Functional Regions

How do you interact with the space around you? Is there a specific local radio, television channel, or newspaper that you like? Activities and functions you partake in each day only have a certain spatial range within which they occur. This is how you can conceptualize functional regions. 

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    Whether you know it or not, there are many moments in your daily life when you are interacting in a functional region. Let's discuss.

    Functional Regions Definition

    Functional regions, as the name implies, are regions that exist due to a function.

    Functional Region: the area surrounding a central node where an activity occurs.

    The function in the functional region can be commercial, social, political, or something else. The are surrounding the central node can be considered its sphere of influence. The influence weakens as distance increases, through distance decay.

    Another way to define functional regions is to define them by a central location. The surrounding area influenced by this central location is the functional region.

    Formal and Functional Region

    In addition to functional regions, there are also formal regions and perceptual/vernacular regions. This article will discuss functional regions in depth, but it is important to know the differences.

    As a reminder, functional regions are regions that exist due to a function surrounding a node. An example of a functional region can be the fan base population surrounding a MLB ballpark. While there can be a bit of variation, the fan base of a baseball team resides in the surrounding area and supports the team in the MLB ballpark closest to them. For instance, residents of Massachusetts support the Boston Red Sox because that is the MLB team located in the state's capital city.

    Meanwhile, formal regions are areas that share a uniform attribute, such as language, culture, or political organization. An example of a formal region includes the borders of the US. Formal regions are usually well-defined and established.

    Perceptual/vernacular regions are informal regions based on popular perception rather than a well-defined concept. Instead of having formal borders, like formal regions do, the boundaries of perceptual/vernacular regions are often debated. An example of a perpetual/vernacular region includes the Bermuda Triangle. This ill-defined region does not exist in actuality, but instead is based on myth. Perceptual/vernacular regions have no definitive borders; it depends on how an individual perceives the region. These regions reside in our "mental maps."

    It is important to know the difference between the various types of regions because this is a common topic on the AP Human Geography exam. There are explanations for each type of region.

    Characteristics of Functional Region

    There are not many characteristics of a functional region. The one necessity to be considered a functional region is that an area must contain a central node around which the function is centered or focused. As a reminder, this central mode can be political, commercial, or social.

    Functional Regions Examples

    Other than a central node and a function, there are not any defining characteristics. With such a broad definition, there are numerous examples of functional regions.

    Metropolitan Areas

    Metropolitan areas are good examples of functional regions because they feature central, dense districts influencing surrounding areas. Metropolitan areas in the US have extensive urban sprawl. The primary node of activity is the downtown, usually located in the city center. For instance, Boston has a wide metropolitan area. Downtown Boston is the core of economic activity for a region that extends hours in all directions from it.


    Unlike formal regions, functional regions do not have to be well-defined. This is important to note because metropolitan areas are so hard to define. The US is actually witnessing the rise of "megaregions" or megalopolises as cities and their urban sprawl spread and combine across thousands of square miles.

    Megalopolis: a grouping of metropolitan areas that are increasingly becoming interconnected into one megaregion as a result of shared systems such as transportation or economy.

    For instance, the stretch of the East Coast of the US from Boston to DC contains dense human activity and settlement. This megalopolis is known as BosWash. It can be hard to decipher where the centralized focus of economic activity is located because the suburban areas of each city blend into each other. This megaregion is closely linked through telecommunication and transportation technology. BosWash can be thought of as one functional region.

    Functional Regions US Megaregions StudySmarterFig. 1 - The megaregions of the US. Metropolitan areas fuse as urban sprawl spreads. It is hard to decipher where economic activity is centralized

    As urban sprawl grows around the country, there are many other examples of megaregions in the US. For instance, Southern California is a region with immense sprawl that spreads far beyond the city limits of Los Angeles.

    For more information about the consequences of the spread and combining of urban sprawl, check out the explanation for Galactic City Model.

    Concentric City Model

    Canadian sociologist Ernest W. Burgess theorized about the city as a functional region. His Concentric Zone Model depicts the city as a concentric circle, with the highest density and activity happening in the downtown center of the city, called the Central Business District. Surrounding this district is a ring of factories and industrial areas, followed by working-class neighborhoods. In the outer ring is the suburbs. Thus, the city is centralized in the downtown area and spreads its influence to the outer rings of the concentric circle. This is the archetype for a functional region, as there is a node and a surrounding region. For more information, check out StudySmarter's full explanation on this topic.

