the Frankish Alps. While hiking, I mentally developed the progress of my work…. Thus, many an idea which helped me progress … gave me the happiness of a discoverer; it was connected in my memory to some forest path or other, just where I was, where the sun cast its light patches through the foliage onto the earth…. (Christaller, 1972, p. 609)

Christaller’s thinking was grounded in space, it was about space, and it was captured in spatial diagrams.

3.8.4 Walter Christaller as a Spatial Thinker

To many geographers in the decades between the 1950s and 1970s, Christaller’s work was an inspiration, a model to be applied literally and to be followed metaphorically. It was one of the cornerstones of the spatial analysis approach to geography. It was tested in many places, adapted, and rejected by some. It served as a planning tool in many parts of the world. For later generations of geographers, it became an emblem.

Whatever one’s judgment of the theory, the discovery itself was an extended exercise that shows the power and process of spatial thinking:

If I may very briefly once again describe my methodology: first of all play, paint on the maps, draw in lines and points, but in a very playful fashion—then problems suddenly emerge. Then I tried, while hiking, to elucidate them, to solve them, while hiking the thoughts are shaken back into their proper places. And, last of all, comes the completion and formulation. Thereby, the language should be of a sort that chimes, that is audible, and not just something for reading. In general, the opinion predominates that creative scholarly work is born at the desk. It must not be so. Mine was created while hiking, in nature. I, moreover, am glad to consider myself a geographer. (Christaller, 1972, p. 610)

As William Bunge (1966, p. 133) wrote: “With the possible exception of cartography, this author is of the opinion that the initial and growing beauty of central place theory is geography’s finest intellectual product and puts Christaller in a place of great honor.”


As the examples in this chapter illustrate, there are different levels of performance in spatial thinking as a function of age and experience, and there are different modes of performance in spatial thinking in different contexts. Marie Tharp and Walter Christaller exemplify the power of spatial thinking in the process of scientific discovery. Some geoscience students never seem to master the relations between dip and strike in rock formations. An air traffic controller may not be any more effective at assembling a child’s toy than an artist. A child who has learned to tie a shoelace may not yet be able to tie a necktie. For some of these activities, years of formal training are required. For others, learning is informal and unstructured.

There are three messages about the role of spatial thinking in everyday life, at work, and in science. The first is the pervasiveness, power, and flexibility of the process of spatial thinking: successful problem solving in many contexts depends to a significant degree upon spatial thinking. The second is the extent to which there are significant variations in how and how well the process is executed: there is no single “best” way of thinking spatially. The third is the importance of meeting the challenge of formal training in spatial thinking: workplace-relevant skills require considerable investment of individual and societal resources. Although some learning occurs informally, much depends upon the formal education system. Chapter 4 considers the teaching and learning of spatial thinking skills: How do people acquire the spatial knowledge, spatial ways of thinking and acting, and spatial capabilities that are increasingly important in an information technology-driven society and economy?

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