By Dr. Reginal Golledge

This article was originally published at Directions Magazine on December 21, 2000.

Many geographers today teach and research about concepts that are relevant to everyday life. This geographic knowledge enables us to understand the things we do on a daily or other episodic basis, and how everyday actions (like traveling to work) affect the world around us (e.g. auto pollution contributing to global warming). This emphasis puts everyday activities in a larger context – notably a spatial one – and by so doing aims to increase our awareness of our personal lives and activities and their socio-spatial contexts at scales ranging from neighborhood to global. We often assume there is no need to learn this type of geography because we already “know” it! “Much geography is just common sense” say our naïve practitioners – as they blithely conduct behaviors that prove beyond doubt that their naïve geographic knowledge is false or dreadfully incomplete (listen to “Jeopardy” or “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” as obvious proof). Many people refuse to believe that they need to know geographic concepts such as location, place recognition, distance evaluation, distribution membership, and regional context. To illustrate the shortcomings of this attitude, let me pursue a few examples which illustrate that people actively practice geography – even if they are unaware of what they are doing. Let me start by simply listing basic geographic tasks we all – at one time or another – seem to perform.

Things that you do that are geographic:

  1. Choose where to live.
  2. Select which way to go to work.
  3. Learn where supermarkets, shopping malls, doctors’ offices and local schools are located.
  4. Choose a place to visit on holidays and figure out how to get there.
  5. Understand local and global environmental changes so you purchase adequate clothing and plan long trips.
  6. On a long car trip, estimate where the next town big enough to have a motel will be.
  7. Understand where ethnic or cultural restaurants will be located in a city.
  8. Understand where the events are occurring that are mentioned on the evening’s international and national newscasts.
  9. Prepare background material for the location (national or international) of your next job posting.
  10. Walk around your neighborhood and return home safely.
  11. Find your car in a parking lot or building.
  12. Walk around your house in the dark without stumbling into furniture.
  13. Find your way back to your hotel in a strange city.
  14. Know where places of recreation can be found.
  15. Select a sports team to follow.
  16. Decide which newspaper to buy.
  17. Appreciate the international interactions and flows of goods that keep fresh produce daily in your favorite supermarket.
  18. Know whether New York is north or south of Washington, D.C.
  19. Appreciate why it’s difficult to build houses on steep slopes with unstable soils.
  20. Wonder why people continue to live in places where they experience floods or hurricanes or tornadoes or fires or earthquakes or emissions from chemical or nuclear industrial plants.

Let me elaborate on some of these and emphasize some of the geography and the spatial concepts relevant to what you are doing.

A Location Problem

Where did I park my car? Perhaps the most frequently asked (and vexing) question today is simply one of location recognition – the most fundamental component of geography. Geography is a science that emphasizes the learning of locations and the learning of places. The skills that are taught to learn location patterns of cities in the USA, rice fields in China, gold mines in South Africa, or the sources of outbreaks of epidemics in Africa are essentially the same as those we use to learn the location of schools, shops, recreational areas, churches, and dining establishments. We absorb these types of information visually via newscasts on TV and in movies and videos; we get written descriptions of them in newspapers and journals; we hear the information from radio broadcasts; or we gather it multimodally as we walk or otherwise travel through an environment. The information you are absorbing about places and their location is geographic – it is locationally referenced or place-based. And when engaging in a conversation about current events, you quote that information by recalling it directly from memory, or you internally manipulate it to obtain further insights by engaging in spatial information processing. This requires integration of separate bits of spatial information so as to better understand a situation or problem environment. So, where did you park your car? Was there a nearby landmark? Was the section you parked in numbered? Was it near the street entrance you used to enter the parking area? Did you face the building or the street? Were you close to or far from the building entrance? Where did you enter the building? Where exit? Answering these questions involves querying a “mental map” that you construct from experienced or stored information. And what’s more symbolic of geographic thinking than creating (in working memory) and using a map to solve your location problem? Realizing this simple fact is changing the world of information technology. Information is being “georeferenced” to an increasing degree: exploring its inherent spatial nature is the heart of Geographic Information Science and the GIS technologies using geographic and spatialized metaphors as interfaces and search engines to a world of digitally accessible data.

