(Follow the click instructions in the text below for more information; internet sites are not part of the
reading and are for additional background only).
Places are locations with character. The character comes from 1) environmental, economic and cultural
features that are distinctive to a particular location (what we call site characteristics) and 2) the position of
the location in relation to all other sites (situation characteristics).
Site characteristics of a place.
Every place has a distinctive climate (temperature, precipitation), set of landforms, soil type and vegetation
cover. Together, these elements make up a place’s environment. In most instances, residents in the place
have made substantial alterations to these natural environmental characteristics.
A place’s population also displays distinctive cultural characteristics. A particular blend of language,
dialect, religion may be present and the population will display distinct socio-demographic characteristics:
age, education, ethnicity and income level.
Finally, a place will undertake a distinctive form of economic activity: agriculture, manufacturing and/or
These site characteristics would be the ones most people would think of when asked what made a particular
place distinctive. Fewer would recognize the set of contribution of situation characteristics.
Situation characteristics of a place.
Situation refers to the location of a place, relative to other places around it. A place that is close to others
will have plenty of interaction: messages and people flowing back and forth. But if a place is distant from
others and isolated, it will not grow or change as rapidly because of less contact with the outside world.
Thus, where a place is has a lot to do with the nature and evolution of its site characteristics. For instance,
the type of agriculture found in a place is based in part on how near or far it is from the market for its
produce. Generally, if a place is close to a major market, like a metropolitan area, then the farmer’s land
will be expensive and the farmer will use small amounts of land but grow intensive crops so that the dollar
yield per acre will be high. Horticulture or dairying are likely activities. On the other hand, if the place is
far from the market, prices of land will be less. Farms will be larger and crops that need more space will be
likely, such as cattle ranching or wheat production. That is why we find these activities associated with
places like the Great Plains in the U.S. or the Argentine Pampas. Both places are distant from their major
markets. So, where a place is in relation to other places has a lot to do with its character.
Rating Places
People like to make lists. David Letterman has made the top ten a popular activity. Music movie charts of
top sellers and the New York Times Book List have long been part of our culture. So it is with places.
Publishers and magazines rate the best and worst places to live, the best places to go to college, the best
places for people to retire. Each of these place ratings is determined by identifying certain criteria that are
supposed to represent a place’s ranking. For instance, for the past few years, Men’s Fitness magazine has
been ranking the top 25 fattest and fittest cities. Here’s their 2005 findings:
© 2005, Weider Publications, LLC. Reprinted with permission.
To come up with these lists, the magazine editors selected certain criteria that they believe contribute to
either being fit or overweight. These criteria included the number of gyms and sporting goods stores in
each place, the nutrition quality of the population, how much people exercised, how overweight and
sedentary was the population, the amount of junk food and alcohol consumed, the amount of TV watching,
the quality of the air, the climate, accessibility to parks and recreation facilities, length of time commuting,
and quality of health care (For more detail and the most recent rankings, see
One or more data sources were used to calculate the level of each criterion. For instance, to measure the
level of junk food consumption in each place, the authors calculated the number of fast-food outlets, pizza
parlors, ice cream shops and doughnut stores from YellowPages.com. The exercise level of the population
was calculated from data collected by American Sports Data Inc. on participation in 103 sports and fitnessrelated activities.
Problems with rating places
Cities that rank poorly on rating schemes inevitably complain. Camden, NJ, for instance (in late 2005) was
judged the most dangerous city in America – and expressed outrage at the designation. In fact, there are
problems with rating places. While a specific numerical score seems objective, there is much subjectivity
First, the criteria selected are based on the judgment of the author. The fatness/fitness ranking never
considered the age or educational levels of the population, factors that might contribute to either condition.
Second, each criterion is given the same weight. Thus, a junk food index and air quality have the same
influence on the final score a place receives. But not all criteria may be equally influential on what is being
Third, the data selected to score each criterion may be questionable. For instance, data taken from
YellowPages.com is based on companies that choose to pay to be listed in the Yellow Pages and so may
exclude some establishments. Furthermore, the Yellow Page information for a given city may cover an area
that extends beyond the city’s boundaries.
Such objections will not stop the appeal of rating places but they should encourage those doing the ratings
to be very clear about how the scores are created. They should also caution the reader to look carefully at
the basis for the rankings (For more information on this point, see