The shape-shifting form of UK floodplains: Fusing analysis of the territorially constructed with analysis of natural terrain processes

John Lewin*, Tom O’Shea

*Corresponding author for this work

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Physically, river floodplains have both the subdued morphology of natural terrain created as extreme discharges and sediments pass through catchment drainage systems and, to an increasing extent, the forms that arise from purposeful human constructions. Together, these direct out-of-channel inundation. As defined here, ‘territories’ and their humanly constructed physical forms have historically consumed or modified naturally created ‘terrains’ in a collection of actions that we summarize as ‘morphophagia’. A more inclusive physical geography is presented, adding-in explanations for the evolutionary phasing of humanly-generated, but environmentally functioning, physical forms in the UK in the Modern Era (since c.1500 CE). Floodplain developments here took place in five main episodes of historically-contingent accumulation: the Early Modern (c.1500–1780 CE) started with a framework of purposeful owned land, and then followed periods that can be related to Kondratieff global economic phases (c.1790–1840,1840–1900,1900–1947,1947–2000 CE). Three different groups of forcings operated: (1) the compartmentalizing and patched infill patterns set by territorial units, rights and developer ownerships; (2) the availability, motivations and timings for capital and labour investment; and (3) the evolving technical possibilities exploited by entrepreneurs and agents. Epistemic frameworks for broadening the analysis of coupled terrain and territory systems, exploring actuating social forces as much as their symptomatic physical outcomes, are discussed. Globally, there have been different forcings, timings and emplacement layouts operating at scales from local river reaches to city expansion and economic regions. As perceptions of environmental stasis now disintegrate, enthusiasm for reinvigorating economic growth, with further population increase and sprawling construction may, as in the past, discount the hazards of floodplain occupation. When and why risky anthropo-physical floodplain emplacements occur needs greater systematic understanding as social and economic initiatives are being considered.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)741-760
Number of pages20
JournalProgress in Physical Geography
Issue number5
Early online date17 Mar 2023
Publication statusPublished - 01 Oct 2023


  • epistemic frameworks
  • Floodplain history
  • morphophagia
  • socio-physical forms
  • terrain
  • territory


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