Overlaying sets of information

Searching for a place to live is a necessary activity for all people. The geography embedded in this act is substantial. Where do you search? In examining home-work locational ties, geographers found that spatial proximity to work strongly influences many decision makers, particularly those constrained by economic, social, ethnic, or other barriers. “Spatial mismatch” occurs when some disadvantaged workers must live only where they can afford to and consequently travel long distances to a workplace – as when female members of ethnic or minority cultural groups living in high density, low quality inner city areas must travel long distances to decentralized high income suburban homes and offices to perform domestic or cleaning duties. Even social justice concerns are based on geographic concepts and geographic information.

When housing is purchased, real estate agents act as interventionists by helping to provide a buyer with a feasible set of alternatives (for rental or purchase). They do this by examining economic, social, cultural, age, income and family characteristics of the buyer and matching them with housing qualities and neighborhood characteristics. But if we look below the surface of these everyday acts, we find some interesting geographic paradoxes. For example, much inner-city land has a very high value per unit area accruing because of its central location and accessibility to the rest of the city. But much inner-city land is occupied by poor people. To do this, they can afford only to consume a little of it – hence multi-person, and multi-family occupancy of small spaces (rental apartments, multi-family rentals of what was single family housing). The paradox – stated by Regional Scientist William Alonso nearly 50 years ago – is that in many cities the poor live on some of the most expensive land and are forced to consume very little of it on a per capita basis (producing high population density in inner city areas), while the rich live on land with less value per unit area and consume much of it on a per capita basis (producing low suburban population densities). The result is a “density gradient” of population over distance from the city center and one of the most powerful generalizations geographers can make about the spatial distribution of phenomena – namely that the occurrences of many relationships exhibit a “distance decay” or lower frequency of occurrence as distance from an origin increases. This generalization applies to migration frequencies, telephone calls, shopping behaviors and many other human activities.

The result is high population densities in inner city areas and low densities in suburban areas – an observable fact of daily life that we implicitly “know” but have not bothered to make the underlying geography explicit. Geographers, trying to understand the nature of urban environments, formalize this “common sense” knowledge and build theories and policies upon it. Thus, an everyday event that we “intuitively know,” but which requires formalized knowledge to make apparent and to influence urban policy, achieves comprehension by asking a simple geography question – where do people live and why live there?

Where am I?

Knowing where you are is essential in everyday life. Not knowing means that you are lost in some sense of the word. A commuter traveling in a subway may not care where she is at any point on a journey, nor know how to determine where she is at any given moment. But missing a marker or landmark that provides absolute or relative locational detail may mean the difference between completing a successful journey (i.e. getting off at the right stop) or being forced to activate a recovery strategy to reach her destination. On most other occasions, knowing where you are facilitates wayfinding, activity selection (e.g. what store/bank/recreational area to visit), social activities (e.g. Am I closest to the movies or a friend’s house?), and other planned or spontaneous actions that depend on knowing where you are. How many times have you preferred to do something only to have the geography of your location and surrounds negate such preference? (“I feel like fried chicken but there’s only a hamburger join in this neighborhood”). Essentially, if you know where you are, you know where other things are: i.e. you can build a local geography using the same principles that you would use to comprehend a global distribution. If you don’t know how to recognize where you are – i.e. if your geographic awareness is low – you’ll endure stress and have to search for geographic information that puts things in (spatial) perspective (e.g. finding N, S, E, W compass directions, or understanding the geometry and geography of the local street system). Geography enables people to understand where they are in relation to other places or objects. Landmark or feature recognition is part of this geographic understanding, as is an awareness of the built environment generally – as in knowing street network structures or being able to identify surrounding land use types. Naïve geography gives us an implicit knowledge via environmental perception; formal geography training provides the concepts and structures that turn this information into useful knowledge.

