Geography and the Law

Mark Altaweel


In the study of law and its application, geography is generally an ignored component. Law geographers have advanced that understanding that law also requires knowledge of geographic and other factors that may intersect in how law is developed and applied.

The advantages of integrating a geographic perspective are that the institution of law and its practices are given a central place in the study of law and geography.[1]

In a recent book, it was assessed that existing laws on disabled, for instance, often did not consider spatial properties that affect different forms of disabilities, for instance in accessing buildings or creating resources that are easily accessible in work spaces.[2]

Laws are seen to address the problem at its surface but without consideration of underlying reasons, such as building design or spatial layout of areas.

Legal geography affects land use policies

The shaping of law has also impact on land use policies. For instance, most people in the United States today live in an urban region; however, most laws on natural resources relate to areas where very few people live.

State and national level laws affect how resources are utilized, but more local scales are often neglected. This has caused a disconnect in places, as well as conflict between communities, where laws are sometimes seen as not considering interests where larger resources and smaller communities might be found.

In effect, considerations of conservation are not being driven by those who are most affected but sometimes by those who are in more distant or urban areas.[3]

The spatial relevance of laws

Other cases include laws that regulate drug addiction recovery, such as the placement of supervised injection facilities in Australia, which has shown that people’s attitude towards such laws have spatial relevance.

For instance, placement of injection centers near more affluent areas may cause some communities to react negatively. Municipal governance has had to consider factors of where to place centers, while following the law’s parameters, that enable easier access without causing further social disruption by the placement of centers in a location that interferes with other activities or causes major controversy.[4]

In the long-term, scholars see that laws have become more centralized, which often facilitates standardization across a country or space, but could create social or conflict consequences in places where laws run counter to local interests. This often occur in resource extraction but can also be relevant where there are overlapping interests such as miners and agriculturalists wanting access to the same land.[5] Considerations of geography and use of space are, therefore, important in creating and shaping how law is implemented.

Geospatial Technologies and Applications – the two areas governed by Spatial Law.  Image from Spatial Law and its Relevance to Geospatial Practitioners.
Geospatial Technologies and Applications – the two areas governed by Spatial Law. Image from Spatial Law and its Relevance to Geospatial Practitioners.

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[1] For more on law and geography, see:  Blomley, N.K. & Clark, G.L. (1990) Law, theory, and geography. Urban Geography. [Online] 11 (5), 433–446. Available from: doi:10.2747/0272-3638.11.5.433.

[2] For more on how law and geography are used in understanding disability access, see:  Vellani, F. (2013) Understanding disability discrimination law through geography. Farnham, Surrey, England ; Burlington, VT, Ashgate.

[3] For more on how the law and policy is shaped by geography in land use issues, see:  Platt, R.H. (2014) Land use and society: geography, law, and public policy. Third Edition. Washington, Island Press.

[4] For more on legal injection facilities and geography, see:  Williams, S. (2016) Space, scale and jurisdiction in health service provision for drug users: the legal geography of a supervised injecting facility. Space and Polity. [Online] 20 (1), 95–108. Available from: doi:10.1080/13562576.2015.1128152.

[5] For more on a recent volume on examples showing how law is specialized and implemented within a given space, see:  Franz von Benda-Beckmann, Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, & Anne M. O. Griffiths (eds.) (2009) Spatializing law: an anthropological geography of law in society. Law, justice, and power. Farnham, Surrey, England ; Burlington, VT, Ashgate.


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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