What Is Settlement Geography?

Written by jane smith
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What Is Settlement Geography?
Settlement geography can help cities transition their economies. (city image by martini from Fotolia.com)

Settlement geography is the study of human land, water and resource use, population density patterns, and settlement growth. It is essential to urban planning and urban redesign. Urban planning helps ensure that growth occurs only in a sustainable fashion. Urban redesign is the science of reshaping a fading urban area to restore its usefulness to the local population, sustain growth and ensure health and safety in order to return an area to economic viability.


Settlement geography focuses on population clusters, why they arose, and what sustains them. Settlement geography is archaeology's younger sibling. As archaeologists unearthed ancient civilisations, three settlement patterns emerged: dispersed, linear and nuclear. Dispersed settlements had no central point. Linear settlements clustered along rivers, creeks and streams, and later along migration routes, railroads and highways. Nuclear settlements occurred along crossroads, at river mouths, adjacent to bays, and near centres of industry.


Geographers and archaeologists have both studied the ancient world. Geographers have applied those findings to today's challenges to make recommendations about land use, how to encourage or discourage settlement activity in a given region, and how to combat the effects of unsustainable population growth. For example, if a city arose due to one particular industry and that industry has failed or is about to fail, settlement geographers can help devise a strategy to switch to a new industry. Many U.S. cities, such as Cleveland, Ohio, have made successful transitions from dependency on single industries. These cities shifted their focus from industry to culture, tourism, finance, and information technology. The most successful used all four and more, creating an economy that could stand on its own even if any one of its main industries suffered a setback.


Settlement geography is a tool. Knowing how, where and why people choose to live in a particular area helps businesses plan where to locate new franchises. Municipal spending can be more accurately targeted. For example, if there is an area of high unemployment and low job availability and the people in that area cannot get to other areas to find employment, it is in a city's best interest to develop public transit that will get potential employees to places where they are needed. This is the justification for most bus and high speed rail systems. Helping people find work ensures that society is not burdened with providing the necessities of life to those who would be more content providing for themselves.


Regional planning commissions which make use of settlement geography theories and data are able to balance growth in a region so that it does not outstrip the ability of the local government to provide needed services. For example, if a housing development springs up next to an older established town, its sewer and water needs could become an issue. Upgrading the existing water treatment infrastructure could help avoid system overload. An overloaded water treatment system is a disease epidemic waiting to happen. Ensuring an adequate supply of clean drinking water, as well as preserving water for recreational and industrial use is a balancing act.

Cities such as Atlanta, Georgia, have seen a tremendous loss of available clean surface water due to downstream competition and several seasons of drought. Ironically, the same hurricanes that devastated the southern and eastern coast brought much needed relief to Georgia's watershed. As of September 1, 2008, Atlanta had received 30.17 inches, which is 85.7% of normal. This same time in 2007, they had only received 17.24 inches. Urban planners in Georgia will have to make some tough decisions, and people living in the area will have to change their water use, washing cars less often, xeriscaping their yards, and installing low volume flush kits on their toilets.


Settlement geography can also be misused. Too strict an application of settlement geography theories and principles could stifle innovation and commercial growth in areas of high population and low employment. Forcing people to live in marginal areas in an effort to control growth could trigger a migration to other less regulated areas with even more vulnerable ecologies. It can also be used to ensure the status quo to the extent that upward mobility ceases to exist, leading to civil unrest.

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