Urban Geography

*What is urban geography?

*It can be the study of where cities are in a country, of how cities and towns relate to each other, or of how people are distributed within a city.

*Traditionally, cities grew up along rivers and coastlines for ease of transportation and irrigation.  Students should remember that many of the first cities in colonial America grew up along the tidewater and the fall line.  Cities also grew up near places with good supplies of raw materials or good soil.

*Later, people dug canals to create artificial rivers, and cities boomed along canal routes.  These, however, were bypassed by railroads.

*Automobiles have allowed easier travel between and within cities, and airplanes have done more than that.  Now cities do not need to even be near sources of raw materials, as it is so easy to transport things.  This means that more people can settle in the Sun Belt or other places with mild climates, and, if need be, commute to other parts of the country.  Today over 50% of the US population lives within 500 miles of Knoxville.

*About 77% of Americans and Canadian live in urban areas, although there is a new trend in which smaller towns are growing faster than large ones. 

*Exactly what makes a town a city is different in various countries.  In the United States and Canada, any place that is big enough can call itself a city—usually once it is over 50,000 people, although this varies by region.  In Britain, a city has to have a charter, and can be of any size.  A particularly large city is known as a metropolis. 

*Towns and cities are also growing together along the interstate system and other highways.  The vast, almost uninterrupted urbanised area stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C., or even Norfolk, is known as a, or even the, Megalopolis.  It covers about 1% of the land area of the USA, but houses at least 17% of the USA’s population.

*New York City remains America’s largest city, of course, followed by Los Angeles, then Chicago, although Los Angeles has only surpassed Chicago in the past 25 years. 

*Students may wish to get out their maps of the USA in order to mark some of these cities.

*The next largest metropolitan area in the USA is Philadelphia, Dallas, Miami, Washington, Houston, Detroit, and Boston.  Atlanta is 11th, if one includes the entire metropolitan area—without it, Atlanta is pretty small, because it has not been able to annex its suburbs.

*The ten largest metropolitan areas in Canada are Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Quebec City, Winnipeg, Hamilton, and London.  The other provincial capitals are also important cities, although the territorial capitals are pretty small (for example, Yellowknife and Whitehorse both have just under 20,000 people each, and the entire territory of Nunavut only has about 29,300 inhabitants—Iqaluit has about 5,200 people).

*Cities tend to fall into hierarchies—levels of relationships.  Small towns will rely on larger ones for services and goods and culture, while large towns rely on small cities, which rely on larger cities, which rely on big cities, which are eventually tied to a hub city, and then one of the three main cities of the United States.  For example:  Hampton -> Elizabethton -> Johnson City -> Knoxville -> Charlotte -> Atlanta -> New York

*This tends to create webs of cities, with a big and important city in the centre—this is sometimes called Central Place Theory.  Most hub cities also have some specialty, which they can trade with other hub cities (besides supplying it to their subordinate cities).  This often has to do with whatever that region is best at:  Dallas has the corporate offices of oil companies, Chicago used to have meat-packing plants, Minneapolis still has major flour mills (Pillsbury and General Mills are based there).  Atlanta still mostly serves as a distribution centre for the South, although it does have CNN and Coca-Cola.

*Many countries have Primate City Syndrome (although neither the US or Canada do).  A country with a Primate City has one major city that is much larger and more important than any other city in the country, and it tends to dominate the nation economically, culturally, and politically.  England, France, and many other European and Latin American countries have this (although neither Germany nor Brazil does).

*Cities also have their own internal geography.  Traditionally, cities tended to have a central business district that had a mixture of manufacturing, commercial shops, and residential structures that houses almost all classes of people.  This was because most people had to walk, or, at best, ride horses or take a buggy to work.

*This began to change as towns built streetcars.  This tended to create star-shaped cities, as settlement spread out along a few streetcar lines.  This still continues somewhat, as cities tend to follow major highways.

*Where people live also changed.  Although people of all social classes used to tend to live together near the central business district, eventually the wealthier (who could afford transportation) moved further away, creating a ring of wealthier neighbourhoods around the CBDs.  In time, the wealthiest of these people moved further out, and the lower middle class moved into their old houses, leaving only the poorer people downtown.  In time, the wealthy moved farther out, and again, the upper middle class followed the, and the lower middle class followed them, leaving many downtowns almost dead.

*Eventually, the upper middle class and wealthy people of major cities tended to form their own suburbs, which might have their own business districts, but many modern, post-industrial cities have no real central business districts any more.

*See what students thing might have been Johnson City’s CBD in the past, and what it might be now, if we still have one.  If not, are there smaller business districts spread around the Johnson City area? 

*Also, do we follow the pattern of city development?  Does our best (or at least most expensive) housing tend to be on the outskirts of town?  Have we followed the highways as we expanded?  What other cities depend on us, and what cities do we depend on?

This page last updated 28 August, 2005.