In human geography, we generally classify regions into three types. These are: formal, functional, and perceptual regions.
Firstly, a formal region is formally recognized and often has a clearly delineated boundary that everyone agrees upon. For example, a nation-state is a formal region.
Secondly, a functional region is oriented around a particular node like a city center or the local factory that employs most of the town.
Thirdly, a perceptual region is an area that is imagined and subjective but informal such as the bible belt or a tourist hotspot.
The Three Types of Regions in Human Geography
1. Formal Regions (aka Uniform)
Formal regions are formalized in political agreements or scientific knowledge. This makes formal regions easy to identify on a map because they usually have clearly delineated boundaries that are not disputed.
A formal region may also be called a ‘uniform’ region if there is a degree of homogeneity within the region. For example, if everyone within a region shares the same culture, language, accent, or citizenship, then the region has a degree of homogeneity or ‘uniformity’ to it.
While formal regions are generally agreed upon and set inside political boundaries, they could change over time. For example, the USSR would have been considered a formal region up until 1991. With the break up of the USSR, the nation-states that were within the union (such as Ukraine and Poland) became their own breakaway sovereign territories. The world powers generally consented to this arrangement, so a range of new formal regions was established.
Go Deeper: 10 Examples of Formal Regions
2. Functional Regions (aka Nodal)
Functional regions are regions that have an obvious and natural structure or reason behind their existence. They exist because it is “functional” for them to be there.
Generally, formal regions have a central node that acts as the center of gravity.
The most obvious example is that of a city. The inner city business district acts as the central node and the satellite suburbs naturally fit into the functional region because they are the places where all the city workers live. The suburbs exist to be close to the jobs in the city.
The functional region of the city may reach its natural end point at a distance where it’s no longer logical to commute into the city for work. At this point, the city may disperse and rural areas begin.
Similarly, an informal functional region could be an area that is serviced by a take-out delivery van. When you put your order in, they may take your address to see if you fit within their region. If you’re too far away, you’ll be outside of their functional region, and therefore unable to get your pizza.
Go Deeper: 10 Examples of Functional Regions
3. Perceptual Regions (aka Vernacular)
A perceptual region is a subjective area that we perceive to be a cohesive region, despite there being:
- No formal boundaries
- No apparent central node or rationale for the region’s existence
Perceptual regions, also called vernacular regions, often exist in the popular imagination and even in stereotypes. For example, when we envisage the midwest, the south, and the pacific north-west, we’re not talking about a formalized region. It’s a general area that is informally defined.
Similarly, what you perceive to be ‘the north’ of England is subjective to people’s experiences and contexts. Someone from London would think Leeds is ‘the north’ but someone from Newcastle thinks it’s ‘down south’!
Go Deeper: 10 Examples of Perceptual Regions
Characteristics of a Region
Regions can be identified by a range of categories.
Physical Characteristics of a Region
In some regions, physical characteristics can help you to identify them. For example, a cultural landscape may be identifiable by its landmarks, landscapes, weather and climate, soil quality, and the types of flora and fauna.
Real-life physical characteristics might be palm trees which give you a clue about your topography, the grand canyon which gives you a clue about the state you’re in, or a type of flower that only grows in a particular region.
These characteristics can also help people make decisions about what to do with land. For example, you might test soil quality to know if it’s fertile land for agriculture, or you might build a particular type of house to withstand the weather conditions of a region.
Human Characteristics of a Region
The human characteristics of a region are the characteristics of the humans and their activities that make it distinctive.
The best example of this is accents. Accents tend to be regional and, therefore, can give clues about a location. For example, the South African accent is distinctive and will instantly help you to identify the location.
Another human characteristic that might help make a region easily identifiable is the type of architecture. This is a human characteristic because the buildings were produced by humans. You may look around and see Scandinavian cabins, locating you in Scandinavia.
Similarly, you might look at the type of stores to identify the region. Walmart should locate you in North America, Big W in Australia, and Tim Hortons in Canada.
1. What is Regionalization?
Regionalization is a term used in human geography to refer to the process of separating the world out into regions based upon certain characteristics. It is, literally, the act of creating regions.
Often regionalization takes place on the basis of common heritage, language, and identity. However, it can also be simply out of administrative convenience or, in worst-case scenarios, regionalization happens as a result of wars.
2. Do Regions Overlap?
Regions can overlap. For example, at any one point in time, someone in France might be:
- In France (a formal region)
- In the European Union (a formal region)
- In cell reception of a certain carrier like Verizon (a functional region)
- In the region of a local library (a functional region)
- In a popular tourist spot (a perceptual region)
As an exercise in class, human geography teachers will often get students to write down all of the regions they can think they’re currently located in, and classify them as one of the three types of regions.
3. What are Examples of Regional Boundaries?
Regions may or may not have clearly demarcated boundaries. While formal regions will often (but not always) have a clearly marked boundary, other types of regions (especially perceptual regions) rarely do.
To further understand how boundaries are defined and understood in human geography, I’ve written this article on the 14 different types of boundaries.
In human geography, we usually categorize regions into three categories: formal (also known as uniform), functional (also known as nodal), and perceptual (also known as vernacular). While each has its own unique definition, remember that you can be in many different types of regions at once. These categories help us to understand different ways regions are created and classified but are not perfect categorizations by any means.
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.