Geography Activity Space
Fang Ren
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0137


The notion of activity space has been examined and applied to address various issues in geography, transportation research, social epidemiology, and environmental psychology. An activity place is generally defined as a geographic extent in which people move in the course of their daily activities. It is rooted in research concerned with human activity participation and mobility that are defined in space and time. The spatial structure of activity space pertains to where people choose to undertake their daily activities. The choice of activity locations can be viewed as an outcome of spatial learning processes through which people interact with their surrounding environments. Past studies have suggested that the spatial structure of activity space largely depends on the socioeconomic characteristics of individuals, the environmental settings, and the way in which space is perceived through the cognitive image of the real world. Individual activity spaces also differ in time because individuals’ spatial movements are confined by their daily activity scheduling. For example, a woman working full-time may have a different activity space than a woman not employed outside the home because the former experiences more temporal constraints imposed by work when she makes her activity plan. The temporal dimension of activity space is often characterized by the timing and duration of the activities. Because activity space is a reflection of spatial behavior, it has an important implication for transportation policymaking and urban planning. In social science, it is a means of studying social inequality of accessibility to urban opportunities. Epidemiologists have also used activity space to reveal a full range of environments to which people are exposed. Various measures have been developed to estimate individual activity space. For example, activity space has been represented by fixed spatial units, such as census block groups or a travel zone of a predefined distance. With the availability of individual travel diary data sets, disaggregate activity-based models have been developed to provide a more granular analysis of activity space. Modern geographic information systems (GIS) also facilitate visualizing and measuring the size, shape, orientation, features, and temporal characteristic of activity space. This concept is continuing to be explored and developed in the literature.

General Overview

Conceptualization of activity space is not unique among early research. For example, Lewin 1951 proposes the notion of a “life space,” which denotes the outcome of people interacting with their objective environment. The term “awareness space,” adopted in Brown and Moore 1970, refers to all places about which individuals have knowledge. The term “activity system,” defined in Chapin 1968, suggests that activity space is influenced by family activity routines and spatial organization of the metropolitan area. In discussing individual spatial behaviors, Golledge and Stimson 1997 argues that activity patterns are related to the mental map that individuals have of a particular environment. Time geography theory, on the other hand, emphasizes the impact of individual space-time budget on activity space. Lenntorp 1999 explains time geography as a multifaceted idea that links space and time regularities with human actions. A more recent work by Schönfelder and Axhausen 2010 characterizes activity space in terms of six elements, suggesting activity space is a compound notion that can be approached through different perspectives. In addition, activity space has also been investigated in social epidemiology to analyze environmental exposure. For example, Perchoux, et al. 2013 provides a comprehensive review on conceptualization of activity space in relation to mobility and discusses how public health research may benefit from understanding individual activity spaces. Another conceptual framework proposed by Shareck, et al. 2014 also reinforces the idea that social inequalities in activity space exposures result in social differentials in health.

  • Brown, A. Lawrence, and Eric G. Moore. “The Intra-Urban Migration Process: A Perspective.” Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography 52.1 (1970): 1–13.

    DOI: 10.2307/490436

    A widely cited conceptual framework for studying the intra-urban migration process and sheds lights on the future research agenda. Awareness space is introduced as a group of locations about which new immigrants have knowledge. Activity space and indirect contact space are distinguished.

  • Chapin, F. Stuart, Jr., “Activity Systems and Urban Structure: A Working Schema.” Journal of the American Institute of Planners 34.1 (1968): 11–18.

    DOI: 10.1080/01944366808977214

    A general discussion of activity systems in a spatial context as a sum of activities engaged in by individual urban inhabitants who have similarities in time use and activity choices and the way in which urban inhabitants interact with urban structure.

  • Golledge, Reginald, and Robert Stimson. Spatial Behavior. New York: Guilford, 1997.

    An important textbook for social geography. Presents both theoretical foundations and empirical analyses of how humans behave in physical, social, and economic settings.

  • Lenntorp, Bo. “Time-Geography—At the End of Its Beginning.” GeoJournal 48.3 (1999): 155–158.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1007067322523

    A short yet insightful revisit of time geography theory. Instead of illustrating the physical structure of the time-geographic framework, the author emphasizes the theoretic implication for multiple disciplines that embrace both spatial and temporal perspective.

  • Lewin, Kurt. Field Theory in Social Science. Edited by Dorwin Cartwright. New York: Harper and Row, 1951.

    This book features ten papers by Lewin on field theory in social science published from 1939 to 1947. Addresses the interaction between individuals and the field (the environment). One of the earliest works related to activity space.

  • Perchoux, C., B. Chaix, S. Cummins, and Y. Kestens. “Conceptualization and Measurement of Environmental Exposure in Epidemiology: Accounting for Activity Space Related to Daily Mobility.” Health & Place 21 (2013): 86–93.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2013.01.005

    A comprehensive review of how the physical context of environmental exposures has been conceptualized and measured in epidemiology. Argues that activity space rooted in geography and transportation research can better reveal the full range of environmental exposures for public health research.

  • Schönfelder, Stefan, and Kay W. Axhausen. Urban Rhythms and Travel Behaviour: Spatial and Temporal Phenomena of Daily Travel. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010.

    Defines six elements about activity space: home location, duration of residence, number of activity locations in the vicinity of home, trips within the neighborhood, mobility to and from frequently visited activity locations, and travel between the centers of daily life.

  • Shareck, M., K. Frohlich, and Y. Kestens. “Considering Daily Mobility for a More Comprehensive Understanding of Contextual Effects on Social Inequalities in Health: A Conceptual Proposal.” Health & Place 29 (2014): 154–160.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2014.07.007

    Proposes a conceptual framework for understanding the link between mobility and contextual effects on social inequalities in health. The concept of “activity space exposure” explains that differences in features and resources in activity space lead to social differentials in health.

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