Spaces, places, and landscapes change over time. Elements of them move, and where there is movement, there is what we call a "flow." This can be anything from your daily journey to school to the flow of electrons at the speed of light that is providing you with this explanation.

Flows Flows

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    So let's go with the flow, so to speak!

    Flows in Geography

    Geographers measure and map spatial flows. These may be daily traffic flows in your local city or cultural flows that have happened over centuries.

    Certain cultural traits from the Old World very likely impacted the Americas before 1492, but they are nearly impossible to detect. We look for the traces of their flows, i.e. their movements across space and time. in language, material artifacts, old maps, and even human genes. An example is the highly similar words for "sweet potato" in Quechua (Peru) and Polynesian, which combined with genetic evidence shows that the crop was introduced to the New World around 400 years before Columbus.1

    Types of Flows in Geography

    Everything flows when scales of space and time are taken into account. Over eons, mountains erode into plains while species arise, flourish, and disappear.

    The human world is based on flows humans make and compel, as well as the flows of the natural world that humans depend on (the air we breathe, the water we drink, and so forth).

    Flows of People

    With the above in mind, we can consider the first and most fundamental type of flow in human geography: humans! People move because we must: it is a biological imperative. Not just because we need exercise, though this is part of it. We have to find food, sources of energy, and other resources. If we don't move, someone else moves to provide them to us.

    Flows Commercial Flights StudySmarterFig. 1 - Flow map of global commercial flights in 2014 shows volume, destination, and origin of flows of people

    We also have to move, or someone else does, so that we keep our gene pool diverse. In other words, the human species cannot survive if we breed with our nearest kin (and most societies have taboos against this), so the search for mates, in humans as in many other species, is an example of a biological imperative that has spurred flows.

    Material Flows

    Another type of flow is of materials. Material flows involve anything physical that is moved, such as a natural resource. Humans survive because of material flows of energy, food, and other essentials, as well as non-essential goods we use to gain status, for entertainment, etc.

    Non-Material Flows

    A non-material flow is conveyed via some sort of tangible medium. An idea is conveyed, for example, via language, speech, and air, and is received and processed via sense organs and the brain. Capital is exchanged electronically, using electrons, hardware, and software to flow. Flows of culture and flows of capital are prime examples of non-material flows.

    Flows in Geography - Example

    The journey-to-work is a specific type of flow that has long attracted the interest of spatial analysts. It involves flows of urban commuters. Here's an example of how such a study would work and how it would be useful.

    A city, we'll call it Mundana, has a booming economy. People are moving to Mundana in droves, and developers are building new housing and shopping areas to stay apace. Roads are the responsibility of the city government, and it is struggling to keep up. it needs to expand existing roads (more lanes) and build new roads. A journey-to-work study can help identify factors that can contribute to a "smarter" road network for commuters.

    The study looks at traffic volume on the existing road network and how it fluctuates over the work day. It focuses on areas of maximal congestion (where there are regular slowdowns and gridlock), which are often bottlenecks such as heavy merge zones, bridges and tunnels, and highways without enough lanes. Using GIS, the study looks at the growth in traffic volume over time to be able to project congested areas in the future.

    If you've been in large US metro areas, you've seen the results of these traffic flow studies. Not only have highways been expanded and others built, but HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes have been designated to stimulate carpooling, alternate routes and connectors have been constructed, tolls have been enacted, the timing of stoplights has been altered, and many other improvements have been made.

    flows traffic studysmarterFig. 2 - Traffic flow in Washington state has been improved by a lane reserved for HOVs and buses, as well as displays helping drivers judge driving time

    Global Flows in Geography

    Globalization is a process of altering the size, direction, and velocity of flows around the planet. It is usually associated with ever-increasing speed and volume. Let's look at this in more detail.

    Global Flows of People

    Humans are a wandering species; we've been doing it for hundreds of thousands of years, first by land, then by sea. In around 1522, we circled the globe for the first time, and we haven't looked back. We carried ideas and goods with us to more and more places, more and more quickly. We added air travel in the 20th century.

    Tourism, travel for other reasons (such as for business), and migration are different types of global flows of people that depend on other flows. Like all flows, flows of people are heavily restricted by cost and also by legal constraints. Many countries restrict outward migration while most restrict incoming migration.

    In general, in the 21st century, the greatest net out-flows of people are from areas that are impoverished and/or in conflict, with other factors such as climate change contributing as well. The greatest net in-flows of people are to countries with robust economies and many available jobs, combined with permissive or poorly enforced immigration policies.

    Global Flows of Capital

    Once upon a time, people needed to carry money with them, like the galleons that brought silver from Mexico to Spain. Now, money changes hands instantaneously via electronic means.

    Free-market, free-trade proponents advocate a world with few capital controls wherein financial resources can flow quickly to and from where they are needed. In reality, however, global capital flows are constrained by the laws of individual countries as well as by various aspects of information technology infrastructure. Money can't flow to a place where it cannot be received electronically unless it is carried by people, and it can never flow (legally) into a country where it is blocked. Some countries, such as tax havens, are easy to send money into and out of (generally to banks and individuals).

