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“Area” is the most inclusive generic term for any portion of the surface of the earth. A given area may be large or small, ranging from the entire earth’s surface down to a single point. All areas on the earth’s surface are characterized by two properties: location and content. Some may also possess a third property—organization—particularly as a corollary of function. As described by these properties, “area” may well be the most commonly used word in the geographer’s lexicon.

Area as place. Area as characterized by its locational attribute is akin to the common-sense notion of place. It implies both absolute and relative measures. In absolute terms, a given area may be located on the earth’s surface by reference to the graticule of parallels and meridians that cover that surface, but these are themselves in large part the products of convention. They are drawn in relation not only to the equator and the poles but also to arbitrarily chosen points from which the meridians are numbered and longitudinal distances are measured. There is no intrinsically compelling reason why any one such point should be chosen over any other. In actuality, although Greenwich is most commonly accepted as the prime meridian for mapping purposes, several others, including Paris, the island of Hierro (Ferro), and Jakarta, are also used. In this sense, the “absolute” location of a place is in itself relative, but its relativity is in terms of some arbitrarily chosen point.

Location in relative terms implies a relationship between a given area and other areas or places. Thus, Delhi is located not only at latitude 28°54’N. and longitude 77°13’E. but, more importantly, in southern Asia, in the north of India, in the westcentral Indo-Gangetic plain, on the banks of the Jumna River, near the doab (interfluve) between the Indus and Ganges drainage systems, at the northern tip of the outliers of the Aravalli range, and a hundred miles south of the frontal ranges of the Himalayas. In short, all areas may be described not only in terms of some common standard reference system that is used for all places but also in terms of locational referents that vary with the individual place.

It is a fundmental axiom, then, that no two areas are alike, nor can they be. The locational referents of any one place must differ from those of every other. The uniqueness of what might be called real areas in terms of relative location is one of the basic facts of geographic methodology.

Area as content. The concept of area also implies enclosure, containment, content. As Hartshorne has pointed out (Hartshorne 1939; 1959), the content and classification of area are major topics for geographic investigation. Every area is characterized by some association of phenomena within it. This is true whether the area is chosen arbitrarily or in terms of some specified criteria. Areas are unique in this sense also. No area contains the same set of characteristics as another, in the same combination, and with the same pattern of spatial distribution. However, comparison among areas in terms of a limited number of characteristics—sometimes one, often many—may result in significant generalizations concerning distributions over the surface of the earth. “Metropolitan area,” for example, succinctly describes a highly complex spatial phenomenon, a gigantic localized association of people, material works, and activities that easily distinguish it from other types of areas. By definition the metropolitan area is associated with large numbers of people, high population densities, and particular types of structures and land uses. The variety among such areas presents a challenging taxonomic problem, which can be approached at either empirical or theoretical levels. Of course, such areas differ in relative location and in the sets of phenomena that they contain. Equally important, the elements that constitute these sets also possess distinctive geometric arrangements, which in turn provide a basis for further comparison and generalization. The morphology of settlement as a major field in geographic investigation is simply a variant of the focus on the content and classification of area, as is the comparative study of landscape.

Area as organization. The area concept may also refer to the ways in which activities and broadly social functions are distributed over the earth and interrelated as areal systems. The organization of area presents a problem of long-standing interest to the several social sciences and is the raison d’être for much contemporary geographical scholarship. It assumes some rational order in the geometry of human activity. Specifically, the concept of functional organization provides a means for comprehending the content and morphology of area.

Empirical studies suggest that men distribute themselves and their activities, particularly economic activities, according to principles that minimize randomness and maximize convenience and efficiency. The principles themselves and the ways in which they are implemented appear to differ markedly from culture to culture, and therefore from area to area, but there is considerable evidence for proposing the existence of a nested hierarchy of functionally defined areas ranging from the local to the metropolitan. As Platt (1957) and Philbrick (1957) have defined it, this hierarchy consists of groups of cell-like areal units (e.g., farms) clustered about, and tributary to, towns or central places of small size. The small-scale central places are grouped, with their theoretically circular or hexagonal hinterlands, within the tributary areas of larger towns, which, with their hinterlands, in turn appear as larger and more complex components of the hinterlands of great metropolitan areas. This hierarchy appears to exist not only as a rural-urban and interurban phenomenon but also as an intrametropolitan phenomenon as well.

