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Home > The Courses > Course Home Pages > V. The World at Our Feet: Models of Rural Land Use

V. The World at Our Feet: Models of Rural Land Use


Making decisions about rural land use in the modern world has become a critical activity and a confusing one. Pressures from several directions are being brought to bear on the rural landowner. Developers want condos and strip malls, the encroaching suburban neighbors want no smells and no noises, miners want the ores underneath, conservationists want parks and preserves, the hungry of the world want the food, and the landowner wants to maximize her economic benefit while preserving her family heritage. Each of these voices can be loud, persuasive, and overwhelming in its certitude that its priority is the best and highest use of her land. Some of these voices have also acquired the authority of legal sanction. For example, a landowner may do anything with her property -- if she doesn't violate the zoning restrictions and doesn't disturb the wetland on that prime south 40 acres. Increasingly, rural landowners' decisions are being made for them by public policy, which more and more exacerbates the America's profound hostility toward centralized regulatory controls (Tim Lehman, Public Values, Private Land, p.4).

Has a man a right to destroy good, irreplaceable agricultural land by covering it up with cement or strip-mining it? The answer to this question often has been influenced by highly charged appeals to sentiment and emotion, often backed by faulty understandings of the way economics, nature, and farmers work. The public -- ever more removed from a knowledge of the best use of land to sustain its species in harmony with other species -- must become more aware of all the choices and the long-term consequences of each. In order to choose well, the voter must see through the rhetoric and emotional appeal to understand the underlying assumptions of those arguments. Only then can the individual voter make an informed choice when asked.

This unit is designed to be a culminating set of activities, readings, and reactions after a study of the range of land uses and the impacts of man and his technology on land systems. (See "Technology Touches the Earth" in Geolinks.) This unit will focus especially on current rural land. Its targeted grade-level range is 9 through 12. (Some ninth graders may need help with a few of the readings.) In addition to being an AP Geography topic, this set of lessons would integrate well into an American or world history, economics, ecology, philosophy, current events, or language arts class.

Judy Kurtz, Horizon High School, 5321 E. 136th Ave., Brighton, CO 80601-7714

2-3 weeks

9 through 12 AP Preparation. (Note: Some adjustment of content and presentation may be needed!)

Learning Style:

Cognitive Level:
AP Preparation

North and South America

AP preparation for questions on models of rural land use.

Key Words:
North America, South America, rural, land use decisions, agriculture, wilderness, wildlife, farming, urban, suburban, development, national parks, sequent occupancy

The Essential Questions:
"How ought we to use the world?" -- Wendell Berry "What is a landscape that humans have used well?" -- Wendell Berry

Definition of Key Terms:
Sequent occupancy: the range of impacts left by the various cultures using the land over time.
Rural: areas used primarily for the land and what it produces, not what is built on it
Wilderness: areas where the primary impact is made by nature, not by man

Students will be able to:
  1. Describe at least seven alternative uses of rural land.
  2. Trace the sequence of land uses as they occurred in a selected area of North America, pre-Columbian to present.
  3. Explain the predominant philosophies about land use across the same time frame.
  4. Match landscapes with the philosophies that shaped them.
  5. Create maps of land use from narrative information in history books and public records, which will be combined into a sequent occupancy study.
  6. Write a position paper on what should be done with current rural land.
  • Historical information sources about land use patterns in the area chosen
  • Base maps of the area (either paper or electronic)
  • Coloring materials
  • Large versions of these maps for completion and display to the whole class
  • Photos/posters/slides of three to five varieties of rural landscapes, from untouched wilderness to highly modified farm/garden land
  • Collection of readings expressing land use philosophies (see Appendix A for a sample selection)
Activity I: Remind students that they have been studying the many different uses man has found for the natural world and the modifications he has made of it. Then ask the Essential Question of this study: "How ought we to use the world?" First, students are to write privately their own opinions, expanding to at least one page the explanation of and justification for their views. Allow 10 to 20 minutes for this writing, so that students can give some careful thought to their ideas. These writings may be handled in one of two ways. Either immediately use them for class discussion and reaction, or collect them for your own reading overnight, and excerpt representative comments onto one sheet for all to read the next day for a full discussion. This writing/discussion should bring to the fore most, if not all, of the controversial issues around land use. Then pose the question of why people have chosen to use land certain ways, and why they themselves feel the way they do about the right way to use land. This discussion should lead into the next activity. (Note: A rubric is unnecessary for this activity. I often give an Activity Grade of 10 points for turning in the writing, but don't grade these sorts of thinking on paper for spelling, grammar, etc.)

