Urban Realms Model (Definition, Examples, Strengths, Weaknesses)

urban realms model examples and definition

The urban realms model is a model of urban ecology which argues that metropolises are composed of several separate independent market areas.

It challenges the idea that satellite suburbs are simple appendages dependent upon a central city node. Rather, they each are their own strong ‘urban realm’.

The model was proposed by James E. Vance Jr, a professor of geography at the University of California, Berkeley in 1964. Today, the model is taught at universities and in the AP Human Geography course. 

A scholarly definition is provided below:

“The urban realms model suggests that several mutually independent, self-contained nodes of development will emerge in a large metropolitan area, each the focus of its own market area” ( Fujii & Hartshorni, 1995)

Urban Realms Model vs Multiple Nuclei Model

The urban realms model is an improvement upon the multiple nuclei model which was proposed in 1945.

The main difference between the urban realms model and the multiple nuclei model is that the urban realms model sees mega-cities as collections of several little realms (i.e. self-sustaining cities) that are interconnected. By contrast, the multiple nuclei model sees cities as one single city-realm with multiple nuclei (commercial districts) within it.

For example, the urban realms model conceives of the city as being composed of realms. Each realm contains four types of land use: residential, commercial, industrial, and public/semi-public. They are, essentially, self-contained cities.

By contrast, in the multiple nuclei model, each section of a city (or ‘nucleus’) doesn’t necessarily function as a city with all the commercial, residential, and industrial land types within them.

A major drawback of the multiple nuclei model was that as American cities began to expand rapidly following the post-war boom years of the 1950s and 1960s, the multiple nuclei model could no longer explain the layout of urban agglomerations.

The multiple nuclei model failed to account for two features:

  1. The scale of these new American cities was unprecedented.
  2. Despite their expansive scale, there was evidently a high degree of interconnectedness and interdependence among the various zones, neighborhoods, and suburbs of the cities.

The urban realms model sought to address this weakness in the multiple nuclei model by proposing that instead of nuclei, cities possessed realms. Each realm was its own little city with all four different types of land use within them.

Whereas a nucleus connotes only a central hub around which an urban agglomeration may develop, a realm is a complete self-sustained, self-contained unit.

Examples of the Urban Realms Model

1. San Francisco

The urban realms model was originally created by James Vance Jr. to study the problems of inner-city decay in San Francisco but has since been applied to other cities around the world.

The city of San Francisco was founded in the late 18th century as a port town by the Spanish. One of its earliest neighborhoods was a Christian mission called the Mission San Francisco de Asis set up in 1776. The mission eventually gave its name to the city that grew around it, while the neighborhood of the mission itself came to be called the Mission District.

Once the historical core around which the city of San Francisco grew, the Mission district today is one of the poorest neighborhoods of San Francisco. Similarly, the Chinatown neighborhood, a historical locality settled by East Asian immigrants remains a relatively impoverished neighborhood. 

On the other hand, most of San Fransisco’s growth in the 20th and 21st centuries has been fuelled by its “exurbs, which have grown to become independent realms in themselves. These “exurbs” include the famed Silicon Valley which is part of the larger San Francisco Bay Area, Berkeley which is home to the University of California, San Jose which now has a population larger than San Francisco itself, and Oakland.

The exurbs, despite their physical distance from San Francisco (Silicon Valley and San Jose are located almost 50 kms from San Francisco), are intimately linked to the city of San Francisco.

For instance, the dot com boom in the Silicon Valley has resulted in the gentrification of San Francisco wherein its old, now impoverished neighborhoods such as the Mission District and Chinatown are being touched up and gentrified to make them look more appealing as real estate investments for tech millionaires from Silicon Valley.

As transportation is no longer a barrier to mobility with tech giants operating shuttle services for their employees, rents in the old, historically central parts of San Francisco have also come up, while the residents of these historic districts themselves remain impoverished.

This process of gentrification is being resisted by the residents and has led, in the recent past, to tensions between the residents of the old historic core of San Fransisco and real estate investors from the exurbs (Nieves, 2000).

2. Atlanta, Georgia

Fujii & Hartshorni (1995) in their study of Atlanta have noted that Atlanta may have begun its life as a classic concentric zone model-based city with a central business district (CBD), downtown and an uptown.

However, by the middle of the 20th century, its various suburbs have developed CBDs and downtowns of their own. 

The authors thus identify as many as 4 ‘downtowns’ in mid-twentieth century Atlanta.  They further note that these various urban and suburban ecosystems are both cities of themselves but also interconnected with each other, suggesting that an urban realms-based model describes the growth trajectory of Atlanta more accurately than the multiple nuclei model.

Strengths of the Urban Realms Model

1. It is Applicable to Large Cities

The world is increasingly moving towards urbanization. According to the United Nations, there are as many as 33 megacities in the world, defined as urban agglomerations with a population of more than 10 million.

