Settlement patterns are the ways in which human settlements are distributed across the earth’s land, including the locations of cities, towns and even individual homes. Where people settle is determined by a wide range of factors related to both nature and human society. Examining the reasons behind different settlement patterns is an important part of understanding the geography of the world we live in.

Physical Environment

One of the most basic factors affecting settlement patterns is the physical geography of the land. Climate is key, because if a place is too dry, too cold or too hot, it’s more difficult for large numbers of people to settle there, especially if they make their living from farming. The land itself is important too because some types of soil are much better for agriculture than others, or they support different types of crops. Though modern transportation allows people to settle farther from where their food is farmed, places with wet, mild climates are still more densely populated than places that are very dry or very cold.

Transportation Systems

Settlement patterns have always been affected by the technology available to settlers, and especially by methods of transportation. In the past, when boats were the best way to transport goods and people, most major settlements were located next to the sea or rivers. In fact, the world’s biggest cities today are still located next to water, though transportation technology has allowed inland regions to be populated too. In the 1800s, the American West and other parts of the world saw settlements spring up along the newly built railroads, and today highways and roads form an even bigger factor.

Economic Concerns

Economics often drive settlers to seek opportunity in new places, creating their own settlements or increasing the size of existing ones. Historically, settlers often came in search of places to start farms, and later they came to cities to look for jobs. If economies in the countryside collapse, that can drive even more people into the cities. It's also possible for jobs to move from cities to the suburbs, leading immigrants to settle in suburban neighborhoods more often than city centers.

Government Policies

The government’s land policies can also have a lasting effect on settlement patterns. Today many city governments enforce zoning rules, controlling the growth of settlements by allowing people to live in some areas but not others. Similarly, when the United States and Canada were expanding west across North America, they each instituted rules that allowed settlers to claim land for farms. Huge areas of land were divided into grids of square plots on official maps, resulting in a checkerboard of square fields, straight-line roads, county lines and state borders across much of the Great Plains. This top-down settlement policy often destroyed the settlement patterns -- and livelihoods -- of the Native American people already living there.