Activity II: Display for the whole class the collection of rural landscape varieties. (Your textbook might have such pictures scattered within it and might be the most accessible source for this. Of course, National Geographic will do.) Ask students to write a paragraph about each landscape, describing how they think they might feel if they lived in the midst of that landscape. Some students may have lived or currently live in such places; if so, what do they like about it and what do they dislike about it? After the writing is done, ask for a preference poll about the most/least desirable places, and a discussion of the reasons behind those choices. The next step is to have them compare their reactions and thoughts to those of other people in the area you have chosen to study as evidenced by an actual history of land use in that area. (For greatest student interest and ease of access to information, your best choice would be your local area, up to the state level.) (Rubric unnecessary for this activity.)

Activity III: Divide the students into teams of no more than three. Assign each team a time period, preferably beginning with the most distant time for which you have records of human habitation in the area. The time period assignments need not be uniform in length. One group might have the time between 4000 B.C.E. and 1600 C.E. if the land use in that period was steadily hunting/gathering as near as history knows, while another group may have the period 1952-1962, if that decade has its own pattern. Each team is to create a map of land use patterns for that period from the sources you have provided through library time, field trips, the local historical society, GIS data, interviewing of grandparents and area "old-timers," etc. The team must present its map to the class, explaining the patterns and their historical causes, and then post it. (See Rubric A-III.)

When all the maps have been posted, explore the changes over time and some of the reasons behind those changes. They will fall into broad categories of economic, political, climatic, and social issues that influenced the area.

Explain that at least some of those changes occurred because of the way people think about land. Just as the students had opinions about "best use" and "best landscape," so did their forefathers. Some of those people wrote about their philosophies and that's what you are going to explore next.

Activity IV: Hand out the readings. You may prefer to do this one at a time, then discuss each. This would probably be best for the younger classes. Or you may wish to hand out the entire packet, and have one large seminar comparing them directly. The focus of each seminar would be first, understanding the author's stance on land use, and second, understanding what that stance looked like on the land. That is, what does a landscape that man has used well look like, the "used well" being defined by each different author.

Culminating Activity:
  1. (Perhaps for the younger classes.) Return to the class-generated maps of the area. Write a paper about each, or about two to three selected maps, explaining the philosophical stances that are evident in their patterns.
  2. Select (or have the student select) a different landscape of at least one square mile in size -- one currently present in the students' environment. The student must analyze its component parts and discuss in a paper the philosophy(s) that have created that landscape. (See Rubric FA for evaluation.)
Rubric A-III: The Historical Land Use Map
Accuracy of geographic area 10 points
Map components (key, scale, compass, rose, title) 10 points
Accuracy of historical information 10 points
Clarity of information presentation 10 points
Correct spelling, grammar on map 10 points

Rubric FA: Culminating Activity
Content: accurate connection of philosophy to landscape 20 points
Inclusion of at least three different components to the studied landscapes, hence three philosophies 10 points
Clarity of expression of ideas 20 points
Organization of paper 10 points
Mechanics: grammar, spelling, punctuation 10 points

Note: Obviously, this point system should be adapted to your own grading style.

APPENDIX A: Suggested Readings for Seminars
Genesis 2-9

McLuhan, T.C. (ed.) Touch the Earth (London: Abacus, 1973) pp. 6 and 15.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac (1949) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968) pp. 201-4, 223-5.

