, there is no agreed-upon consensus on what constitutes the project of writing the history of this enterprise.  Moreover, while the story of geography as an independent scholarly discipline is inescapably bound up with the history of the professionalization of academic knowledge since around the middle of the nineteenth century, it is clear that the history of geography as a discourse not only operates without such constraints but also reaches beyond the historical and institutional confines of the modern-day discipline.  Of course geography as discourse and discipline are interrelated in intimate ways — one might even say that the purpose of a discipline is precisely to ‘discipline’ discourse.”  (Livingston 2000, p. 304).

First, how do cities and other kinds of human settlements vary across time and space?  How has the evolution of cities reflected prevailing historical conditions?  What are the crucial differences between cities within particular regions or countries, and between different countries?  How do certain cities reflect the distinctive circumstances of their geographical context?

Second, what regularities unite seemingly different cities?  What are the similarities in patterns, processes, and relationships within different cities, and in networks between cities?

Third, how do social relations shape the form of the city?  How are particular activities, land uses, and social groups distributed within and among cities?

Fourth, how does the form of the city shape social relations?  How do spatial constraints and locational considerations, for example, influence the way that people decide where to live and where to work?  How do the geographies of cities created in previous generations influence the decisions of today’s corporations, investors, and governments as they gradually create new urban geographies?

Urban Geography is a new branch of geography which developed 20 th century for
the first time, Mr. Karl Massert had gives the outline of Urban Geography in 1907. In

1915 the study of Urban Geography is started in Chennai, In 1949, Griffith Taylor

has written a book by the name of “Urban Geography” exactly, the starting of the
study of Urban Geography is due to the work of R.L. Singh in  1955.
Aurousseau (1924) was among the first ones who gave an outline of the subject matter of
the urban geography. He is of the view that since this part of geography embraces a large
part of human geography if fails to be a specialized subject and therefore is not sure about the nature of urban geography. But after analysing various approaches he concludes that the regional study of towns and their functional study do form an important component of its scope. This gave impetus to the ‘site and situation’ and ‘functional’ approaches within this discipline.
The morphological approach gained momentum with the emergence of the Chicago School in the late 1920s. They paid attention to diverse social and economic factors that were responsible for the segregated land use in the city. Thus, now the scholars diverted their attention to the complexities of the cityscape rather than concentrating on the growth and layout of the cities. This gave foundation to the new urban geography where this discipline became more of an integrated systematic study. In the words of Dickinson (1947), urban geography is not about planning but is concerned with various factors which are inherent to the spatial and geographical structure of the city upon which planning should be based.
With planning gaining emphasis, functions too became important as now location was
understood through functions that are what a town does or did in the past. The functions
now also determine the pattern of city’s growth and development. When urban geography started crystallising into a well define systematic study; came the quantitative revolution.
Model building came into existence and theory had to be tested in reality; which usually
involved statistical techniques; the most significant example being Christaller’s central
place theory (1933). Quantification although transformed vague descriptions into crisp
models through which theory could be derived, it did not last long and collapsed. It became evident that explanations conceived at the initial level were not enough. The scholars moved towards what is called the behavioural approach. This approach was deep rooted therefore provided better and satisfactory answers. Now the studies were dominated with the studies of behaviour of the consumer and choices of the residence along with people’s perception of the city and the opportunities it offers. After the Second World War, the urban geographers acted more as consultants to different planning organisations and moved away from the “social conscience” approach which dealt with the study of spatial inequalities in urban settlements. Johnston (1977) correctly identifies three branches within  the urban geography that were the result of these changes in the form of three different approaches. The first one is based onnomothetic philosophy and is quantitative in nature, where the geographer documents the spatial organization of the phenomenon. The second approach is behavioural in nature as it studies individual activities within their paraphernalia. The third approach is radical in nature as it stresses on inequality and constrains that the society imposes on the behaviour of certain identified groups within the city. The above account clearly depicts that over time urban geography has become less unified and so it has become very difficult to compartmentalise its scope. Nevertheless one can delineate the thrusts of the urban geography (Northam, 1975)

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About Rashid Faridi

I am Rashid Aziz Faridi ,Writer, Teacher and a Voracious Reader.
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