Regional Geography of North America

*Review differences between states, nations, and countries.

*What do the students think of Joel Garreau’s “Nine Nations of North America?”

*The Breadbasket is also known as the Grain Belt, and the Canadian part in particularly is often called the Prairie Provinces.  According to Garreau, the main fear of the Breadbasket is that family farms will be swallowed by big farming businesses—agribusiness.  The class textbook says only about 5% of all farms are owned by big businesses, however, those are some of the largest farms in America, with the most production, and their control of American agriculture is growing, in part because even those farms that are not owned by agribusinesses often work under contract to them.  For example, in 1980, about 5% of hogs sold in America were sold under a commercial farming contract; in 1997, about 60% were.  In many ways, this is still the heartland of America; it is no accident that the ‘American accent’ we hear on TV from most of our newscasters and actors is really a mid-western accent.

*Ecotopia still exists, although it has seen other fringe movements, too.  Grunge and Nirvana and Starbucks all came from Ecotopia’s Seattle, and Southern California still wants all their water.  Although nuclear power plants might help California’s energy crisis, the hippies of Berkeley and San Francisco still oppose building more of them, and California has been pushing for fuel-efficient cars longer than any other part of the country.  It also still makes our aircraft, and it economically and culturally vital to America.

*The Foundry, also called the Rust Belt (which includes the Ontario Peninsula of Canada), is still failing, in part because more and more jobs go south to Mexico thanks to NAFTA, but the area was declining due to cheap labour in the third world and better automotive production in Japan long before NAFTA was passed.  This part of the country saw the first factories and industrialisation, and saw a vast influx of black workers from the South between the 1910s and 1960s, as they sought work in cities where they would not face as much discrimination.  Today the region is declining, especially the big old auto and steel cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh.  This is one of the few areas of the country to see declining population, or, at best, population growth much below the national average.  Still, the region has been improved in some ways, partly because with the decline of industry, pollution has decreased.  This is the source of most of the acid rain in North America, and it was the region where the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio actually caught fire multiple times due to the amount of chemicals in the water (most recently in 1969).

*The Empty Quarter was America’s last frontier, and could be again—the population density in many parts of it is lower today than in was in 1890 when the Census Department declared the frontier was closed.  Today the only places in the US or Canada profiting from rising oil prices are here, as several of these states (and provinces) produce sizable quantities of oil.  Unfortunately, this area, like parts of MexAmerica and even the Breadbasket, need more water than they can produce, and they are starting to deplete to Ogallala Aquifer.  The states in these regions even draw up agreements about how much water can be drawn from the local rivers, but this does not always work.  The Colorado river was divided up in a year when it was more full than usual, and now so much water is drawn from it that it barely trickles into the ocean in California, and Californians and Mexicans do not get to draw as much water from it as they should.

*Miami is the heart of the 6th largest metropolitan area in America, and it remains the central city for many US companies’ operations in Latin America.  Half (or more) of the politics of Miami, and thus of Florida, remain the politics of Cuban refugees who still resent Castro dispossessing them a generation ago.  It remains an important city in the drug trade, and it is also one of the busiest ports in all of America.

*MexAmerica is spreading.  Today about 13% of Americans are Hispanic (or possibly more).  One of the major economic facts in this region is the maquiladora system, in which factories (often owned largely or completely by US companies) operate on the Mexican side of the border where there is cheap labour, but all their goods are exported to the US.  This creates a number of twin cities along the border, with large factory town in Mexico and transportation hubs on the US side.  The oil wealth that Garreau predicted for Mexico has not entirely come true, yet.  Along with much of Dixie, this is the area that is often known as the Sun Belt, which is the fastest growing part of the United States.

*New England, for Garreau, includes more than the US New England:  it also includes the Maritime Provinces of Canada, which are the poorest part of that country.  This is a region that used to depend on fishing and small farms, and can’t any more.  On the other hand, it is still a place where democracy exists—town meetings are still real, and New Hampshire’s legislators still earn just $100 a year (plus gas mileage).  This area also has Boston, a major port city with a growing computer technology industry, and, as Garreau notes, it is America’s first post-industrial nation, prefiguring much of what has happened in the rest of America.  Certainly the region retains a reputation for having the best colleges in America—almost all of the Ivy League is there.

*Dixie more or less corresponds to the area known as the Bible Belt, one of the most overtly religions parts of the United States (although many parts of the Foundry (and even New England) are deeply religious—there is a much closer culturally connection between Dixie and part of the Foundry and Breadbasket than many people realise).  Atlanta is the hub of Dixie even today, although Charlotte and Raleigh are growing fast; indeed, the whole region is growing, and even the Great Migration is being reversed, as Blacks move back to the South that they or their parents or grandparents left years ago.  As Garreau predicted, Dixie has picked up industry where other parts of the country have lost it, as Europeans and Japanese build factories in places where unions are weak and wages are low by American and European standards.

*Quebec is the only one of Garreau’s nations to more or less coincide with existing boundaries, although French speakers are actually spreading beyond its borders.  Since Garreau wrote his article, Quebec has twice had referenda on secession from Canada (in 1980 and 1995).  Both have failed, but it was very close in 1995.  Still, this is better than the 1960s, when the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) launched a decade of bombings, robberies and attacks on government offices and at least two murders by FLQ gunfire and three violent deaths by bombings.  Canada has a lower GDP/capita than Canada as a whole, but still has a higher GDP per capita than Spain, Singapore, or New Zealand, and has a slight trade surplus, so it could survive on its own as an independent nation.

*Later, Joel Garreau wrote a book entitled The Nine Nations of North America, and in it (and afterwards) he identified a few aberrations, as he described them.  These included Manhattan (but not the rest of New York City), Washington, D.C. (and the Beltway), Alaska (which he argues is separate because it thinks it is, although really it shares aspects of both Ecotopia and the Empty Quarter), Hawaii (as much a part of Asia as it is North America), and West Virginia (part of both Dixie and the Foundry).

*There are other ways to define the regions of North America.  People often speak of the Rust Belt, the Sun Belt, and the Bible Belt, and less often of the Grain Belt and of other Belts.  However, many of these are more or less correlated to Garreau’s regions.  A more recent book (The Day America Told the Truth) related to Garreau’s work divided the Foundry into the Rust Belt and the more vibrant Metropolis, and split Dixie into the New South (around Atlanta and the Atlantic Coast) and Old Dixie (where it’s still poor).

*Regions are often also defined by dialect; in the South people drink Coke, but in most of the Midwest and Northwest they drink pop, and in New England and California they drink soda.

*Food, religion, economics, and politics also determine regions. 

*Much has been made of the Red State/Blue State divide (although that’s really more of an urban/rural divide), and regional differences do seem to be growing in politics in a way not seen since the mid-19th Century.

*What other regions might we find in America?

This page last updated 25 January, 2005.