In this context, the term “area” is closely related to “nodal region,” sometimes also termed “focal area,” an area defined by the organization of human activity about some central place. A town and its tributary area, or hinterland, form a nodal region; on a different level, so does a grain elevator and the area occupied by its suppliers; and on a lesser scale, a neighborhood grocery store and its hinterland of customers.

Such areas may be contrasted with the so-called uniform region, or “homogeneous area,” which is defined in terms of the uniform distribution of some phenomenon within it. The homogeneous area may or may not reflect the characteristics of organization. A Negro ghetto in a northern American city constitutes a region of uniformity in that its population is entirely Negro; so does an area in which the major type of land use is shifting cultivation or an area covered by tropical rain forest.

Area and region. In spite of the similarities in meaning and usage between the terms “area” and “region,” the two as technically employed are not necessarily equivalent. Of the two, “area” is the broader; a region, whether nodal or uniform, may be considered a special kind of area. As Hartshorne (1959, p. 131) puts it, “in using the special word ‘region’ rather than simply ‘area’ . . . even the layman implies that he regards the area called by that word as standing out in his mind, as being in some way distinct . . . the different parts of the area called a region are assumed to have in common some characteristic or association, including as a minimum a common location.” In contrast, an area may be conceived of as any arbitrarily, or even randomly, chosen segment of the surface of the earth, with no specified character to it other than internal continuity and contiguity among its subareas. The delimitation of areas in the general sense presents no intellectual problem; their bounds are entirely matters of convenience. On the other hand, the delimitation of regions is one of the more demanding and fundamental problems in geographic and human ecologic research, since it involves the ascertainment of the limits to which the distinctive homology of the region extends. Solution of the regional delimitation problem thus requires specification of standards of distinctiveness among areas, as well as the development of regional models with which empirically determined regional entities can be compared and from which they can be differentiated. Since the regional concept denotes some special way of thinking about area, the term “regionalism” has evolved. Since areas are nonspecific in this respect, the word “arealism” is absent from both social-scientific and lay parlance.

Area and space . Distinctions are also appropriate between “area” and “space,” although here again they are often used interchangeably both as abstract nouns and in their adjectival forms. Area as a concept is associated with bounding and content; space is not, since by definition it involves a boundless three-dimensional extent. An area, whether specifically a region or not, can be located four dimensionally: latitude, longitude, depth or height, and time. A “space,” or indeed space itself, cannot, since it would then have to be defined partly, and inappropriately, in terms of itself. Also, one can conceive of, and practice, the analysis of area, meaning the analysis of the content and organization of given areas, whereas the analysis of space becomes a conceptual reductio ad absurdum if space is properly understood to be only the setting within which objects can be located.

The distinction has relevance also when one contemplates the adjectives “areal” and “spatial.” These terms are most aptly used interchangeably at an abstract level in reference to the distribution of phenomena over the earth’s surface. This use is in contrast with distributions that occur along a temporal dimension. There remains a subtle but important distinction when they are used in other ways, as in such common phrases as “spatial structure” and “spatial organization.” Space itself, of course, has no character; it therefore has neither structure nor organization. “Areal structure” and “areal organization” are what is intended. Area may be characterized by organization and/or structure, and it certainly has both content and location. All phenomena, including areas, however, have a distribution through space and can be set within it. Thus, both commercial activities and the areas associated with them are distributed through space and form some sort of patterning in space. This concept has both real and theoretical significance. If one conceptually transforms space (the unbounded) into area (that is, space bounded), then the distribution of these commercial activities acquires an additional dimension, that relating to location and content.

