An indication of the nature and content of applied geography may be gained by examining a selection of available definitions of the approach. One of the earliest statements on applied geography was offered by A.J. Herbertson in 1899 in a lecture to the Council of the Manchester Geographical Society. In this he defined applied geography as ‘a special way of looking at geography, a limitation and a specialisation of the study of it from one point of view. For the business man this point of view is an economic one, for the medical man a climatic and demographic one, for the missionary an ethic and ethical one’ (p. 1). While the second part of this definition presents a somewhat restricted view of the context of applied geography even at the end of the nineteenth century, the opening sentence has proved to be a prescient statement that, as we shall see, remains relevant today.
More recent attempts to define applied geography are also instructive as far as they reflect a particular view of the subject. In reviewing several definitions of applied geography, Hornbeck (1989: p. 15) identified two common factors in that applied geography ‘takes place outside the university, and it deals with real world problems’. While the latter observation is apposite, the exclusion of academic research in applied geography reveals an excessively narrow perspective that, in part, reflects the situation in North America, where many applied geographers employ their skills beyond the walls of academia. The extramural focus in applied geographical work is also central to Hart’s (1989: p. 15) definition, which saw applied geography as ‘the synthesis of existing geographic knowledge and principles to serve the specific needs of a particular client, usually a business or a government agency’. The suggestion of uncritical ‘service to a specific client, whether business or public agency’ (p. 17) implicit in this definition ignores the volume of critical analysis undertaken by academic applied geographers.
In a more broadly based statement, Sant (1982: p. 1) viewed applied geography as the use of geographic knowledge as an aid to reaching decisions over use of the world’s resources. More specifically, Frazier (1982: p. 17) considered that applied geography ‘deals with the normative question, the way things should be, a bold but necessary position in dealing with real world problem resolution. In the process, the geographer combines the world of opinion with the world of decision.’ This latter perspective is closer to the definition of applied geography favoured here.
In this book, we employ a definition of applied geography that reflects the central importance of normative goals and that acknowledges the involvement of both academic and non-academic applied geographers in pursuit of these goals. Accordingly, applied geography may be defined as the application of geographic knowledge and skills to the resolution of social, economic and environmental problems.