Personal Geography

Human geography or anthropogeography is the branch of geography that deals with the study of people and their communities, cultures, economies, and interactions with the environment by studying their relations with and across space and place.

Wikipedia (

I was catching up with my friend and former boss, Tony Quartararo, a couple of days ago when our discussion got around to behavioral changes we have made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lock-downs and social distancing guidelines. Not surprisingly, given our backgrounds, geography figured in strongly.

The use case we discussed was grocery shopping. Both of us admitted to limiting our choices of venue to those that we knew from memory, so that we could gather groceries and proceed to the exit as expeditiously as possible. This has the effect of geographically constraining our choices to our immediate locality. Even in the case of large chain grocers, the floorplan of each store varies widely.

As a result, we can see Tobler’s First Law in action. The chances are that you frequent the grocery store closest to you most often, so you have it nearly memorized. In the current environment, time is of the essence, so time lost trying to find items in another store matters even more than it did before.

There are two immediate effects of this spatial relationship:

First, we (or maybe just I) have a tendency to more diligently shop at the store that we know well, so that we can move through it efficiently. Second, we (or maybe just I) will tailor our shopping lists to those items we know are commonly at that store.

Pre-COVID, I would do the bulk of my shopping at my local grocery store, then augment my shopping with quick trips to other stores. For example, the Harris Teeter that is 14 miles away from me (I live in a very rural area) has a more varied produce section than my local store and also stocks nut-free protein bars that I otherwise have to order online, so I will typically go there after doing the bulk of my shopping at my local market. Now, we’ll do without a lot of the items we would get there.

My wife and I have a process, where she typically builds our comprehensive grocery list and then we go shopping. Since we’ve gone on lockdown, I have added an additional step in which I re-write the list in the order in which I’ll find the items from the time I come through the entrance to the time I get to the registers to pay.

Of course, Tony and I are merely anecdotes. We are not a statistically relevant sample by any means. Discussions I have had with a number of people indicate changes in geographic behavior based on current realities: running on a treadmill due to inability to socially distance on a local trail, shifting to a local butcher shop due to national supply chain disruptions, driving out to rural areas to engage in outdoor activities in a distanced manner.

It stands to reason that issuing stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines would affect the behavior of people and their relationship to space and geography, even down to a personal level. This, as the definition at the top of this post indicates, is the core of human geography and we are watching it play out in real time.