    Global Flows of Culture

    People backed by capital have, since the voyages of Columbus or before, been able to cross oceans and continents, diffusing culture at the same time they were trading in goods and services.

    Columbus, and many Europeans after him, diffused Christianity. This religion reached as far as the Philippines by the mid-1500s AD, thus becoming a global flow. It was blocked in many places, but as a universalizing religion, took hold wherever it wasn't explicitly banned.

    Today, ideas, tastes, styles, recipes, belief systems, and other aspects of culture flow globally via the Internet, reaching more and more people than ever before as online access increases and translator bots improve. However, countries such as China, with its so-called Great Firewall, filter out much of the Internet traffic entering and leaving their territory in an attempt to control cultural diffusion. While China does this for ideological reasons based on politics, other countries do so to protect national values associated with cultural complexes such as religion, given that the unregulated Internet is a free-for-all of ideas that challenge every existing belief system in some way or another.

    It can probably be said that globalization, thanks to the Internet, in overwhelming the world with information, has provoked a backlash from cultural and political systems that feel threatened, in many cases justifiably.

    Global Flows of Resources (Trade in Goods and Services)

    People, culture, capital: all these need the raw materials that the Earth provides to exist in the first place. The Earth's "hardware" is its natural resources in the hydrosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. Humans are made of these and transform and combine them to provide energy for heat and light, calories for sustenance, building materials for shelter, fiber for clothing, luxury items for adornment, and so forth.

    Humans first circled the globe in search of spices such as black pepper and other lightweight, luxury items that were worth capital investment by 16th-century Europeans. Trade flows increase or decrease depending on supply and demand, and there are numerous issues with both of these. Demand can increase or decrease for cultural reasons (e.g., a certain item becomes sought after because it confers status, or is abandoned because it becomes the symbol of something bad), economic reasons (e.g., consumers increase or decrease in affluence), or political reasons (e.g., changing trade regulations). Supply can also increase or decrease for many reasons.

    flows black pepper studysmarterFig. 3 - The fruit of Piper nigrum, the black pepper plant, was highly sought after by European elites in the late 1400s. It was the principal spice that compelled investors to support Columbus on his westward voyages

    Nowadays, material flows are more important than ever before, even with the existence of the Internet. This is simply because more people are more affluent than ever before, so they consume more. In addition, non-material services also flow around the world, sometimes offered by people in person, but more often offered via electronic means.

    StudySmarter, a company based in Germany, relies on a global workforce and a global consumer base. Services in the form of writing and editing are supplied by people in many countries, and in turn, StudySmarter supplies people in many countries with study aids. The explanation you are currently reading was created and produced by people from the US, UK, Germany, and other countries, and its potential audience is nearly every country and Internet user on the planet!

    Shifting Flows in Geography

    We said at the beginning that space never stands still, so we have to take flows into account if we want to explain changes in places. But flows often aren't predictable, either! Using GIS, geographers can map and predict flows ever more accurately, and by gaining a better understanding of the factors that cause flows, they can even predict when flows will shift, to where, and by how much.

    An example of this comes from the connection between climatology and human geography: the science of predicting hurricane seasons. The prediction of individual hurricanes, which are composed of and guided by flows of air, water, heat, and so forth, is improving by leaps and bounds with increasing amounts of data and faster processor speeds that can generate more accurate models. But what about predicting what next year's hurricane season will be like? Changes in the jet stream and myriad other flows of weather and climate are difficult but not impossible to predict, and our tools keep getting better and better.

    Flows - Key takeaways

    • Space, place, and landscape are made and changed by flows of people, material, and non-material phenomena.
    • An example of a spatial flow geographers study is the journey-to-work and daily commuter traffic flows in cities.
    • Globalization involves changes in the speed, size, and direction of flows of people, capital, goods, and services.
    • Flows shift over time, and a prime example of this is changing weather and climate patterns that make it difficult to predict the relative severity of hurricane seasons from year to year.


    1. Doucleff, M. 'How The Sweet Potato Crossed The Pacific Way Before The Europeans Did.' www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/01/22/169980441/how-the-sweet-potato-crossed-the-pacific-before-columbus. 2013.
    2. Fig. 1: Flights (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:World_Air_Routes.png) by Bplewe is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    3. Fig. 2: Traffic flow (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Interstate_5_northbound_near_Shoreline,_WA_-_HOV_and_VMS.jpg) by SounderBruce (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:SounderBruce) is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    4. Fig. 3: Black Pepper (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Piper_nigrum_31zz.jpg) by David J. Stang is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Flows

    What are flows in Human Geography?

    In Human Geography, flows are movements of people, resources, and culture.

    What is a spatial flow?

    A spatial flow is a mass movement of people, goods, or something intangible like an idea.

    What are the three flows of globalization?

    The three flows of globalization are flows of people, flows of capital, and flows of resources.

    What are global flows?

    Global flows are flows of people, resources, capital, or culture that encircle the planet and have potential to reach and affect every human being and every place on Earth.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Space, place, and landscape are always static.

    Pick the most accurate answer: A journey-to-work study measures _______.

    A crop found in both the Old World and the New World before 1492 is _______.


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