    Functional Regions Burgess Concentric Model StudySmarterFig. 2 - Burgess' Concentric City Model features the activities of a city surrounding the Central Business District in a pattern of concentric rings

    School Districts

    School districts are examples of functional regions because they are regions designed for a function surrounding a node. The node is the school and the surrounding functional area is the school district. School districts are not well-defined; they shift as a result of new schools or changing demographics.

    Functional Regions School District Map StudySmarterFig. 3 - School districts are the functional regions surrounding a school

    School districts are important functional areas, because the school district an individual is educated in can determine much about their future and potential success. Because schools are funded by property taxes, school districts are impacted by property values, and vice versa.

    Similar examples of functional regions in municipalities may include the functional region surrounding a police station. The police station is the central node and the police officers have jurisdiction to enforce laws in the surrounding area. Additionally, there is a functional region surrounding a fire station in which the firefighters will be responsible for preventing fires.


    Modern technology has allowed the diffusion of media via electronic signals. Unless you are using a different form of connection at home, radio, television, mobile phone data, phone calls, and Wi-Fi all arrive via electromagnetic technology. This information is transmitted from cell phone towers. The range and reach of these technologies are a functional region.

    Functional Regions Cell Phone Tower StudySmarterFig. 4 - A cell phone tower in Iceland. The range of the electromagnetic waves diffused by this tower define a functional region

    You may notice that you have left the functional region of a cell phone tower if you no longer have any phone service. In relation to radio, when you leave the functional region of a radio station, you will no longer be able to listen to that channel, and will instead hear static. On a much smaller scale, at home, you may notice that you left the functional area of your Wi-Fi router when you are no longer connected to the Wi-Fi. When this happens, you must get closer to the central node to be connected again.

    Large phone, radio, and television companies can afford the technology that allows information to travel across an entire country, but many times radio, phone, and television connections will be more localized. Thus, the functional area of technology depends on the technology and company.

    Functional Regions in Geography

    Functional regions are important to geographers because they involve specific areas of human activity. Geography is not just about land and its physical features. It is also about how humans interact with space. Functional regions can describe which sports team an individual supports, what radio station they listen to, which school they will attend, and so forth. Thus, functional regions are a fundamental concept for human geographers.

    Functional Regions - Key takeaways

    • Functional regions, as the name implies, are regions that exist due to a function.
    • Functional regions are just one type of region. There are also formal and perceptual/vernacular regions.
    • The one necessity to be considered a functional region is that an area must contain a central node on which the function is centered or focused.
    • Examples of functional regions include metropolitan areas, megaregions, school districts, and the range of broadcasting technology.
    • Functional regions is important tool for human geographers to analyze human interactions with their surrounding environment.


    1. Fig. 1 - US Megaregions Map ( by IrvingPlNYC licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (
    2. Fig. 3 - School District Map ( by US Census, Ruhrfisch licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (
    3. Fig. 4 - Cell Phone Tower ( by Kevin Kandlbinder licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Functional Regions

    What is a functional region in human geography?

    A functional region in human geography is a region that includes a node and the surrounding area of activity for a related function. 

    What is the difference between formal, functional and perceptual regions?

    Formal regions are well-defined and established, functional regions are the areas of activity surrounding a node, and perceptual regions are ill-defined regions that are not based on geographic reality but are based on perceptions. 

    What are the characteristics of functional region?

    The characteristics of a functional region include a node and the surrounding area of activity. 

    What is a functional region example?

    A functional region example is a school district. The school is the node and the district around the school is the functional region. 

    Is New York City a functional region?

    Depending on context, New York City is a functional region. New York City is a formal region in that it has defined borders, but it is also a functional region because New York City's downtown is the hub of commercial activity for the surrounding region. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which type of region is well-defined and features a shared attribute?

    What is the defining characteristic of a functional region?

    The central node of a functional region is always easy to find. 


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