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Urban Geography
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James O. Wheeler
Department of Geography, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602
Published online: 15 May 2013.

To cite this article: James O. Wheeler (1993) CHARACTERISTICS AND RECENT TRENDS IN URBAN
GEOGRAPHY, Urban Geography, 14:1, 48-56, DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.14.1.48

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James 0. Wheeler
Department of Geography
University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602
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Abstract: This paper summarizes some major characteristics and trends in the field of
urban geography during the 1980sbased on its eponymousjournal, offers a brief overview of
earlier developments in urban geography, and attempts a comparison between earlier and
more recent trends and ideas in the field. During the 1980s, structuralistic and humanistic
approaches have gained somewhat over the dominant positivistic tradition. The United States
and Canada continue as the major regions of study. Use of quantitative analysis declined
during the 1980s. Urban geography has become more pluralistic and increasingly relies on
social theory concepts rather than on traditional location theory, such as central place theory.
The percentage of females contributing to research in the journal Urban Geography
increased notably during the last decade, and female authorship appears to be approximately
twice the AAG membership proportion for college and university teachers and for recipients
of the PbD. Overall, a focus on the social creation of urban space is becoming a more
accepted way of doing urban geography. These trends in Urban Geography reflect at least
equally the role of the three editors who (directly or indirectly) may infleunce what gets
submitted and what gets published.

This paper summarizes some major characteristics of the articles published in the
journal Urban Geography from 1980, when the journal was founded, through 199 1.
The paper then offers a brief outline of the evolution of the subdiscipline of urban
geography, drawing from diverse sources. Finally, urban geography in the 1980s, as
reflected in the journal, is compared and contrasted with earlier characteristics and
trends in the field.


A subjective classification of articles published in Urban Geoaraphy since its

inception in 1980 reveals some points of interest, not only about the journal but also
probably about the subdiscipline. Only articles were included in this compilation, not
research notes or progress reports, unless otherwise noted. The content analysis on
which this classification is derived is based on the authors personal interpretation. No
doubt other evaluators would arrive at slightly different numbers, but hopefully not

Urban Geography, 1993,14, 1, pp. 48-56.
Copyright 0 1993 by V: H. Winston & Son, Inc. All rights reserved.



Positivism Structuralism Humanism

Years N % N % N %

1980-1983 69 90 5 6 3 4
1984-1987 67 88 5 7 4 5
1988- 1991 42 66 11 17 11 17
Total 178 82 21 10 18 8
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Source: Compiled by author from Urban Geoaraphy articles, 1980- 199 1.

different conclusions. Some articles could not be classified into a single category,
especially distinguishing between the human-environment and spatial organization
themes. Not all articles could be classified into all of the selected categories, and thus
the totals among the categories differ slightly.
Five classifications were attempted: ( 1) paradigm analysis (positivism, struc-
turalism, and humanism) (see Johnston, 1983); (2) Pattisons four traditions in
geography (of which only two are relevant here) (Pattison, 1964); (3) a standard
world regional grouping; (4) a thematic breakdown; and (5) categories based on levels
of quantitative analysis. The paradigm classification was the most difficult to conduct
and probably would be the least agreed upon, as the terminology itself is subject to
varied interpretations. The simplest compilation was of course the regional one. No
article was interpreted to be in the classic area-studies tradition, i.e., a regional listing
or integration of the range of physical and human geography (Berry, 1964).
During these first 12 years, Urban Geography overwhelmingly published articles
within the positivist tradition (over 80%) (Table 1). Though much is written in the
literature on geographic thought and philosophy on structuralism-in its different
manifestations-only approximately 1 of 10 articles used a structuralist approach
during this period. Likewise, humanistic geography, a term coined by Tuan (1976),
comprises less than 10% of the Urban Geography articles. In the case of both
structuralism and humanism, however, there has been a modest increase in their
inclusion in the journal in the past few years, each representing approximately 17%of
the articles between 1988 and 1991, compared with 4 to 7% in earlier years.
The classification of articles in terms of Pattisons human-environment (man-land)
versus the spatial tradition has changed little during this 12-year period (Table 2).
Overall, 94% of the articles reflected characteristics of the spatial organization
approach. Some might argue that a minor increase in the human-environment
tradition has occurred since 1988, though the future will have to determine if there is
indeed any definite trend.
One interpretation of Table 3 is that Urban Geography has developed a more
international focus in that over 80%of the articles from 1980 to 1983 focused on the
United States and Canada, whereas just over 70% did so from 1988 to 199 1 . A closer
review of the data in Table 3 indicates, however, that some of the regional variation is

