An Outline of|
THEMES AND REGIONS
T his book is about the geography of the United States. And although we look at the country's physical geography, our central interest is not landforms, climate, soils, or vegetation but the human imprint on the landscape.
This does not mean that the physical environment is ignored. In fact, in some instances it holds a central role since the physical environment often plays a significant role in the pattern of people's activities. One factor in the importance of New York City is certainly its location on one of the world's finest natural harbors. Southern Florida's long growing season and mild winters enable it to be a leader in the production of oranges, lemons, and sugarcane.
Still, Florida's mild climate does not automatically mean that it will be a supplier of oranges, and New York City's harbor is only one of many important reasons for the city's growth. The physical environment helps define human opportunities, but it does not in itself determine human activities. In general, the more advanced the level of technology, the greater the leeway a population has in dealing with the land.
It is obviously impossible to cover all the material that might fit into a geography of the United States. We have therefore chosen to divide the country into a number of areas, each of which has a special identity developed out of several interacting elements. We use these elements to form the themes around which each regional chapter is organized.
A few general cultural patterns cut across regional and political boundaries and, in many cases, ignore major differences in the physical environment. These themes characterize the ways Americans have organized their country.
Urbanization: Millions of Americans, most of them urbanites, prefer to consider their country as a basically rural place, and they seem to believe that this rurality provides the country with a basic national vigor.
There is no longer much justification for this view of rural dominance. About 70 percent of Americans live in urban areas, and more than 40 percent are in areas of 1 million people or more. In 1990, the U.S. farm population numbered about 5 million (2 percent of the population), a figure that has declined steadily since the first national census in 1790, when over 90 percent of all Americans were farmers.
Several elements of urbanization are emphasized in our discussion. Cities have a particular form, a particular layout. Most American cities have a rectangular-grid pattern, partly a result of cultural attitudes, partly a result of a desire for efficient transport before the automobile, and partly because that pattern is an easy way to survey the land. Within cities, there is a collection of industrial and commercial centers, residential areas, warehouses, and so on.
Cities exist for many different reasons. They may have an important transportation role. Or they may provide an important administrative function. Perhaps they are a center of recreation or manufacturing. Most cities, certainly all large ones, contain many different urban functions. Nevertheless, many are characterized by certain dominant functions that were the reason for their development and much of their early growth, and that today continue to give them their special character.
The pattern of continuing and often rapid urban growth in the United States during the last 100 years, coupled with the increasing mobility of the urban population, has stimulated a great sprawling pattern of urbanization. In some areas, the result of urban spread is urban coalescence, with the edges of different urban areas meeting and blending.
Industrialization: A substantial part of U.S. employment is related to manufacturing, either directly or indirectly. Most cities were founded and experienced their major periods of growth when manufacturing was the primary factor in urban growth.
Today, there is substantial regional specialization in manufacturing, partly as the result of variations in the availability of industrial raw materials and partly as the result of industrial linkages; manufacturing concerns that produce component parts of some final product are located near each other as well as near the final assembly site to minimize total movement costs.
Other important sources of variation include differences in labor availability or labor skills, in the quality of transportation facilities, and in local political attitudes. Regions tend to specialize in the production of whatever it is that they can best produce. And with this regional specialization has come regional interdependence; few sections of America are truly self-sufficient in manufacturing, in spite of what local pride might lead us to believe.
High Mobility: America's extensive transportation network is an important element in its high level of economic interaction. Goods and people move freely within and between regions of the country. Regional interdependence is great; it is made possible by these interregional flows. Relative isolation is uncommon, but it does exist.
Nearly 20 percent of all Americans change their residence in any one year. Although much of this residential migration is local in nature, it does result in substantial interregional population movement.
Until the last decade of the 19th century, there was a strong westward population shift toward frontier agricultural lands. The focus of opportunity then changed and migration shifted to urban areas. More recently, the U.S. economy has entered what some call a post-industrial phase; employment growth is primarily in professions and services rather than primary (extractive) or secondary (manufacturing) sectors. Such employment is much more flexible in its location, and there has been a more rapid growth in such employment in areas that appear to contain greater amenities.
Resources: About 25 percent of the land in row crops in the United States produces exports. Also, the country is able to satisfy much of its gigantic demand for industrial raw materials domestically. The United States has the potential to be a major supplier for a few nonagricultural raw materials internationally and is the world's leading exporter of coal.
Although the U.S. population is predominantly urban, the extraction of natural resources from its abundant base requires a large nonurban labor force. Furthermore, particularly for agriculture, the development of these resources often involves a substantial land area. As a result, the relationship between the physical environment and human adaptations to that environment are clearly visible. Government plays an important role in this relationship by establishing controls on land use and agricultural production and by regulating the development of many resources. It is partly because processes inherent in urbanization and industrialization lead to high demand for raw materials that the United States has become dependent on imported raw materials in spite of great natural resource abundance.
High Income and High Consumption: The high U.S. national income is achieved through high worker productivity, which requires a significant use of machines. And modern machines are fueled by inanimate energy sources. Mobility also implies heavy use of energy resources. High income spread somewhat evenly among a large share of the population will generate high product demand. All this increases energy consumption.
Americans consume about 25 percent of the world's total energy production. The United States imports half the petroleum it consumes, an increasing share of the iron ore and natural gas used, nearly all of its tin and aluminum, and large quantities of many other mineral ores.
High income also affects diet. Americans eat far more meat products and have a substantially more varied diet than most of the world's population. Beef and dairy production are, therefore, especially important in the agricultural economy.