The semantic difficulty with which the geographer and regionalist must deal is well illustrated by the concept of “spatial interaction,” first introduced into the literature by Ullman (1953). On the face of it, the phrase is a contradiction in terms, since space itself cannot interact with anything, but Ullman sidesteps the difficulty by defining it as follows: “By spatial interaction I mean actual … human relations between areas on the earth’s’ surface [our italics], such as the reciprocal relations and flows of all kinds among industries, raw materials, markets, culture, and transportation—not static location as indicated by latitude, longitude, . . . et cetera . . .” (Ullman 1953, p. 56). Significantly, what he speaks of is interaction between areas or between phenomena in areas. Therefore, the proper term for this idea would be “areal,” rather than “spatial,” interaction.

Geography and areal differentiation. The distinction between concepts of area and of space represents one of the major but not necessarily irreconcilable controversies in modern geographic methodology. When Hartshorne (1939) spoke of geography as the study of areal differentiation, he meant the comparative study that will help in understanding the principles and propositions that determine associations and relations within areal units. With reference to Ullman, Hartshorne states: Ullman has suggested that “areal differentiation” should be considered as a subconcept of geography as “spatial interaction.” The suggestion seems to me to result from a misconception of the former term, if not also of the latter. Spatial interaction can only mean relations between phenomena in different places, and these phenomena, whether in place or in movement through space, form a part of the character of each area concerned. Hence the reverse is the case: variations in stationary characteristics, or forms, and variations in characteristics of movement, or functions, whether within an area or between it and another, are both included under the concept of areal variation, or differences in areas. (1959, p. 19)

In seeming contrast to this view is that of geography as a science of distributions of various types of social phenomena, or as it is sometimes termed, a “regional science” within which attention is focused not on areas but on distributional patterns in space and the processes by which these patterns come into being and relate to others. That Hartshorne (1959, p. 133), however, has long recognized the compatibility of the areal and spatial perspectives is indicated by his statement that “the region is the areal expression of a logical generalization of process relationships, and hence a first step in the explanation of the geography of an area [our italics].” To some extent the apparent conflict between areal and spatial emphases may be traced to the historic dichotomy between regional and systematic geography, which, however, is passing from the methodological scene.

Area studies. Methodological distinctions have little apparent bearing on one of the ways in which “area” commonly is used, particularly in the United States—in the term “area studies.” This term, especially since World War II, has come to connote interdisciplinary programs of training or research on certain parts of the world, sometimes one country, often groups of them, as exemplified by Soviet area programs, in the first case, or Sub-Saharan Africa area programs, in the second. Since the areas concerned tend to be rather clearly identified and presumably have some degree of internal cultural, economic, or political homogeneity, the term “regional studies” might seem equally appropriate, but its usage is not widespread. Significantly, however, in terms of the discussion above, the term “spatial studies” is not employed in this context.

The state area. The archetypical area in the world geographical pattern is the state, or the political territorial unit at the state level. The state or its equivalent, like all areas, is bounded, and it possesses both a location and content. Like many but not all areas, it is also characterized by a functional organization that specifically identifies the territory of a given state as a unique entity and differentiates it from all others. The areal analysis of states is one of the major components of political geography. This analysis involves the comparative study of location, content, and functional organization of states. States are also, of course, regions, whether defined in terms of the relative homogeneity of political control over territory or in terms of the semi autonomous, often nodal, ecosystem that each state possesses. Area analysis involves the identification and examination of the subsystems that compose each state and the relations among them, as well as of the interrelations among states themselves. As Lösch (1940) pointed out, moreover, political territoriality and other types of regions are not necessarily coterminous, although they often coincide in various respects. At substate levels political power may be distributed through a hierarchy of areal entities, as illustrated by the states in a federal system (see Maass 1959). On the other hand, administrative entities that are, strictly speaking, functional rather than political may cut across or further subdivide these areal entities, as in the case of Federal Reserve districts within the United States. At the same time, non-political regional units often lie uncomformably upon, and conflict with, both politically defined and administratively defined areas, as in the case of metropolitan school districts, soil conservation districts, etc., in the United States. The problems relating to tensions arising from such areal contradictions provide a meeting ground for political scientist, planner, economist, and geographer alike.

Norton Ginsburg

[See alsoCartography; Ecology; Geography. Directly related are the entriesArea studies; Culture area; Region.]


Ackerman, Edward A. 1958 Geography as a Fundamental Research Discipline. Research Paper No. 53. Univ. of Chicago, Dept. of Geography.

