Resource Library





One of the five main themes of geography, place describes the physical and human characteristics of any location on Earth.


5 - 8


Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography


Sonoran Desert

The Sonoran desert in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, is one of the most unique and diverse places on the planet. Many plants and animals are only found in this massive desert that stretches over 260,000 square kilometers (100,000

Photograph by Tonda

Broadly defined, place is a location. The word is used to describe a specific location, such as the place on a shelf, a physical environment, a building or locality of special significance, or a particular region or location. The term can be used for locations at almost any geographic scale, depending on context.

Although location and place are sometimes used interchangeably, geographers assign the terms specific and different meanings. New education standards are now in effect, but in 1984, the National Council of Geographic Education (NCGE) and the Association of American Geographers (AAG) broke the discipline of geography into five major themes, which some continue to use to help teach geography: location, place, human-environment interaction, movement, and region. Location either refers to the actual latitude and longitude coordinates (absolute location) of something on Earth’s surface, or it describes something’s position in reference to something else (relative location). Place, on the other hand, refers to the physical and human characteristics of a spot on the map. In other words, location focuses on where; place focuses on what it is like there.

Place also includes descriptions of a site’s features and environmental conditions. The physical and human characteristics of a place make it unique. Physical characteristics include the natural environment, such as landforms, elevation, water features, climate, soil, natural vegetation, and animal life. Human characteristics include the size and density of the population, the ethnic and religious makeup of the population, language patterns, and other aspects of the culture. Human characteristics also include the built environment, such as houses, roads, and other infrastructure.

The study of a place often focuses on creating a better understanding of how the physical and human aspects of a location interrelate and interact. Geographers can also use place to compare and contrast different locations. Geographers can compare the physical and human characteristics of the Sahara and Antarctica, for instance, to better grasp the characteristics of each place, how the natural and human worlds interact, and how places vary across the world. In the case of the Sahara and Antarctica, they are both intense deserts, but one (the Sahara) is hot while the other (Antarctica) is cold. Although both are harsh, sparsely populated environments, nomadic groups have called the Sahara home for thousands of years, but it is only in recent times that people, mainly researchers, have started exploring and living in Antarctica.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Production Manager
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Specialist, Content Production
Clint Parks,
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about licensing content on this page, please contact for more information and to obtain a license. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. She or he will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to him or her, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources