GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

1.7 Space, Place, and Scale: Putting Them Together


With this basic understanding of space, place, and scale, we turn now to a brief discussion of how these concepts are related. 

First and foremost (and as we discussed above), places are located within space, and they have space within them. For example, we can situate University Park, Pennsylvania with a set of coordinates that mark its location in space, and we can also measure its area in square miles using that spatial data. For many people, the most familiar place they can think of is one where they regularly sleep, and they may have spatial concerns about that place (does it have enough closet space? Is there enough space for a bed, a dresser, and a bookshelf? Is there enough space for the dog to sleep on the bed too?).

Likewise, we can consider the space of place: when terrorists brought down the World Trade Center, it impacted the entire United States (and, arguably, much of the rest of the world as well). In the immediate aftermath, the entire city of New York shut down, and people across the United States felt some emotional impact from the news as they watched the images of the towers falling. In that moment and for some time afterward, a highly localized place (which we now refer to as Ground Zero), which was thought to be bounded by the block on which the World Trade Center was located, extended to encompass the whole of New York City in some ways, and in other ways, its space radiated outwards to the rest of the United States: that is, in a particular moment, New York stood symbolically for the US. (The same could be said for the Pentagon; we focus on the Twin Towers here because of their status as an icon within civil America.)

The extending outwards of a site of collective trauma from its origin point to the rest of the country is not just an expansion of space: it is also a kind of upscaling of a phenomenon. We can scale place and space upward or downward even without such extraordinary circumstances: consider, for example, presidential election maps. Many of the maps that we see during presidential elections display each state within the US in a single, solid color, with the implication that one candidate won the votes of the entire state. Yet if we were to scale downward to look at a narrower scale, such as each county, we find that most states are a patchwork of red and blue. Scale even further inward to each district, and we find that, even within counties, there is quite a bit of variation in voting. When election results are presented at the scale of the state, it is effectively an upward scaling of more localized voting habits.


Refer to these maps presented by the New York Times after the 2012 election. Click on States, then click on Counties to compare the results at two scales. Notice that some states (e.g., Oregon and Washington) show large areas that voted Republican; the denser populations within major cities account for the Democratic wins in these states.

This leads us to one of the most important relationships between space, place, and scale: varying the scale at which we observe phenomena may reveal clues about spatial distribution. In turn, what we see with regard to density, concentration, and pattern may lead us to a greater understanding of how places form, how people experience them, and how people perceive them.