Geographical feature

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A feature (also called an object or entity), in the context of geography and geographic information science, is a discrete phenomenon that exists at a location in the space and scale of relevance to geography; that is, at or near the surface of Earth, at a moderate to global scale.[1]: 62  It is one of the primary types of phenomena represented in geographic information, such as that represented in maps, geographic information systems, remote sensing imagery, statistics, and other forms of geographic discourse. Such representations of features consists of descriptions of their inherent nature, their spatial form and location, and their characteristics or properties.[2]

Ontology and terminology[edit]

The term "feature" is meant to be broad and inclusive, including both natural and human-constructed phenomena. It is metaphysically neutral, including both phenomena that exist physically (e.g. a building) and those that are conceptual or social creations (e.g. a neighbourhood). In an ontological sense, the term is generally restricted to endurants, which are wholly present at any time during their lifespan (e.g., the state of New York in 1820 was a complete state, and is the same state as the New York in 2021). A feature is also discrete, meaning that it has a clear identity distinct from other phenomena, and is comprehended as a whole, defined in part by the boundary of its extent (although this can be problematic when vagueness arises, such as in the boundaries of a "valley"). This differentiates features from geographic processes and events, which are perdurants that only exist in time; and from geographic masses and fields, which are continuous in that they are not conceptualized as a distinct whole.[3]

In geographic information science, the terms feature, object, and entity are generally used as roughly synonymous. In the 1992 Spatial Data Transfer Standard (SDTS), one of the first public standard models of geographic information, an attempt was made to formally distinguish them: an entity as the real-world phenomenon, an object as a representation thereof (e.g. on paper or digital), and a feature as the combination of both entity and representation objects.[4] Although this distinction is often cited in textbooks, it has not gained lasting nor widespread usage. In the ISO 19101 Geographic Information Reference Model[5] and Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Simple Features Specification,[6] international standards that form the basis for most modern geospatial technologies, a feature is defined as "an abstraction of a real-world phenomena," essentially the object in SDTS.

Despite these attempts at formalization, the broadly interchangeable use of these English terms has persisted. That said, Phenomenon is likely the most broad, comfortably including geographic masses, processes, and events that would be difficult to call "objects" or "entities."[3]

Types of features[edit]

Natural features[edit]

A natural feature is a phenomenon that was not created by humans, but is a part of the natural world. There has been some metaphysical debate over whether such features are "real," independent of the human mind (a realist stance), whether they are purely human conceptualizations of continuous natural phenomena (a constructivist stance), or a hybrid of discrete natural phenomena that highly motivate, but are simplified by human concepts (a experientialist stance). It is also possible that individual features may be of any of these three types.[7]


There are two different terms to describe habitats: ecosystem and biome. An ecosystem is a community of organisms.[8] In contrast, biomes occupy large areas of the globe and often encompass many different kinds of geographical features, including mountain ranges.[9]

Biotic diversity within an ecosystem is the variability among living organisms from all sources, including inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems.[10] Living organisms are continually engaged in a set of relationships with every other element constituting the environment in which they exist, and ecosystem describes any situation where there is relationship between organisms and their environment.

Biomes represent large areas of ecologically similar communities of plants, animals, and soil organisms.[11] Biomes are defined based on factors such as plant structures (such as trees, shrubs, and grasses), leaf types (such as broadleaf and needleleaf), plant spacing (forest, woodland, savanna), and climate. Unlike biogeographic realms, biomes are not defined by genetic, taxonomic, or historical similarities. Biomes are often identified with particular patterns of ecological succession and climax vegetation.

Water bodies[edit]

A body of water is any significant accumulation of water, usually covering the land. The term "body of water" most often refers to oceans, seas, and lakes, but it may also include smaller pools of water such as ponds, creeks or wetlands. Rivers, streams, canals, and other geographical features where water moves from one place to another are not always considered bodies of water, but they are included as geographical formations featuring water.

Some of these are easily recognizable as distinct real-world entities (e.g., an isolated lake), while others are at least partially based on human conceptualizations. Examples of the latter include a branching stream network in which one of the branches has been arbitrarily designated as the continuation of the primary named stream; or a gulf or bay of an ocean, which has no meaningful dividing line from the rest of the ocean.


A landform comprises a geomorphological unit and is largely defined by its surface form and location in the landscape, as part of the terrain, and as such is typically an element of topography. Landforms are categorized by features such as elevation, slope, orientation, stratification, rock exposure, and soil type. They include berms, mounds, hills, cliffs, valleys, rivers, and numerous other elements. Oceans and continents are the highest-order landforms.

