Formal Region: Definition And Types

Regions are categories, and like all categories, they exist to help us group things together and make sense of the world around us. A formal region is, in the geographical sense, a geographical area that has been defined by officially recognized boundaries. A formal region is just one type of region and is distinct from functional regions and perceptual regions.

What’s A Region?

A region, in the most basic sense, is an area with certain characteristics that set it apart from other areas. These characteristics have distinct qualities about them, such as climate, size, or populations. The boundaries of a certain region are defined by people based on these different criteria that set them apart from other regions. Regions can easily vary in shape and size and they can be overlapped with one another or be mutually exclusive. Regions can also divide the entire world up into sections or only reference certain portions of the globe.


In geography, there are three different types of regions: functional, formal, and perceptual.

A Formal Region

A formal region is an area that has officially recognized boundaries defining it. As such, formal regions are often made up of the boundaries for cities, counties, states, and countries. These regions are often regarded as common knowledge and their boundaries set by local or national governments. Various criteria are used to create the regions. Some criteria an official entity may use to create a region are political affiliation, nationality, culture, common languages, religion, geographical features.

“A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable.” — William Wordsworth

One or more of these distinguishing features are usually used by official entities to set them apart from other regions and create their boundaries. While characteristics like a population’s income or languages are relevant factors when defining a geographical region, the region’s physical characteristics are also important variables to consider. Natural boundaries like rivers, mountains, canyons, and lakes are often used to denote the boundaries of a geographical region.


Depending on the chosen criteria, a formal region may be easier or harder to define. While terrain features remain fairly steady, if a geographical region is instead based on more mutable human factors (such as language), there could be difficulties in defining the region. As an example, if an attempt is made to define a neighborhood as an area where more than 50% speak Spanish, this population could fluctuate throughout the years, necessitating redraws of the region from time to time. Nonetheless, in principle, every formal region is based on some sort of quantifiable variable.

Examples Of Formal Regions

The countries found on the different continents are formal regions, as are the continents themselves. The continents of Europe and South America are regions, as are the countries found within them, such as Spain, France, Germany and Italy in Europe and Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Chile for South America.

Photo: By San Jose (map), Hayden120 (retouch) – Derivative work of Europe countries map en.png by San Jose, based on the Generic Mapping Tools and ETOPO2, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Countries are often divided into their own regions as well, just as the United States is divided into fifty different states. States like Florida, California, Washington, Texas, and New York all have their own borders that define them. Within these states are there own counties and cities that have their own boundaries and city limits that separate them from the cities and counties that surround them. As mentioned above, formal regions are frequently defined by characteristics relating to the population that lives there. Formal regions like Switzerland or India may often be defined by the languages spoken there.

“A world without huge regions of total wilderness would be a cage; a world without lions and tigers and vultures and snakes and elk and bison would be — will be — a human zoo. A high-tech slum.” — Edward Abbey

While these counties, states, counties, and cities are usually defined in relation to the people that live within them, there are also many regions that are defined in relation to geographic zones and physical characteristics. Areas like the Sahara Desert or the Cascadian Mountain range are defined by physical features.


Remember that formal regions can change as the characteristics that define them change. Shifts in political relationships, ecosystem changes, or globalization can often shift the boundaries of formal regions. While these formal regions can shift, they still remain useful distinctions that allow people to better understand their relationship with the environment and the world around them.

Other Types Of Regions

Formal regions are distinct from perceptual and functional regions. Let’s see how formal regions are different from these other two types of regions.

Photo: pixel2013 via Pixabay, CC0

Functional Region

A functional region is classified as distinct from other regions due to certain processes that take place within them. This means they are areas that serve a certain function. Functional regions are frequently centralized around economic processes, trade routes, television networks, transportation, internet connectivity, etc. Examples of functional regions include metropolitan regions, school districts, branch banks, and harbors.

School districts are a functional region based around schools. Students typically attend the schools closest to them, and they must commute to their schools every day, making the schools the central hubs that the district is based around. Likewise, branch banks are distributed according to population needs and centralized around a larger, main bank. Branches of the bank serve people living near it and act as the hub of commerce and the hubs that the region is based on.

Perceptual Region (Vernacular Region)

A perceptual region is also referred to as a vernacular region. There is some disagreement over whether or not the two are equivalent. Vernacular regions may refer to the different ways that people communicate with one another, while perceptual regions often refer to feelings/beliefs about a region held by people. Vernacular regions are cultural in nature and reflect how people within that cultural area have frequently had their own cultural aspects in addition to their own dialects.

Vernacular regions are distinguished from one another by the words used by its population and the cultural significance attached to language or practices within that area. Because vernacular regions are based partially on attitudes/perceptions, they are quite malleable and can change based on shifts in the attitudes/beliefs of people. Examples of Perceptual Regions include Southern California “SoCal,” The South (the American South), the Midwest, etc. Examples outside the United States include the Middle East, Eastern Europe, etc.

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