The Interwoven Splatial Dimensions of Space and Place

The Interwoven Splatial Dimensions of Space and Place

The Ever-Unfolding Significance of Spatial Relationships and Human Dynamics

Hello Interactors,

We’re now into summer, but I wanted to sneak in one last cartography post. It’s a leap from last week’s post into the field of human dynamics.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing (shame on you 😉), I asked ChatGPT to make a poem out it.

In the realm of spatial analysis, behold the shift,
From mere location's grasp to a deeper rift.
No longer bound by cartographic tradition's way,
We delve into place's essence, where dynamics hold sway.

In the web of relational space, where connections thrive,
Topological ties and precise locations come alive.
Place identity emerges within this network's embrace,
As photos shared online from cherished spots find their place.

Technology, a symphony woven in our lives' thread,
Enmeshed in our cities, transportation's spread.
This integrated framework, a beacon to guide,
Distinguishing each entity, its role in the network's stride.

Geography, propelled by innovation's flame,
Unveils spatial relationships, humanity's vibrant game.
From Tobler's law, a profound truth first unfurled,
To Shaw and Sui's framework, where dimensions swirl.

Absolute space, relative space, and relational bonds,
A tapestry of interplay, where connection responds.
With each advance, our understanding deepens,
The dance of human interactions, geography reopens.

As interactors, you’re special individuals self-selected to be a part of an evolutionary journey. You’re also members of an attentive community so I welcome your participation.

Please leave your comments below or email me directly.

Now let’s go…



"Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things."

This principle, known as the "first law of geography," was first articulated by my former cartography professor, Waldo Tobler, when I was just four years old in 1969. While initially presented as an idiom, it eventually gained recognition as a law. Some speculate that this classification arose during a period when geography was becoming increasingly quantitative and mathematical.

Essentially, the law suggests that the further apart two locations are on Earth, the less likely they are to physically interact. However, when we attempt to determine and measure what is considered "near" and "distant" on a 2D aerial map—an abstract representation of mathematical space—we may unintentionally detach ourselves from the physical reality of these places and the spaces between them.

Consider the route you might take by car to a destination that is 500 miles or kilometers away. It would likely involve twists and turns, ascents, and descents, and passing through various towns, villages, or natural landscapes. On a topographic map, you would observe squiggly lines that traverse a multitude of elevations. Now, envision flying to the same destination. After takeoff, the plane banks left or right and then follows a more or less straight path. On a map, it would appear as a direct line between two points. If you were to draw lines connecting all the places you have visited on a map in a year, you would likely observe Tobler's law in action. Those locations closest to you—where you live, work, shop, eat, and play—are all more closely related than those that are farther away.

These drawings of points and lines can be understood as network diagrams, representing measurable and mathematically describable relationships between objects. By examining the properties, connectivity, and patterns within these graphs, we can analyze various phenomena and solve problems across disciplines ranging from computer science to social science. Network analysis is integral to mapping software, guiding us with routes and directions on our phones or in our cars. It serves as a fundamental component of Geographical Information Systems and Geographical Information Science. Moreover, this approach is employed by software algorithms to recommend friends in online social networks or deliver advertisements that align with our distant yet related interests.

The Seven Bridges of Königsberg is a famous mathematics problem that illustrates the similarities and differences between physical place and abstract space — or the topographical from the topological. It was a custom in this town to see who could cross each bridge only once. And in 1736 the mathematician Leonhard Euler proved it mathematically impossible by representing the map as a graph. Regardless of which land mass (nodes) you start you can can’t traverse each bridge (line) only once. This was the beginnings of graph theory and the math behind route mapping today.

As critical as these spatial mathematical methods are to our modern everyday lives, they fall short when it comes to considering the surrounding factors that influence outcomes. For instance, while Google Maps may account for the time required to climb a hill when determining the most efficient route by foot, bike, bus, or car, it fails to consider factors such as circuitous routes, neighborhood safety and quality, or the presence of dedicated bus and bike lanes or sidewalks.

Furthermore, wouldn't a city with multiple direct flights to a particular destination challenge Tobler's law? If a city offers ten direct flights a day to a faraway location, wouldn't it be considered more related than a city that only provides one daily flight? The same holds true for direct flights themselves. I can fly directly from Seattle to Dublin in nine hours, while the cheapest ticket to my hometown in the middle of America would take twelve hours with one stop. However, the trip to Ireland would cost five times more. Of course, not everyone has the time or financial means to embark on such journeys. Nevertheless, for those who do, air travel has the potential to bring distant things closer, particularly when compared to a century ago.