Environmental Impact: One consequence of high consumption combined with resource abundance and dependence is a strong disruption of the physical environment. Resources seldom can be removed from the natural landscape without some impact, and the manufacture and use of these resources often harm the air and water. The increased severity of such environmental impacts has enlivened the argument between development and conservation--an argument that has stimulated greater governmental intervention in both processes in an attempt to establish a middle ground. As domestic resources become increasingly scarce and their costs of extraction and production increase, the importance of this conflict will grow.
Political Complexity: The United States has a complex political structure, with jurisdiction over an activity or state divided among many different decision-making bodies, some elected and some appointed.
Below the state level, the complexity of the political structure can present a major problem in the effective and efficient distribution of governmental services. Counties, townships, cities, and towns are all governed by their own elected officials. Many special administrative units oversee the provision of specific services, such as education, public transportation, and water supply. The resulting administrative pattern is often nearly impossible to comprehend, because many overlapping jurisdictions may provide one service or another in a given area.
Cultural Origins: The United States has grown from a diverse cultural background. African Americans have made important contributions to the national culture. A distinctive cultural region has developed in the Southwest, with an admixture of Hispanic Americans, American Indians, and European Americans. The Chinese contributed to the life of such cities as San Francisco and New York. This cultural diversity is an important element in the distinctive character of the country.
Geographers use regions as a neat system of categorization, a way of organizing a complex set of facts about places into a more compact, meaningful set of information. As with any categorization, the regions are satisfactory if they identify understandable patterns in the facts and if they help clarify the complex patterns.
To geographers, a region can be either nodal or uniform, single featured or multifeatured. A nodal region is characterized by a set of places connected to another place by lines of communication or movement. The places in the set are associated with each other because they share a common focus, even though each place may be quite different from the others.
In comparison, a uniform region is a territory with one or more features present throughout and absent or unimportant elsewhere. A uniform region may represent some characterization of the total environment of an area, including both its physical and cultural features. It is this type of region that we use for the general structure of this book.
Our perception of the nature of a region, of the things that together shape its personality, is based on a relatively small group of criteria. In each major section of the United States, we have tried to identify the one or two underlying themes that reflect ways in which the population has interacted (within itself or with the physical environment) to create a distinctive region. The most important identifying themes for a region may vary greatly from one region to another. It is impossible to speak of the American Southwest without a focus on aridity and water erosion, of the North without its cold winters, or of the Northeast without cities and manufacturing. The key element that establishes a total uniform region, then, is not how that section compares with others on a predetermined set of variables, but how a certain set of conditions blend there.
This scheme has resulted in our division of the United States into 14 regions (Map 1: 35K), each of which is discussed in its own chapter. These are: Megalopolis, the American Manufacturing Core, the Bypassed East, Appalachia and the Ozarks, the Deep South, the Southern Coastlands, the Agricultural Core, the Great Plains and Prairies, the Empty Interior, the Southwest Border Area, California, the North Pacific Coast, the Northlands, and Hawaii.
Within this book, regions have been presented largely as though they are distinct territorially, even though they are not. The "feeling" of a region we wish to present is a function of place, but it is also a function of the subject theme chosen. Therefore, for example, the intense urban character of Megalopolis is discussed in chapter 4, but the aspects of manufacturing that affect New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and other manufacturing core cites that comprise Megalopolis are presented in chapter 5. There are two important aspects of regional feeling in the region usually called "the Midwest"--the urban-industrial and the rural-agricultural. Both are important enough for us to treat each separately in some detail.
Rigid regional boundaries do not fit the landscape of the United States. A given portion of the country may be occupied by parts of two or more regions, but the boundaries of many regions may also be fairly broad transitional zones that contain many of a region's characteristics. At times, these zones mark an area where the mix of characteristics is so subtle or complex that it is difficult to assign the area to any one region. Parts of the margin between the Agricultural Core and the Great Plains are examples of this, as are sections of the transition between the Agricultural Core and the Deep South.
Regional boundaries and regions themselves are not static. Settlement patterns shift, society develops significant new technological abilities, and political patterns are altered; regions reflecting these patterns may expand, contract, appear, or disappear. A regionalization of the United States for the year of its discovery, 1492, would have been quite different from one for 1776, 1865, or 1991. There is no reason to believe that the pattern for 2100 will be similar to that for 2000.
An examination of the regions that we have created for this text indicates a subdivision that should be generally recognizable, although some regions may represent combinations that are normally not expected. For example, consider the Bypassed East, a combination of the Adirondacks of New York and the northeastern portion of the United States known as New England. Most casual observers firmly lump all of New England into one region, reflecting the long-term identification of the states of New England as a separate region with strong cultural cohesion. But there have been great changes in southern New England in recent decades because of heavy immigration and urbanization.
Several of the regions closely follow political boundaries. The reason for this in Hawaii is obvious. California is separated from most of its adjacent landscape because of its leadership role in changing the culture of America and its statewide political "solutions" to its local resource problems. Megalopolis has been defined traditionally along county lines.
As we mentioned, each of the regional chapters is developed around one or a few basic themes. Most of these themes are drawn at least indirectly from the basic themes of the entire book. In certain regions, the expression of some themes is stronger or clearer than others. The themes are intended to provide an explicit basis for treatment of information about the region, although, in many chapters, it will not be difficult to identify elements of national or continental geography.
|Back to Contents||Continue to Chapter 2|