Taking your kids to school

Learning about your neighborhood is something we all have to do. It’s essential for finding your way home, for determining which store or church or playground is “nearby.” And it is an essential part of children’s training to ensure their safety. To “know” your local area simply means that you know where things are – i.e. it’s geography! You need to know this geography well so that you can determine a safe route for your children to travel to and from school (or a nearby bus stop). Knowing what places to avoid (e.g. aggressive dogs, dangerous excavations, or natural and human hazards) is of equal importance to knowing places to embrace or interact with. Most people don’t realize that they are learning object location, place-based characteristics, network structures, interpoint distances and directions, spatial clusters, regions, and other essential geographic concepts as they participate in daily activities. How many times do we hear people in the same breath declare that they hate or “can’t do” geography and at the same time provide a gloriously accurate assessment of their local area or give you good directions to a distant place? Today’s geographers rely heavily on the spatial concepts underlying everyday experiences to comprehend the world at different scales.

I could go on with numerous other examples. A person choosing a new residence or a developer finding a site for a new shopping center, actually uses a personalized Geographic Information System, by essentially “overlaying” mental or real maps of physical characteristics (slope, drainage, soil type, vegetation) with mental maps of socio-economic-cultural features (maps of sale prices, demographic characteristics of age, children, ethnicity, cultural origins), mental maps of environmental features (air pollution and noise levels), and mental maps of accessibility (proximity to arterials and freeways, bus services) and so on to help choose optimal locations. People live in hazardous areas, knowing this but believing in their subjective probabilities of event occurrence (e.g. serious floods, fires, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, and droughts “won’t occur during my lifetime”). City dwellers learn the location of shopping malls and use this data to determine trips for goods and services. On driving holidays we need to know how far we can travel in a day and when to expect a needed gas station. We buy clothes because we anticipate changes in weather patterns and we choose holiday environments based on awareness of climatic patterns and the nature of physical environments.

Every day people process geographic information and practice geography. Some are good at it. Some are not. Those that are good at it have what we call “high spatial abilities.” Those who are not so good at it have “low spatial abilities.” The aim of geography as an educating science is to give instruction to improve the way people can use their spatial abilities and in so doing, increase their understanding of how to recognize and use geography concepts to enable their daily activities.

In concluding I have attached a number of questions which can help you understand how you use geography in your daily life and whether you have “high” or “low” spatial skills. There are no “correct” or “incorrect” answers. Just score the questions honestly and give yourself a “spatial skills” rating (total score) with respect to everyday behavior. You can, if you wish, send the list of scaled responses (your answers) directly to me. If I get enough of them, I’ll summarize the results next time. In the meantime, other spatial specialists tell me that men are more confident in their spatial abilities than are women (i.e. the self-rating of their abilities will be higher) and that younger people are likely to profess higher spatial abilities than older people. Perhaps naïve or common sense geography is practiced more widely by some groups than others.

But let there be no mistake! You are all geographers today, just as humans have been from the dawn of human existence.

Self-assessed Geography Skill Scale     

The answer choices are Strongly Agree, Somewhat Agree, Neutral, Somewhat Disagree, Strongly Disagree. These values receive a number from 1(strongly agree) down to 5(strongly disagree). The sum of all the responses gives an assessment number.

Note: Roughly speaking, scores of 20-40 imply “high” spatial skills; scores of 70+ imply “low” spatial skills.

1. I am very good at drawing a map so guests can find my home.

2. After visiting a shop in a large mall, I have no trouble telling my friends how to find it.

3. I usually use a map when driving to a new destination.

4. After traveling about a strange city, I can always point in the direction of the place at which I am staying.

5. When leaving a building, I always know which way to turn.

6. When traveling, I take shortcuts as frequently as possible.

7. I have no difficulty in naming the states which border a given state.

8. I am very good at remembering the distances between major cities.

9. I have a very good “mental map” of my local environment.

10. I have no difficulty in remembering where I parked my car in a large outdoor parking lot.

11. I know the location of all the major landmarks in my city.

12. When listening to international news reports I often find myself thinking of the location of the country being mentioned.

13. When planning a trip away from my home town, I usually have a good idea of the relative geographic locations of home and destination cities.

14. I am very good at identifying familiar objects on an aerial photograph.

15. I am very good at recognizing landmarks from an airplane window.

16. I rarely get lost when walking in a new place.

17. I have no difficulty in estimating the distance between cities on a highway map.

18. Even when I go to different supermarket chains, I always select the stores closest to my home.

19. I always take the same route when taking my children to school.

20. I have no difficulty in remembering the layout of shops in a shopping center.