This number is only set to increase in the future as more people migrate to large cities in search of livelihoods. 

Given such a scenario, a theory of urban geography that is tailor-made to describe extraordinarily large cities is needed. An increasingly large proportion of the world’s population is coming to reside in a handful of these large “megalopolises”.

2. It Explains Inner-city Decay

The urban realms model helps explain how the historic inner core of a city experiences an economic and cultural decline as commercial activity continues to shift outwards to other realms.

As the suburbs and exurbs become self-sustained realms, no longer dependent on the former core of the central business district, this latter experiences a slow decline over time. 

3. It Explains the Impact of Gentrification

The urban realms model has also been used to examine the process of gentrification, which is when wealthier people move into an area and cause the displacement of poorer residents.

This process occurs after the former inner core has experienced a decline and decay first due to the shifting of commerce from the erstwhile central business district to the suburbs and the exurbs.

Vance’s work on this topic was some of the earliest to bring attention to the issue of class conflict in cities.

Vance’s special insight into the interconnectedness of urban realms (despite their distance from one another) is especially helpful in explaining the gentrification of historical central yet impoverished core areas of cities.

It allows us to understand, how, despite the remoteness of the exurbia, where the affluent live and work, the former historical core of the city is never displaced from the urban imagination, and continues to be coveted by the affluent. 

Weaknesses of the Urban Realms Model

1. It Does Not Take into Account Race and Ethnicity

Formulated at a time when the relationship between race, ethnicity, and urban poverty was only beginning to be explored, the urban realms model, like many of its predecessors, fails to adequately explain how race impacts patterns of urban settlement.

For instance, in the case of San Francisco, the old neighborhoods of Mission District and China town were inhabited by Hispanics and East Asians respectively.

As the city expanded and businesses moved to the suburbs and exurbs, these neighborhoods were impacted the most. At the same time, the principal beneficiaries of the new, tech-enabled development were predominantly White “tech-bros” (Perales, 2017).

Various studies have noted how the African-American population of San Francisco continues to decline in proportion to the rise of its tech industry:

  • Atkins (2012) noted that African-Americans were more likely than other ethnicities to be displaced by the gentrification of San Francisco.
  • Levin (2014) noted that while African Americans were 50% of the population of Oakland in 1990, by 2011 they only made up 30% of its population. 

The people who migrated in to San Francisco were more likely to be those equipped with high-value tech skills (usually white males), while those who migrated out of San Francisco were more likely to be those with lower levels of education and fewer marketable skills (usually African-Americans or Hispanics).

2. It is Overly Simplistic

The urban realms model conceptualizes the land area of a city as falling into any one of 4 types of land use – residential, commercial, industrial, and public/semi-public.

It has been argued that this four-category system of land use is too simplistic and does not adequately capture the complexity of real-world cities. 

For instance, to negotiate the increasingly constricting challenges of diminishing space, real estate developers in many megacities of the world devise innovative solutions that defy these simplistic classifications.

One example of this is the SOHO unit. SOHO stands for Small Office Home Office. One part of a SOHO unit can be used as a commercial office while the other can be used as a residential unit.

SOHOs are becoming increasingly popular in cities with space limitations such as Singapore (Rajasurian, 2022).

As it straddles both commercial and residential uses, a SOHO defies the typical four-category classification of land use identified by the urban realms model. 


The urban realms model helps to overcome some of the weaknesses of the multiple nuclei model. For large megacities, it’s often the case that cities are composed of many smaller self-contained cities that interact with one another, but that also have their own distinct commercial, industrial, and residential hubs. Each realm is not a nucleus entirely dependant upon the central downtown area, but rather is its own realm that trades with the others and impacts the others.


Atkinson, R. (2012). Does gentrification help or harm urban neighborhoods? An assessment of the evidence-base in the context of the New Urban Agenda  ESRC Centre For Neighborhood Research.

Fujii, T., & Hartshorni, T.A.  (1995) The changing metropolitan structure of Atlanta, Georgia: Locations of functions and regional structure in a multinucleated urban area, Urban Geography, 16(8), 680-707, DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.16.8.680

Levin, S. (July 2014). The Fight to Develop West Oakland. East Bay Express. https://eastbayexpress.com/the-fight-to-develop-west-oakland-1/ 

Nieves, E. (November 2000) Mission District Fights Case of Dot Com Fever New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2000/11/05/us/mission-district-fights-case-of-dot-com-fever.html 

Perales, N. (September 2017) Blinding White in the valley of the Bros Colorbloq: The Stories of Us https://www.colorbloq.org/article/blinding-white-in-the-valley-of-the-bros 

Rajasurian, V. (January 2022) SoHO, SoVO, and SoFo: What’s the difference Free Malaysia Today https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/leisure/property/2022/01/04/soho-sovo-and-sofo-whats-the-difference/ 

Vance, J. E. (1972). California and the Search for the Ideal. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 62(2), 185–210. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2569402 

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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. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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