The concentric zone model is a theory used in human geography to explain the patterns of urban land use.
The model was first proposed by sociologist Ernest Burgess in 1925 and has since been refined by other researchers.
The concentric zone model posits that cities grow outward from a central business district in a series of rings.
The innermost ring, the CBD, is home to office buildings, retail shops, and other businesses. The next ring, the transition zone, consists of lower-density residential areas. The remaining rings are composed primarily of single-family homes, although there may also be some commercial development along major roads.
The Five Zones in the Concentric Zone Model
The model envisions urban spaces in the form of 5 concentric zones.
1. The Central Business District
The central business district (CBD) is the economic and commercial heart of the city.
Typically, this is the oldest part of the town which contains most of its industry and commerce, and consequently most of its jobs. The population density in this region is very high. In North America, this region is typically called downtown.
2. The Transition Zone
The transition zone consists of a mix of commercial and residential units. The residential units are typically of low quality and typically preferred only by workers who wish to be in close proximity to the CBD.
3. The Working Class Residential Zone (InnerSuburbs)
This is the zone where most of the working class employed in the central business district live. Its proximity to the CBD makes it convenient to the working classes, as historically, they did not possess the means to commute to the CBD for work.
4. The Middle-Class Residential Zone or the Outer Suburbs
This region provides better and more expensive housing to those who can afford it. It is typically far enough away from the CBD for it to be a relatively newer region with newer buildings and better amenities.
5. The Upper-Class Residential Zone or the Outskirts of Outer Suburbs
This is typically the richest part of the urban agglomeration. Housing here is spacious and spread out, and the residents can afford to commute to the CBD in their own private vehicles. This was a luxury in the early 20th century when the model was first devised. This region is typically called uptown in North America.
Alternative Theory: Central Place Theory
Examples of Concentric Zone Model
1. The Chicago Loop
The Chicago Loop is the oldest part of Chicago, home to its central business district, and the heart of downtown Chicago. 40% of all Chicago residents work here.
The area gets its name from the streetcar route that was established here in 1892 to provide cheap public transportation to the residents of the city working here.
Outside of the Chicago loop, the remaining concentric zones generally follow this model. Unlike other major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago’s metro (the Chicago L) and the grid system are effective at helping filer out traffic effectively, helping Chicago to rank better than comparable cities on traffic metrics.
2. Downtown LA
Downtown LA is the central business district of Los Angeles, which has served as its economic hub ever since the city was founded in the 19th century. The city of Los Angeles spread in a circular fashion around this central business district to become the metropolis it is today.
For instance, the Chinatown neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles became home to migrants from China and other East Asian neighborhoods who took up low-paying working-class jobs in downtown LA.
An adjoining neighborhood was called Little Italy which housed immigrants from Italy.
Each successive wave of migrants, as they arrived in the city, found employment in the central business district, causing the city’s spatial geography to bulge outwards as predicted by the concentric zone model.
The most upmarket neighborhoods in Los Angeles today such as Beverly Hills and Malibu are located the furthest from downtown LA, are made up of exclusive mansions with views of the Pacific, and are inhabited by movie stars and millionaires.
3. Midtown Atlanta
Midtown Atlanta is a commercial and residential area in Atlanta which is a classic example of the transition zone of mixed commercial and residential establishments.
It is located between downtown Atlanta, which is the central business district of Atlanta, and Buckhead, which is uptown Atlanta.
The city of Atlanta was founded in 1830s to serve as a transportation hub connecting the southern state of Georgia to the American mid-west. The first industries to come up in Atlanta were railroads, mills, and timber factories. These became downtown Atlanta, where most of the workers lived (Carson, 1981).
Midtown Atlanta was founded by Richard Peters, a railroad man, as a lumber lot for storing the pine that was processed in the downtown mills. “Uptown” Buckhead at this time served as a country vacation spot for the rich mill owners and businessmen of the boomtown that Atlanta soon became.
4. Uptown Girl
If you’ve ever heard Billy Joel’s 1983 classic hit “Uptown Girl” you probably already have a good idea what the concentric zone model is all about.
The song is about a “downtown” car mechanic working in a garage falling in love with an “uptown girl” who has come to get her Rolls Royce repaired at the garage.
The song draws attention to several features of the social and economic geography of North American cities:
- First, that downtown is associated with the working classes employed in blue collar jobs.