Schumacher, E.F. Small Is Beautiful (London: Abacus, 1974) pp. 52-5.

Hardin, Garrett. "The Tragedy of the Commons", in Garrett Hardin and John Baden (eds.), Managing the Commons. (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1977) pp. 20, 28-9 (first published in Bioscience 162 (1968).

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974) pp. 102-7; 110-113.

Berry, Wendell. Another Turn of the Crank. (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1995) pp. 40-63.

Nicholson, E. Max. "What Is Wrong with the National Park Movement?" [see Bibliography]

Excerpts for Discussion
From Topophilia: Even William James, an open-minded philosopher, caught himself entertaining ill thoughts of the unkempt farms that belonged to the pioneers of North Carolina. Upon reflection he concluded that his view as someone merely passing through was superficial and frivolous: It mattered little compared with the attitude of the people who lived in the mountains. He explained:

Because to me the clearings spoke of naught but denudation, I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story. But when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was personal victory. The chips, the girdled trees, and the vile split rails spoke of honest sweat, persistent toil, and final reward. The cabin was a warrant of safety for self and wife and babes. In short, the clearing, which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very paean of duty, struggle, and success. p. 64

To live, man must see some value in his world. p. 98

In the course of the 18th century more and more writers and thinkers championed the irregular and the useless as possessing in themselves a beauty at once wonderful and terrible. p. 73

From A Discourse on Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (translated by Maurice Cranston):

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying "This is mine' and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders; how much misery and horror the human race would have been spared if someone had pulled up the stakes and filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: 'Beware of listening to this impostor. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone and that the earth itself belongs to no one!"

From The Puritans, Vol. II

Q. VIII. Did we any Wrong to the Indians in buying their Land at a small Price? A. 1. There was some part of the Land that was not purchased, neither was there need that it should; it was vacuum domicilium; and so might be possessed by vertue of God's grant to Mankind, Gen. I. 28. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. The Indians made no use of it, but for Hunting. By God's first Grant Men were to subdue the Earth. When Abraham came into the Land of Canaan, he made use of vacant Land as he pleased: so did Isaac and Jacob.

2. The Indians were well contented that we should sit down by them. And it would have been for great Advantage, both for this World, and the Other; if they had been wise enough to make use of their Opportunities. It has been common with many People, in planning this World since the Flood, to admit Neighbours, to sit down by them.

3. Tho' we gave but a small Price for what we bought; we gave them their demands, we came to their Market, and gave them their price; and indeed, it was worth but little; And had it continued in their hands, it would have been of little value. It is our dwelling on it, and our Improvements, that have made it to be of Worth. p. 457

"These abject Creatures [Native Americans] live in a Country full of Mines; we have already made entrance upon our Iron; and in the very surface of the Ground among, 'tis thought there lies Copper enough to supply all this World; besides other Mines hereafter to be exposed; but our shiftless Indians were never Owners of so much as a Knife, till we come among them...They live in a Country full of the best Ship-Timber under Heaven; But never saw a Ship, till some came from Europe hither...." pp. 504-5.

Berry, Wendell. Another Turn of the Crank. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1995.

---. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977.

Dobson, Andrew, ed. The Green Reader: Essays toward a Sustainable Society. San Francisco: Mercury House, Inc., 1991.

Dolan, Edwin G. TANSTAAFL: The Economic Strategy for Environmental Crisis. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1971.

Lehman, Tim. Public Values, Private Lands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Lorenz, Konrad. Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1973.

Johnson, Thomas H. and Perry Miller (ed.). The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1963.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.

Nicholson, E. Max. "What Is Wrong with the National Park Movement?"; Second World Conference on National Parks. Switzerland: International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, 1974. (32-8).

Satchell, Michael. "Parks in Peril"; US News and World Report, 21 July 97. (22-8).

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974.

Turner, Fredrick. Beyond Geography. New York: Viking Press, 1980.

Note: This is the barest handful of books on this topic! Many more are to be found.

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