What is Geography?

Towards a new definition of Geography . . .

Geographers examine physical and human features, processes and systems and how they interact with the environment at local, regional, and global scales and assess them using the four concepts of Geographical Thinking:

Spatial Significance is about where a feature is located, its actual and relative location, and why it is important there; i.e. What unique natural and human features are present and how might they interact?

Patterns & Trends: A pattern is a characteristic or feature that repeats over space: within and between places or regions. Low latitudes are warm and wet; high latitudes are cold and dry. This is a pattern. Rivers form distinct and predictable drainage patterns depending on the rock and soil of a region. A trend is when a characteristic or feature changes over time, such as the population growth Canada has experienced since colonization. But a trend can also be a change over space; for example as you hike uphill, the temperature gradually becomes colder.

Interrelationships: Similar to a relationship between two people, in geography interrelationships are the interactions that occur between and among natural and human geographic features and processes. For example, the type of agricultural crop planted by farmers depends on the soil, precipitation, and temperature of the region. And, where there are mountains and snow, you will find ski resorts.

Geographical Perspectives: To fully comprehend an issue you must look into its positive and negative impacts from different points of view:
• People (e.g. health, travel, recreation, income);
• the Economy (business, industry, employment);
• the Environment (e.g. habitats, wildlife, pollution), and
Politics (power, governance).
As a discipline, Geography is uniquely placed for examining issues from different perspectives, as it specifically examines the interactions between both human and physical processes.

This ArcGIS StoryMap provides an excellent example of how Geographic Thinking works, in the Canadian Context.

Geographers lead a dual life manoeuvring back and forth between the sciences and the humanities.

Physical geographers study Earth Sciences and try to make sense of how natural systems including geology, climate, vegetations, soils, plate tectonics, glaciation, etc.

Human geographers study the socio-cultural world trying to understand our human systems including migration, urbanization, development and transportation, industry, etc..

But geography is really about both: how people and the natural world interact.

Learning Geography is all about
asking the right questions.


What is the feature, process or system?
= identify and describe the feature, process or system;

Where is it found?
= location: absolute & relative; the spatial extent of the feature, process or system;

Why is it found there?
= i.e. What processes are at work, in that location, both natural and human, to create the feature, process or system?

How does it impact 'PEEPs':
People, jobs, health, quality of life
→ the
Environment = Earth's four spheres
→ the
Economy = business & industry
Politics = individual power and that of different groups of people

These are the questions geographers are answering.

Try this Activity: gDoc | PDF

Asking the Right Questions in Geography (11x17" PDF)

Feature: natural landforms or ecosystems or human building or settlements that can be mapped; e.g. mountain, river, house, industry, golf course

Process: a series of forces that work to create and change features; e.g. precipitation, vulcanism; weathering

System: a series of processes that work at the regional or global scale; water cycle; plate tectonics

WORKED EXAMPLE – RIVERS: Asking the right questions – Geographic Thinking

Rivers are a feature in the landscape, but they are also a system with processes that change them over time. Furthermore, billions of people depend on rivers, but rivers can also wreak havoc on populations, an economy, even politics.

  1. What are rivers? (define & describe)

  • A river is a ___ that ___s

  • What are the main features of a river?

  1. Where are rivers found?

    • Where are rivers located relative to mountains and plains?

    • What is the absolute location of a specific river? Its source? Its mouth?

    • What are the features of this location?

3. Why are rivers found there?

  • What processes create rivers?

  • How does precipitation, gradient, rock type, soils and vegetation impact rivers?

  • What are the affects of erosion and deposition on rivers and how does they vary along the course of a river?

  • What patterns do rivers create?

  • How do rivers and their features change from source to mouth?

  • How do those patterns change over time?

4. How are rivers important?

  • In what ways do people depend on rivers?

  • How are rivers a part of culture?

  • What economic benefits do we rely on?

  • In social and economic terms, what are the costs of rivers flooding or drying up?

  • What are the environmental benefits of rivers in communities?

  • What issues arise from our use of rivers?

  • How do we govern the water in international rivers?

  • How can we best manage rivers to provide a range of benefits?

Using Geographical Thinking:

  1. Spatial Significance:

  • What is the actual and relative location of a river?

  • How is that location important or significant?

  1. Patterns and Trends:

  • What features of rock, soil and precipitation create the pattern of rivers in the region?

  • What is the trend in discharge through a year and over many years?

  1. Interrelationships:

  • How do human activities such as deforestation, agriculture, urbanization and wetlands impact rivers?

  • What is the relationship between rainfall and flooding?

  1. Geographical Perspectives:

  • What are the positive and negative impacts of rivers on 'PEEPs':
    → People?;
    → the Economy?;
    → the Environment?;

  • How do different groups of people perceive different uses of a river?

Now, replace "rivers" with any geographic feature, process, or system – how about "migration", "volcanoes", "urbanization", or "climate change"?

Voilà – the ideal framework for investigative learning.