1980- 199l a
Human-environment Spatial
Years % %

1980-1983 4 5 71 95
1984-1987 3 4 68 96
1988- 1991 5 9 52 91
Total 12 6 191 94

"Only two of Pattison's categories are represented in the data.

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Source: Compiled by the author from Urban Geography articles, 1980- I99 1.

I 1980-1983 I 1984-1987 I 1988-1991 I Total
Regions N % N % N % N %

Africa 0 0 1 I 6 I1 7 3
Asia 5 7 13 17 3 5 21 10
Australia 2 3 0 0 0 0 2 1
Canada 8 11 10 13 7 13 25 13
Eastern Europe 1 I 4 5 0 0 5 2
Latin America 0 0 3 4 1 2 4 2
Middle East 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
USSR 1 1 2 3 1 2 4 2
United States 50 70 37 47 32 58 119 58
Western Europe 5 7 8 10 5 9 18 9
Total 72 I00 78 I00 55 100 205 100

Source: Compiled by author from Urban Geography articles, 1980- 1991.

the result of special guest-edited issues devoted to selected areas of the globe. For
example, the special issue on South Africa (Vol. 9, November-December, 1988)
accounts for six of the seven articles published on Africa since 1980.


It is instructiveto compare urban geography in the 1980s,insofar as it is reflected in

Urban Geography, with earlier developments in the subdiscipline. The earliest
synthesis of the field was Taylor's ( 1948), long forgotten because of his emphasis on
environmental determinantsof city siting and subsequent growth. His classification of
cities (Taylor, 1945) into infantile, juvenile, and mature, for example, now seems

quaint and curious, even as it must have then to a discipline that had largely
abandoned environmental determinism in the early 1920s (Martin, 1985). Dickin-
sons (1948) statement was more contemporary for its time, but it focused heavily on
Western European cities and literature.
The first comprehensive attempt to inventory the field of urban geography, as well
as to offer prospects for its future, was by Mayer et al. (1954). Although this book
chapter in the classic James and Jones, American Geography: Inventory and Prospect,
was long on inventory and short on future prospects, it is astonishing to see how much
the 1960s paralleled the view of Mayer and others in the early 1950s (Taaffe, 1990).
No doubt a significant part of this continuity was the Mayer and Kohn (1959) Readings
in Urban Geography,the only text available until Murphys (1966), which also largely
followed Mayer and Kohn. As Taaffe (1990, p. 423) remarked, The Mayer-Kohn
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book of readings in 1959 marked a pulling-together of the separate strands of the

mainstream . . . , establishing the basic structure of a university course in urban
geography which, in my opinion, has persisted into the 1980s. To be sure, there were
differences, such as the developments in behavioral geography and social activism
(Kohn, 1970), as well as, of course, the focus on quantitative methods (Burton, 1963)
and topics such as central-place theory (Taaffe, 1990, p. 425).
With the sudden expansion of quantitative applications in geography in the late
1950s and early 1960s, a new methodology was used to study fairly traditional topics.
The new geography was synthesized by Garner ( 1967) in a chapter in Chorley and
Haggetts monumental Models in Geography. The contrast with Mayer et al. (1954)
lies largely in approach and terminology. Garner (1967) placed greater stress on the
use of quantitative methods and theoretical viewpoints, in contrast with the more
descriptive, case-study citations in Mayer et al. ( I 954). Models and hypotheses were
frequently used terms in the 1960s. Perhaps the greatest contrast between these two
syntheses is in the significantly greater emphasis on central place theory in the 1960s.
Mayer et al. (1954) included only one sentence on Christaller (1933), though
approximately one page of text was included in the previous chapter (Kohn et al.,
1954) on Settlement Geography on the arrangement, spacing, and size of hamlets,
villages, and towns (p. 133).*
Vance (1978), in a statement aimed chiefly at nongeographers, assessed urban
geography through different periods of its history. He noted that from 1968 to 1972,
social urban geography rose to the first rank in journal publication, with housing
studies only modestly behind (p. 141). The period 1973 to 1977 witnessed a
striking rise of historical urban geography,suggesting an important shift in philosoph-
ical as well as methodological approaches . . . including frankly Marxist historical
analysis (p. 142). Hartshorn (1992, pp. 6-14) reviewed the evolution of urban
geography under the following concepts: location school, behavioral studies, struc-
tural approach, historical urban research, and the urban physical environment.