Bennett, Wendell C. 1951 Area Studies in American Universities. New York: Social Science Research Council.

Ginsburg, Norton S. 1959 The Regional Concept and Planning Regions. Pages 31–45 in United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Regional Planning. New York: United Nations.

Hartshorne, Richard (1939) 1949 The Nature of Geography. Lancaster, Pa.: Association of American Geographers. → First published in Association of American Geographers, Annals.

Hartshorne, Richard 1959 Perspective on the Nature of Geography. Chicago: Rand McNally.

James, Preston E.; and JONES, CLARENCE F. (editors) (1954) 1964 American Geography: Inventory and Prospect. Syracuse Univ. Press.

LÖsch, August (1940) 1954 The Economics of Location. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → First published as Die räumliche Ordnung der Wirtschaft.

Maass, Arthur (editor) 1959 Area and Power: A Theory of Local Government. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Philbrick, Allen K. 1957 Principles of Areal Functional Organization in Regional Human Geography. Economic Geography 33:299–336.

Platt, Robert S. 1957 A Review of Regional Geography.Association of American Geographers, Annals 47:187–190.

Ullman, E. L. 1953 Human Geography and Area Research. Association of American Geographers, Annals 43:54–66.


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An accurate map requires precise geographic characterization of the land surface it represents. The two-dimensional extent of a region, or its area, is essential information for scientists whose studies include a geographic component. Land area measurement, however, is particularly critical for governments, industries, and individuals concerned with land management.

Human societies, beginning from the first agronomic civilizations of northern Africa , the Middle East, and China, and continuing with the modern geopolitical array of countries and cultures, have parceled their land between individuals, industries, cities, and nations. Geographers, from the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, to present-day remote satellite remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS ) specialists, have worked to devise methods of measuring land area, and of surveying land parcel boundaries.

Because the solid Earth has topography , and the twodimensional plane of the Earth's curved surface is defined by three variableslongitude, latitude , and elevationaccurate calculation of land area is often quite complex. An area measurement of a topographic surface requires summation of the areas of measured rectangles small enough to capture areal variations introduced by variations in elevation. This summation can be accomplished by measuring and adding a sufficient number of small land areas, or by using integral calculus to compute the area of a three-dimensional surface. Both methods require precise measurement of geographic coordinates; the second also requires measurement of an elevation value at each survey point. In the Roman Empire, surveying (limitatio ) and erection of measured survey markers (terminatio ), preceded construction of geographic systems called cadastres that were composed of linear structures like roads and canals, and measured in actus (an actus ) equaled 120 Roman feet, or 35.5 meters.

Cartographers during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and European colonial surveyors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, added surveyed elevations to their geographic systems by beginning surveys at sea level and calculating relative gain and loss of elevation at benchmarks. Today, satellite-aided global positioning (GPS ), aeronautical and space remote sensing, and computer-assisted mapping of geographical information (GIS), have greatly enhanced the accuracy of land area measurements. However, most present-day land area surveys, including real estate appraisals and assessments of agricultural and forestry lands, measure land area by projecting the earth's three dimensional surface on to a flat surface. So, as it was in Rome, it is today; a hilly modern acre covers more area than a flat acre.

See also Archeological mapping; History of exploration II (Age of exploration); Physical geography; Surveying instruments


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ar·e·a / ˈe(ə)rēə/ • n. 1. a region or part of a town, a country, or the world: rural areas of New Jersey. ∎  a space allocated for a specific purpose: the dining area. ∎  a part of an object or surface: areas of the body. ∎  a subject or range of activity or interest: the key areas of science. ∎  2. the extent or measurement of a surface or piece of land: the area of a triangle | the room is twelve square feet in area. DERIVATIVES: ar·e·al adj.


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area Two-dimensional measurement of a plane figure or body (such as this page) given in square units, such as cm2 or m2. The area of a rectangle of sides a and b is ab; the areas of triangles and other polygons can be determined using trigonometry. Areas of curved figures and surfaces can be determined by integral calculus.


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area clear open space; superficial extent XVI; enclosed court XVII. — L. ārea vacant piece of ground.

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