Formal regions in human geography are regions that are distinct and agreed upon by everyone through either political or scientific means.
Usually, national or international bodies have legally acknowledged the regions and they may even be drawn out on a map with clear boundaries.
We sometimes also call them ‘uniform regions’. This is because there is often a degree of uniformity (aka heterogeneity) within the region. This might be the fact that everyone in the region shares a common language, culture, ethnicity, or citizenship.
Formal Region Examples
1. The Nation-State
A nation-state is a country or nation that has its own sovereign government and is recognized by the international community. Examples include the United States of America, Canada, France, Germany, and Thailand.
Nation-states are formal regions because they are politically agreed upon, political boundaries are formally drawn up, and we can even identify them on a map. When you approach the edge of a nation-state in your car or by foot, there is even often a boundary fence or guards there who will patrol the edge of these regions.
Nation-states are non-negotiable facts. That’s why we would consider them to be formal rather than perceptual.
2. The European Union
The European Union is a group of 27 nation-states that have come together to create an economic and political union. The EU is an example of a formal region that has other formal regions inside of it.
Here, we can see that formal regions can overlap and we can identify them on local, national, and international levels.
The EU has also expanded over time (and even shrank, when the UK left the bloc). This demonstrates that even formal regions can change. However, the formality of them remains the same because the boundaries are agreed upon by those people inside of the regions as well as the rest of the world.
3. The USSR
Another international formal region that has changed over time is the USSR. During the cold war, the USSR was a group of communist-led nations that were tied to Russia, the dominant force in the nation bloc, in a political and economic union.
When the communist command economy of the USSR failed in 1991, the political bloc disintegrated and this formal region dissipated. In its place stood a cluster of sovereign and independent nation states including Poland, Russia, and Ukraine.
Today, these separate states are seen by the world as the new formal regions.
4. States in the USA
While the USA is itself a distinct formal region, it is composed of a range of states that each has its own laws, democracies, and residents.
For example, the state of Texas and the state of California can be considered their own formal regions within the larger formal region of the USA.
You’ll also notice that the laws differ in these two states In Texas, the state tax rate is lower than in California and it has more conservative social laws. Both states also have their own separate elections to choose their own governments.
Every state’s boundaries are formally agreed upon and undisputed, making them objective, unquestionable, formal regions.
Unlike the previous examples which are political regions, a continent is a formal region that is defined scientifically. The world is separated out into seven different continents, including Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, Europe, and Australia.
Scientists have mapped out the continents by looking at the tectonic plates of the earth’s crust. Here, we can see that there is a distinct and objective formula for identifying where each region begins and ends.
In other words, continents are formal regions. You can walk up to the edge of them, draw them on a map, and scientifically determine where one begins and the other one ends.
6. Counties and Local Government Areas
Nations and states divide up their nations into smaller regions to make them easier to govern. Local bureaucratic tasks like filling potholes, zoning land, building bridges, and distributing electricity often need to be done by local decision-making committees.
The solution to these problems is usually the creation of local government areas and countries. These zones are clearly demarcated to the very line where one area ends and the other one begins, making them formal regions. Each region has its own decision-making body for local decisions and even elections to choose who will be making those decisions.
Note that counties and LGAs are similar to functional regions, but I’ve put them under ‘formal regions’ because (a) they don’t necessarily rely on proximity to a central node, although there may be a ‘largest city’ in the country, and (b) they are formally decided and agreed upon by a government body.
7. State and National Parks
National parks are large tracts of land created by a government to protect certain natural landmarks or habitats from being destroyed by humans.
National parks have very clear boundaries that are set by the government in order to protect the land within them. In the USA, for example, national parks are governed by the National Park Service, which is a federal agency. This agency sets the boundaries of each park and decides how the land within those bounds will be used.
As you approach the edge of a national park, you’ll likely see signs welcoming you to the land but also setting out the rules within the space such as ‘no campfires’, ‘no motorized vehicles’, or ‘leave no trace’. Here, we can see that the region’s boundaries are clearly delineated.
8. East and West Berlin (up until 1989)
Up until 1989, East and West Berlin were two distinct and formally recognized regions. These regions were created not out of functionality, but by a political settlement between the Allies and Soviets following WWII.
Neither the Soviets or the Western allies would allow the other to control Berlin, so it was split in half. The eastern side was governed by communism while the western side was governed by democratic capitalism.
These regions were so formal, in fact, that a wall was erected straight down the middle of the city so people couldn’t cross from one side to the other.
With the collapse of communism toward the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, these regions also dissipated and Germany was reunited.
9. The Four Nations of the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is a distinct nation-state, but it is also an amalgam of four other nations: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
The union began in the early 1600s when James I, King of England, also became King of Scotland. Over the centuries, these two nations have slowly merged until they are now considered one. However, Scotland and England still maintain some distinctiveness such as different legal systems, healthcare systems, and tax brackets.
The same is true for Northern Ireland and Wales, which both have devolved governments with some power over their own affairs.
So while the UK is a formal region, it is also made up of four other regions which maintain some degree of autonomy.
10. The Arctic Circle
The arctic circle is another example of a formal region that is scientifically, rather than politically, defined. The arctic circle is defined by any area in the northern hemisphere where, for at least a day each year, the sun does not set or rise.
In practice, this means the arctic circle begins at 66.3 degrees latitude. Anything higher than that is inside the arctic circle. At 66.3 degrees latitude, the sun usually doesn’t rise on 21 December and doesn’t set on June 21. This is due to the tilt of the earth as it spins on its axis.
Formal regions are objective, distinct, and agreed-upon areas. They can be both politically and scientifically delineated. For example, a nation-state is a political region while a continent is a scientific region. There are also formal regions on local, national, and international scales. Remember that a formal region may also be called a uniform region.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.