Given this brief sketch of the pre-1980 evolution of urban geography, let us turn to
comparing and contrasting urban geography in the 1980s (as revealed in the journal
of the same name) with earlier developments in the field. Five points of contrast

between Urban Geography in the 1980s,especially the latter part of this period, and
earlier characteristics of the field are offered. I set these contrasts, however, within the
context of Taaffes (1990, p. 430) mainstream model, representing a loose-knit
consensus as to the ideas about cities that geography as a discipline wanted to convey
to the general public. Taaffe (1990, p. 424) traced the emergence of this mainstream
from the development of urban geography courses in the late 194Os, through the
publication of the Yeates (1990) textbook.
We begin with central place theory, the mainstay of urban geography during the
early 1960s.The discovery of Christaller (1933) and Li>sch(1939) set off a flurry of
research testing, which extended and modified the concepts of central place theory.
This leading research topic of the 1960s began to fade in popularity in the 1970s. In
the bibliography included in Kings (1984) survey of central place theory, 45
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references are to pre-1970s publications, compared to 37 during the 1970s. No

articles were published in Urban Geography during the 1980s on central place theory
except for Morrills (1 987). The recent textbook by Yeates (1990) has no chapter on
this theory. The preeminence of central place theory, along with factorial ecology and
several other analytical models, has given way to a marked shift in what is deemed as
worthy research topics.
Second, and closely related, is the decline in the use of quantitative methods in
urban geography, especially during the 1980s. Not only has there been a certain
abandonment of traditional theoretical approaches, but also a lessening concern with
analytic techniques, reflecting the apparent growing rejection of positivistic
approaches. Table 4 represents an attempt to classify articles published in Urban
Geography from 1980 through 1991. There has been a steady decline both in the
percentage of articles using advanced statistics or other modeling approaches from
over 50% in the early 1980s to under 28% from 1988-1991. Likewise, the use of
descriptive statistics has dropped from over 20% to under 10%during the time period.
Articles not using quantitative tools have noticeably increased, beginning to approach
two- thirds of the published manuscripts. Progress Reports, of course, are not included
in this listing.
Third, replacing positivism are articles treating social theory, as already seen in the
trends in Table 1. Such a change in focus is noted in Marston et al. (1989), which in a
sense may be read in the tradition of Mayer et al. (1954) and Garner (1967). Their
chapter in Gaile and Willmott (1989) assumes that urbanization and social change
go hand in hand. . . (p. 65 1) and much of this chapter is given over to social and
historical perspectives, including research that has been informed by Marxism (p.
662). While much was written on structuralism at an abstract level in the 1970s,some
excellent examples have appeared during the 1980s blending empirical analysis with
structuralist concepts, such as Marston and Kirbys (1988) social creation of urban
space in a New England case study. Cadwallader (1988) has attempted to offer an
integration of urban geography and social theory by arguing for the complementarity
of behavioral, institutional, and Marxist approaches. His critics (Clark, 198 8; Shep-
pard, 1988; and Duncan, 1988) are not sanguine as to how such integration may be
achieved. In any case, it is clear that the role of social theory has become more
important in urban geography.


I Years

1980-1983 1984- 1987 1988-1991 Total

Categories % I N % I N % I N %

Advanced 42 51 27 36 24 28 93 38
Descriptive 17 20 10 13 8 9 35 14
Nonquantitative 24 29 39 51 54 63 117 48
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Total 83 100 76 100 86 100 245 100

Wse of correlation-regression analysis or more advanced modeling.

bUse of Chi-square, entropy, and location quotient, for example.
cUse of percentages, means, and ratios, for example.
Source: Compiled by author from Urban Geography articles, 1980- 199 1.