Artificial features[edit]


A settlement is a permanent or temporary community in which people live. Settlements range in components from a small number of dwellings grouped together to the largest of cities with surrounding urbanized areas. Other landscape features such as roads, enclosures, field systems, boundary banks and ditches, ponds, parks and woods, mills, manor houses, moats, and churches may be considered part of a settlement.[12]

Administrative regions and other constructs[edit]

These include social constructions that are created to administer and organize the land, people, and other spatially-relevant resources.[13] Examples include governmental units such as a state, cadastral land parcels, mining claims, zoning partitions of a city, or a church parish. There are also more informal social features, such as city neighbourhoods and other vernacular regions. These are purely conceptual entities established by edict or practice, although they may align with visible features (i.e. a river boundary), and may be subsequently manifested on the ground, such as by survey markers or fences.

Engineered constructs[edit]

Engineered geographic features include highways, bridges, airports, railroads, buildings, dams, and reservoirs, and are part of the anthroposphere because they are man-made geographic features.

Cartographic features[edit]

Cartographic features are types of abstract geographical features, which appear on maps but not on the planet itself, even though they are located on the planet. For example, latitudes, longitudes, the Equator, and the prime meridian are shown on maps of Earth, but it do not physically exist. It is a theoretical line used for reference, navigation, and measurement.

Features and Geographic Information[edit]

In GIS, maps, statistics, databases, and other information systems, a geographic feature is represented by a set of descriptors of its various characteristics. A common classification of those characteristics has emerged based on developments by Peuquet,[14] Mennis,[2] and others, including the following :

  • Identity, the fact that a feature is unique and distinct from all other features. This does not have an inherent description, but humans have created many systems for attempting to express identity, such as names and identification numbers/codes.
  • Existence, the fact that a feature exists in the world. At first, this may seem trivial, but complex situations are common, such as features that are proposed or planned, abstract concepts (e.g., the Equator), under construction, or that no longer exist.
  • Kind (also known as class, type, or category), one or more groups to which a feature belongs, typically focused on those that are most fundamental to its existence.[15] It thus completes the sentence "This is a _________." These are generally in the form of common nouns (tree, dog, building, county, etc.), which may be isolated or part of a taxonomic hierarchy.
  • Relationships to other features. These may be inherent if they are crucial to the existence and identity of the feature, or incidental if they are not crucial, but "just happen to be." These may be of at least three types:
    • Spatial relations, those that can be visualized and measured in space. For example, the fact that the Potomac River is adjacent to Maryland is an inherent spatial relation because the river is part of the definition of the boundary of Maryland, but the overlap relation between Maryland and the Delmarva Peninsula is incidental, as each would exist unproblematically without the other.
    • Meronomic relations (also known as partonomy), in which a feature may exist as a part of a larger whole, or may exist as a collection of parts. For example, the relationship between Maryland and the United States is a meronomic relation; one is not just spatially within the boundaries of the other, but is a component part of the other that in part defines the existence of both.
    • Genealogical relations (also known as parent-child), which tie a feature to others that existed previously and created it (or from which it was formed by another agent), and in turn to any features it has created. For example, if a county were created by the subdivision of two existing counties, they would be considered its parents.[16]
  • Location, a description of where the feature exists, often including the shape of its extent.[17] While a feature has an inherent location, measuring it for the purpose of representation as data can be a complex process, such as requiring the invention of abstract spatial reference systems, and the necessary employment of cartographic generalization, including an expedient choice of dimension (e.g., a city could be represented as a region or as a point, depending on scale and need).
  • Attributes, characteristics of a feature other than location, often expressed as text or numbers; for example, the population of a city.[18] In geography, the levels of measurement developed by Stanley Smith Stevens (and further extended by others) is a common system for understanding and using attribute data.
  • Time is fundamental to the representation of a feature, although it does not have independent temporal descriptions.[19] Instead, expressions of time are attached to other characteristics, describing how they change (thus, they are analogous to adverbs in common discourse). Any of the above characteristics is mutable, with the possible exception of identity. For example, the lifespan of a feature could be considered as the temporal extent of its existence. The location of a city can change over time as annexations expand its extent. The resident population of a country changes frequently due to immigration, emigration, birth, and death.