- Second, that downtown is where most of the jobs are, as evidenced by the team of mechanics assisting Billy Joel in the music video.
- Third, that uptown is a more affluent area where people live in big houses and own expensive cars, and thus can afford to commute to the downtown
Criticisms of the Concentric Zone Model
1. America Centric
A major criticism of the concentric zone model has been that it is not applicable to cities outside the United States and Canada.
Whereas in the concentric zone model, the innermost central business district is occupied by the poorest inhabitants of the city, and prosperity increases as one moves outwards, the inverse is true in most other parts of the world.
For instance, in much of Europe and Asia, cities were founded by feudal warriors and kings who built fortresses, castles, or palaces on a territory, and the city spread outwards from this focal point.
The wealthiest residents of the city in this model reside in its center, rather than on its periphery.
2. Does Not Account for Geographical Limits to Expansion
The concentric zone model works on the assumption that land needed for a city’s outward expansion will always be available.
In practice, this is not always the case, as a city may be bounded by hills, sea, desert or other geographical features that are environmentally determinist and limit a city’s outward expansion.
For instance, Tokyo, the most populous metropolitan city in the world, is surrounded by mountains to its west and south-west, the most notable among them being the famous Mount Fuji, whose snow-capped peak forms the most instantly recognizable landmark of Tokyo.
Due to the presence of these mountains, the expansion of Tokyo in the west and south-west has been limited. (Mberego and Li, 2017) In such cases, the city’s growth will not follow the concentric zone model as predicted by Burgess.
3. Does Not Account for Gentrification
Gentrification is the process by which a formerly low-income, “downtown” neighborhood changes character and comes to be coveted by wealthier inhabitants as the preferred destination for opening businesses and for residing.
For instance, gentrification of Vancouver in Canada has led to major redevelopment of downtown Vancouver neighborhoods such as Chinatown, which was settled by Chinese immigrants to Vancouver in the 19th century (Walia & Diewart, 2012).
Gentrification overtakes the “working-class residential zone” and forces working-class people further into poverty and dislocates them from their homes.
The concentric zone model fails to take into account the manner in which such gentrification processes defy the patterns of expansion predicted by it.
Origins of the Concentric Zone Model
The Concentric Zone Model was designed by the Canadian sociologist Ernest Burgess (1886 – 1966) who taught at the University of Chicago, and was a part of what is known as the Chicago School in sociology.
The sociologists of the Chicago school were interested in the study of rapidly burgeoning urban spaces in America, and devised their studies around theories of human ecology, or how the environment in which humans live shape their behavior.
The model was first applied to the city of Chicago in the United States, and later extended to other American cities. Its applicability to urban centers outside North America and Australia remains limited.
The segregation of parts of an urban agglomeration into downtown and uptown is a peculiarity of North American cities, likely because most cities in North America were established in the immediate aftermath of the industrial revolution, whereas major cities in the old world such as London, Paris, Moscow etc. had been in place long before the industrial economy.
This meant that in North American cities, some form of modern industry or business was first set up, and the city flourished around it, with concentric zones of habitation tied to the industry at the heart of the city.
The concentric zone model was formulated at a time when the large industrial metropolis was a relatively recent phenomenon. Being almost a century old, the model has several limitations when applied to the cities of the 21st century.
However, the fundamental principles underlying the model – that population growth follows industrial and commercial development, and availability of transport, is still relevant.
The model also laid the foundation for a number of other models of urban geography such as the Sector Model developed by Homer Hoyt in 1939, the Multiple Nuclei model developed by Chauncy Harris and Edward Ullman in 1945, and the Urban Realms Model.
Today with large sections of the urban population being employed in service sector jobs, and remote work and work-from-home becoming increasingly common, these models of urban geography would need to be further refined, as commuting and proximity to the place of work are no longer pressing concerns for a significant section of the working classes.
Carson, O.E. (1981) The Trolley Titans New York: Interurban Press.
Mberego, S. and Li, Y. (2017) The expansion of densely inhabited districts in a megacity – Case of Tokyo International review for spatial planning and sustainable development 5(3), 116-133.
Robertson, F. (2001) Downtown: Its rise and fall. United States: Yale University Press.
Walia. H. and Diewart, D. (February, 2012) Moving on up: Gentrification in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Rabble.ca Retrieved from: https://rabble.ca/general/moving-gentrification-vancouvers-downtown-eastside/
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.