Throughout history, technological advancements have continuously challenged the frictions imposed by physical distance, as encapsulated by Tobler's law. From the invention of boats and wheeled carts to the advent of the telegraph, airplanes, and the internet, the barriers posed by geographic separation have been progressively diminished. Increasingly, distant things possess the potential to become more connected to nearby entities. Technological innovations have alleviated the frictions imposed by the rugged terrain of the Earth, the impeding winds and waves of the sea, and the extremes of temperature.

And now, with the internet and widespread video conferencing, distance is brought to our doorstep or displayed on a screen just inches from our face. Those who have the means to do so are witnessing an ever-unfolding significance of "space" and "place" in our globalized world.


Within the field of geography, there is a subfield that investigates this intersection called human dynamics. It explores human behavior, interactions, and patterns within the context of the physical environment. Human dynamics considers how individuals, communities, and societies shape and are shaped by the spatial distribution of activities, such as migration, urbanization, land use, and socio-economic processes.

Two prominent figures in this field, Shih-Lung Shaw from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and Daniel Sui from Virginia Tech, introduced a space-place framework that integrates previously compartmentalized studies of abstracted space with physical place. They refer to this integrated framework as a "splatial" framework, which draws inspiration from the four main schools of Western spatial thought discussed last week.

Shaw and Sui argue that humans, as dynamic entities, are influenced by four key dimensions of space:1

  1. Absolute Space (Location): Absolute space pertains to fixed locations in space and investigates questions such as "Where do different objects exist?"

  2. Relative Space (Locale): Relative space revolves around locations relative to a fixed or moving object and focuses on inquiries like "What surrounds us?"

  3. Relational Space (Place Identity and Dynamics): Relational space examines the relationships between objects and concentrates on questions such as "What is connected or associated with us?"

  4. Mental Space (Sense of Place): Mental space explores the cognitive and psychological aspects of space, centered around inquiries like "What perceptions and thoughts do individuals hold in their minds?"

. A space–place (splatial) GIScience framework for human dynamics research, an extension of the multispace framework from Shaw and Sui (2018). Source: (1)

They represent these four dimensions as bubbles arranged in a circle, with the human being at the center. Each bubble is connected by lines, demonstrating the interdependent interactions and the organic unity of these dimensions, rather than viewing them as separate entities.

Their framework is also influenced by geographers Doreen Massey and John Agnew. In 1991, Massey advocated for a global and dynamic perception of place, asserting that places are characterized by multiple identities rather than a singular one. These identities constantly evolve over time and lack clear boundaries that distinctly separate the inside from the outside. In 2011, Agnew introduced a comprehensive understanding of the concept of place, incorporating three fundamental pillars: location, delineated by latitude and longitude; locale, encompassing the physical/environmental and socio-economic/cultural context; and a sense of place, rooted in subjective human perception and attachment to a specific location or locale.

Within the realm of spatial analysis, the emphasis has shifted towards examining place identity and dynamics, surpassing the traditional focus on mere location or locale prevalent in cartography and GIS. Given that relational space encompasses topological relationships and precise locations, the notion of place identity assumes significance within a relational network, such as an online social network where people share photos from specific locations. As technology becomes increasingly embedded in our personal lives, transportation, and cities, this integrated framework becomes crucial for differentiating each entity and comprehending their respective roles within the network.

In my lifetime, the field of cartography – and geography more broadly – driven by advancements in technology and evolving conceptual frameworks, has expanded our understanding of spatial relationships and the dynamics of human interactions. From Waldo Tobler's "first law of geography" to the space-place framework proposed by Shaw and Sui, we have come to recognize the complex interplay between absolute space, relative space, relational space, and mental space. This challenges traditional notions of distance and emphasize the significance of place identity, connectivity, and the cognitive aspects of space.

As we navigate a globalized world, the study of human dynamics in geography provides a valuable lens through which we can comprehend the intricate relationships between individuals, communities, and their physical environments. By embracing this integrated framework, we gain insights into the ever-unfolding significance of our special splatial interconnected and technology-driven society.



Understanding the New Human Dynamics in Smart Spaces and Places: Toward a Splatial Framework. Shih-Lung Shaw & Daniel Sui. 2020.

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Interplace explores the interaction of people and place. It looks at how we move within and between the places we live and what led us here in the first place.