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Regions of the United States, The Nature of Regions

common characteristic of mountains, functional region, Heartland region, natural regions, national background

When examining a large geographic unit, such as the United States, geographers often divide the country into smaller regions. Dividing into parts allows us to better understand unique areas of the nation and how they combine into a whole. By analyzing regions, geographers can better understand how humans occupy and use the surface of the earth.

Regions can vary greatly in size. A region may be as small as a backyard or as large as a continent. For instance, a salesman making business calls in an unfamiliar town will need to learn about a relatively small geographic region. On the other hand, a traveler making a trip around the world or a geographer compiling statistics about a large nation will examine a region of considerably larger scope. What is important is understand how knowledge of these regions helps us more fully appreciate the world in which we live.

Regions are not as clearly defined in our real lives as they are on our maps. Sharp and distinct borders are rare. Most boundaries are transitional as regions merge comfortably into each other. The characteristics that distinguish one region gradually give way to the characteristics of its neighbor. Nonetheless, each geographic region has specific characteristics that can be experienced in the real world and that clearly differentiate it from neighboring regions. Geographers have defined two kinds of regions—uniform and functional.

A uniform region is distinguished by some characteristic—such as climate, soil, landforms, language, religion, and social customs—that is common throughout the region. Some uniform regions are natural regions—their common characteristic is a feature of the natural environment. Examples include the Rocky Mountains or the Appalachians, which both have the common characteristic of mountains. The Pacific Northwest shares a common climate: It has wet weather and mild temperatures.

Other uniform regions are classified on the basis of human or cultural characteristics. Areas that are not physically different from neighboring geographic locations might be classified as distinct regions because of factors such as the type of economy, political organization, or historical background, or because the population shares a similar ethnic or national background, language, religion, or racial origin. Examples of such uniform regions include the Midwest, which has a common agricultural economy emphasizing the production of corn, hogs, and soybeans; the Amish religious communities of eastern Pennsylvania; the Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco; the concentrations of African Americans in most major cities; or the Hispanic cultural areas in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

The second type of region is the functional region. A functional region is defined by its internal organization, which usually centers on some focal point. This could be a city, a school in an educational district, a shopping center in a large market area, or a large company that employs a sizeable number of workers.

The best example of a functional area is a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). The United States Bureau of the Census identifies an MSA as a central city of 50,000 people or more, the surrounding county, and all adjacent counties in which jobs or commercial activity link a significant portion of the workforce to the central city or central county. There are presently almost 300 MSAs in the United States. They range from urban giants, such as the New York City MSA, which includes 18.3 million residents (1997 estimate) in the city and in the surrounding suburbs of New York, New Jersey, and Long Island, to smaller communities, such as Enid, Oklahoma, with a population of 57,000.

The concept of a functional region is important because the United States is an urban society, and people typically live or work in a central city. They shop in the city, read the urban newspaper, watch television programs that are broadcast from the central city, and generally identify themselves as residents of a particular metropolitan area.

Moreover, an area can be a cultural uniform region, a natural uniform region, and a functional region all at the same time. For example, the Heartland region of the United States, southeast of the Great Lakes, can be categorized as a uniform region due to common natural characteristics such as the prevalence of trees, the abundance of small bodies of water, and the presence of productive soils. It also shares common cultural factors such as a mixture of agricultural and manufacturing-based economies. The Heartland is a functional region as well, unified by a system of rails, roads, and inland waterways that serve the area’s economy.

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