The descriptions of features (i.e., the measured values of each of the above characteristics) are typically collected in Geographic databases, such as GIS datasets, based on a variety of data models and file formats, often based on the vector logical model.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Longley, Paul A.; Goodchild, Michael F.; Maguire, David J.; Rhind, David W. (2015). Geographic Information Systems & Science (4th ed.). Wiley.
  2. ^ a b Mennis, Jeremy; Peuquet, Donna J.; Qian, L. (2000). "A geographical database representation". International Journal of Geographical Information Science. 14 (6): 501–520. doi:10.1080/136588100415710.
  3. ^ a b Plewe, Brandon (2019). "A Case for Geographic Masses". In Timpf, S.; Schlieder, C.; Kattenbeck, M.; Ludwig, B.; Stewart, K. (eds.). 14th International Conference on Spatial Information Theory (COSIT 2019). Schloss Dagstuhl-Leibniz-Zentrum fuer Informatik. pp. 14:1–14. doi:10.4230/LIPIcs.COSIT.2019.14.
  4. ^ Fegeas, Robin G.; Cascio, Janette L.; Lazar, Robert A. (1992). "An Overview of FIPS 173, The Spatial Data Transfer Standard". Cartography and Geographic Information Systems. 19 (5): 278–293. doi:10.1559/152304092783762209.
  5. ^ International Standards Organization. "ISO 19101-1:2014, Geographic Information-Reference Model-Part 1: Fundamentals". ISO Standards.
  6. ^ Open Geospatial Consortium. "Simple Feature Access - Part 1: Common Architecture". OGC Standards.
  7. ^ Frank, Andrew U. (2003). "Ontology for Spatio-Temporal Databases". In Sellis, Timos (ed.). Spatio-Temporal Databases: The Chorochronos Approach. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Vol. V.2520. Springer-Verlag. pp. 9–77. doi:10.1007/978-3-540-45081-8_2.
  8. ^ Odum, Eugene P.; Odum, Howard T. (1971). Fundamentals of Ecology (3rd ed.). Saunders.
  9. ^ Botkin, Daniel B.; Keller, Edward A. (1995). Environmental Science: Earth as a Living Planet. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Canada.
  10. ^ "Convention Text — Article 2. Use of Terms". Convention on Biological Diversity. Retrieved 13 September 2015.
  11. ^ Basak, Anindita (2009). Environmental Studies. Dorling Kindersley. p. 288. ISBN 978-81-317-2118-6. Retrieved 13 September 2015.
  12. ^ "MSRG Policy Statement". Medieval Settlement Research Group. 2014-05-11. Retrieved 13 September 2015.
  13. ^ Montello, Daniel R. (2003). "Regions in geography: Process and content". In Duckham, Matthew; Goodchild, Michael F.; Worboys, Michael (eds.). Foundations of geographic information science. Taylor & Francis. pp. 173–189.
  14. ^ Peuquet, Donna J. (1994). "It's about time: a conceptual framework for the representation of temporal dynamics in geographic information systems". Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 84 (3): 441–461.
  15. ^ Mark, David M.; Smith, Barry; Tversky, Barbara (1999). "Ontology and Geographic Objects: an empirical study of cognitive categorization". In Freksa, Christian; Mark, Davis M. (eds.). Spatial Information Theory: A Theoretical Basis for GIS (COSIT '99), Lecture Notes in Computer Science #1661. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. pp. 283–298. doi:10.1007/3-540-48384-5_19. ISBN 978-3-540-48384-7.
  16. ^ Hornsby, Kathleen; Egenhofer, Max J. (2000). "Identity-based change: a foundation for spatio-temporal knowledge representation". International Journal of Geographical Information Science. 14 (3): 207–224. doi:10.1080/136588100240813.
  17. ^ Huisman, Otto; de By, Rolf A. (2009). "2.2.4 Geographic objects". Principles of Geographic Information Systems (PDF). Enschede, The Netherlands: ITC. p. 77. ISBN 9789061642695.
  18. ^ de Smith, Michael J.; Goodchild, Michael F.; Longley, Paul A. (2018). "Attributes". Geospatial Analysis: A Comprehensive Guide to Principles, Techniques, and Software Tools (6th ed.).
  19. ^ Song, Y. "FC-08 - Time". GIS&T Body of Knowledge. UCGIS. Retrieved 5 January 2023.
  20. ^ Campbell, Jonathan; Shin, Michael (2011). "3.1 Data and Information". Essentials of Geographic Information Systems. Saylor Foundation. ISBN 9781453321966. Retrieved 5 January 2023.