• Unit 4: North America

    The region of North America includes the United States and Canada, which have similar physical characteristics and a history of colonialism. These two countries comprise more than 13 percent of the world's total landmass. North America is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the east, the Pacific Ocean on the west, and the Arctic Ocean to the north.

    The population in North America has highly urbanized: approximately 80 percent of the population lives in cities. Most of North America's diverse population consists of immigrants or descendants of immigrants. The United States is the world's largest economy – Canada and the United States enjoy relatively high standards of living.

    We begin this unit by exploring North America's physical geography, paying particular attention to its seismically active west coast, its water resources, the potential for sustainable agriculture, and the impact of fossil fuels on the landscape. Next, we explore the pattern of human settlement, the influence of European colonialism, and the institution of slavery. Then, we take a close look at industrial development, urban and suburban growth, patterns of inequality, and globalization.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 4 hours.

    • 4.1: Maps of North America

      Let's begin our examination of North America by studying some maps of the region.

    • 4.2: North America's Physical Geography

      North America is divided into several physical regions with distinct landforms. Figure 4.1 illustrates the major regions of North America (we study Mexico, Middle America, South America, and the Caribbean in Unit 5).

      The Canadian Shield dominates the northern portion of North America. Geologically, this is the oldest part of North America; it is sparsely populated with poor soil. During the Ice Age, continental glaciation left the bedrock (the Canadian Shield) exposed when it removed the soil from this area and deposited it in southern Canada and the northern United States.

      The Appalachian Highlands separate the Atlantic Plain from the Interior Plains. The Rocky Mountains separate the Interior Plains from the Intermontane Plateaus. Years of erosion have made the Appalachians much less rugged than the Rockies, but they have influenced the history and development of the United States in major ways.

      The Pacific Mountains form the western border of the Intermontane Plateaus and North America. The west coast of North America lacks a coastal plain because it is an active tectonic plate boundary. Remember from Unit 1 that we generally associate tectonic activity with plate boundaries. Consequently, the west coast is characterized by earthquakes and volcanic activity. The coast is not.

    • 4.3: North American History and Settlement

      The United States and Canada share a history of settlement and colonization. The United States declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776 and marked the end of the Revolutionary War when the leaders on both sides signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783. France and Spain, the initial colonizers of the United States, helped their former colony gain its independence from the British.

      Canada achieved independence from Great Britain more gradually. In 1867, Britain named this area the Dominion of Canada, a confederation of the four provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.

      Great Britain retained control over Canada's foreign affairs, and Canada did not become a fully sovereign country until 1982. The population chose to retain Great Britain's monarch as its symbolic head of state, but Canada has a permanent population, a defined territory, a centralized government, and forms its own relationships with other sovereign countries.

    • 4.4: Industrial Development in North America

      Although the pattern of industrialization in North America followed a similar path to what occurred in Europe, the process did not begin until the late 1700s. Economic activity was shaped by access to raw materials and waterways for transport. Like Europe, this shift had a profound effect on the human landscape, fostering rural-to-urban migration and the development of core industrial areas.

    • 4.5: The North American Urban Landscape

      The themes of colonization, immigration, rural-to-urban migration, industrialization, core-periphery, and deindustrialization have all contributed to the rise of high-density settlements. Although cities do not focus on manufacturing as they once did, they continue to have a lasting impact on the human and physical geography of North America. The pattern of urban growth often follows a radial pattern that coincides with transportation routes that radiate from the original center of what had previously been a walking city.

      When the streetcar was invented in 1888, people now had the ability to navigate their cities beyond the limitations of what was within walking distance of their homes. They could travel to jobs, shops, and services they wanted to access. Their only limitation was how far they had to walk to get to the stop for the streetcar.

      Streetcars meant cities were no longer confined to small, densely-populated areas. Populations began to expand beyond the city center, a trend that continued as transportation opportunities increased and edge cities developed.

      People with automobiles who could afford to leave the old, urban areas began migrating further away from the city center. New suburban developments established their own job and shopping opportunities, which meant residents no longer needed to rely on the old city's central business district (CBD).

    • 4.6: Patterns of Economic Inequality in North America

      Urban and suburban living pose additional social and economic challenges. Inequalities are often clearly evident in these settings in addition to rural areas. The income gap between rich and poor has grown substantially, particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    • 4.7: North America's Global Connections

      The USMCA (United States, Mexico, Canada Agreement) strengthens this North American connection by making trade easier among these countries.

    • Unit 4 Assessment

      • Receive a grade