A fourth notable change in urban geography is the increased contributions of

females, including authors of Progress Reports. The AAG Newsletter annually pub-
lishes profiles of membership in the Association of American Geographers (AAG)
demonstrating the slow but steady increase in female members in recent years. Data
provided by Goodchild and Janelle ( 1988) suggested that AAG Specialty Groups that
are growing most rapidly, including urban geography, are attracting a higher propor-
tion of females who are increasingly entering graduate school and who, like males, are
specializing in the growing subfields of geography. During the period 1980- 1983,
only 12% of the authors in Urban Geography were female, compared to 20% from
1984 to 1987,and30%from 1988-1989(Table5).TheAAGNewsZetter(1991,p.10)
reports that only 15.6% of all college and university teachers belonging to the AAG
were female in 1990 and only 14.8% of members with the Ph.D. were female. Thus,
female contributions to Urban Geography are unusually high given overall member-
ship profiles?
A final change in the subdiscipline, perhaps reflecting something of a change in
geography in general, is that of increased pluralism. Many authors have remarked
about this change in general (Martin, 1985) and in urban geography in particular
(Cadwallader, 1988). A classification of articles published in Urban Geography from
1980 to 1991 reflects a wide range of topics, with no topic clearly dominant (Table 6).
Some articles were classified into two or more categories and thus the data show
topics, not articles. Further, a look at the topics of the Progress Reports likewise
indicates diversity-e.g., health, race, locality studies, neighborhood conflict, women
in cities-reflecting an intended editorial influence on the field. In addition, the
various guest-edited special issues show a broad range of interest-e.g., Chinese
cities, the elderly, ethnicity, homelessness, law and geography, the underclass,


I 1980-1983 I 1984-1987 I 1988-1991 I Total

Gender N % N % N % N %

Female 14 12 28 20 52 30 94 22
Male 99 88 112 80 120 70 33 1 78

Source: Compiled by author from Urban Geography articles, 1980- 199 1

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Categories In percentage

Population migration 12.1

Housing 9.1
Social 7.6
Regional development-planning 5.3
Policy 5.0
Political 5 .O
Suburbanization 5.0
Industrial 4.8
General 4.3
Transportation-communications 4.3
Corporate 4.0
Historical 4.0
Poverty 3.5
Race 3.3
Behavioral 3.3
Land use 2.8
Urban systems 2.8
Ehnicity 2.5
Total 88.7

aElevenother categories comprised the remaining 11.3 percent of the total.

Source: Compiled by author from Urban Geography articles, 1980-199 1.

urbanization in South Africa, and women and employment-all approved by the

editors, with all the articles peer reviewed.
These findings suggest that urban geography continues as a healthy, mainstream
subdiscipline. The AAG Urban Geography Specialty Group is among the largest of
the specialty groups, and the trends and characteristics reported here both reflect

general changes occurring in geography and help create these changes. As noted by
Goodchild and Janelle (1 988, p. 15), the subdiscipline of urban geography occupies
the most central position among the subfields of geography, as measured by cross-
memberships among AAG specialty groups. The journal appears to be especially
important as an outlet for female geographers, is increasingly pluralistic in outlook,
and is decreasingly dependent on the use of quantitative methods. While some notable
changes occurred in urban geography during the 1980s as to what may be seen as
relevant and timely, the purpose of the journal has not changed over the years: Urban
Geography welcomes article-length manuscripts that are relevant, timely, well
designed and executed, have broad significance, and demonstrate originality
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Only one article could be construed to be in the earth science tradition: Gary M. Talarchek, The Urban
Forest of New Orleans: An Exploratory Analysis of Relationships, Urban Geography, Vol. 1 1 , Jan-
uary-February, 1990,65-86.
2Christaller(1933) is cited by both Kohn et al. (1954) and Mayer et al. (1954), though the latter misdates it
as 1935, but Lbsch (1939) is not cited.
3Currently,the Editorial Board of Urban Geography consists of 35% females.


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