Make your own free website on
For: DR. SIN FONG HAN                                                                              By: JAMES CHIN
California State University at Los Angeles- Geography Dept.                        Urban Geography Lab

Urban Land Use: Theory and Practice

The classic models of urban land use were espoused by E.W. Burgess and Homer Hoyt. Burgess is known for his zonal hypothesis of concentric circular zones of typical combinations of land use, and Hoyt's hypothesis of sector specialization are well known not only to freshmen human geographers, but also to economists and sociologists. I will attempt to recap both theories and present a current reference to each, with particular emphasis on Davis' current concentric ring model of Los Angeles.

Urban Ecology: The Zonal or Concentric Ring Theory

Studies of the urban community carried out at the University of Chicago during the 1920's place heavy emphasis on both growth and accessibility, because the physical expansion of the city historically and typically proceeds outward from the city center and areas occupied at different times differ in character, a zonal hypothesis of urban areal differentiation was set forth by Ernest W. Burgess {The City}. Dr. Burgess is a sociologist and is said by many to be one of the founders of the Chicago School of Sociology. The term school is used here not as a physical college or university by as a discipline of reason and thinking. This concentric ring theory is one of the most enduring of the Chicago School models as depicted in Burgess's original work, the attached Figure 1 {The City, p. 51}


and Figure 2 {The City, p. 55}

as an account of the evolution of differentiated urban social areas based on assumptions that included a uniform land surface, universal access to a single-centered city, free competition for space, and the notion that development would take place outward from a central core. These assumptions formed the basis of the land-rent models, similar to those proposed in the classic economic land-rent models of Johann Heinrich von Thunen (1783-1850). See figures 3 through 6 for the basic derivations of the von Thunen concentric rings of land use zones. Based on R. G. Golledge, Geographic Theories. {"Geographic theories", p. 465-467}Figure 7 is a modern adaptation of the von Thunen hypothesis to show the urban geography of Detroit's rental profits {Study of Urban Geography, third edition, p. 372}.

In 1826, von Thunen, a German landowner of the Tellow estate, published the study, The Isolated State {Der isolierte Staat in Beziehung auf Landwirthchaft und Nationalokonornie}, it was often cited in many works of economic geography but it was not fully translated into English till 1966. Thunen's original hypothesis envisage a series of concentric circles around a central market, as described in Figure 4 above. J. R. Peet (1969) has proposed that the urban-industrial areas that first appeared in Great Britain, western Europe, and the northeastern United States in the nineteenth century be regarded as a Thunen World City. {"The spatial expansion of commercial agriculture in the Nineteenth Century: a von Thunen interpretation"}See Figure 8 {The shaping of our world, a human and cultural geography, p. 425}. As with von Thunen, Burgess concluded from his research that the city would tend to form a series of concentric areas.

Burgess's model was a broad generalization, not intended to be taken too literally. He expected, for instance, that his model would apply only in the absence of complicating factors such as local topography. He also anticipated considerable variation within the different zones.

Urban Morphology: The Sector Specialization Theory

Other researchers in the urban phenomena noted the tendency for cities to grow in star-shaped rather than concentric form, along highways that radiated from a center with contrasting land uses in the interstices between them. This observation gave rise to a sector theory of urban structure, advanced in late 1939 by Homer Hoyt {Structure and growth of residential neighborhoods in American cities}. Dr. Hoyt was the Principal Housing Economist for the Federal Housing Administration at the time he proposed his theory of sector specialization. Spatially sector specialization can be visualized in the form of a wedge or radial development, and was based on his study of residential rents in 64 American cities {Structure and growth of residential neighborhoods in American cities, p. 74-78}. In 1935, he examined the W.P.A work sheets showing the figures for rents and housing conditions for every block in those 64 cities, and when the rental and housing data were placed on maps, there emerged the pattern that became known as the sector theory. Instead of a random intermixture of residential home values and rents, it was found that the higher income families lived in one or more wedges shaped sectors of the city. Hoyt observed that once variations arose in land uses near the city center, they tend to persist as the city grew. Distinctive sectors thus expanded out from the Central Business District (CBD), often organized along major highways. This again is another application of the classic Von Thunen economic land-rent model with the added component of a vector, in this case, direction.

Hoyt emphasized that non-rational factors could alter urban form, as when artful promotion influences the direction of a speculative land development project. He also mentioned in his study, and understood that the age of buildings could still reflect a concentric ring structure, and that sectors may not be internally homogeneous at any one specific time.

Back through time, and a current sector model

Figure 9 is based on Lawton and Pooley as cited in Carter's The Study of Urban Geography, 3rd ed., {Study of Urban Geography, third edition, p. 278}depicts the urban structure of mid-Victorian Liverpool area of London. Though not to scale, it does remarkably well in summarizing the main residential and social areas as sectors within Liverpool in 1871, and is a fine example of a detailed yet uncluttered sector model. The unusual technique of applying the theory back in time to a period before the theory was first espoused shows the simplicity and universality of the sector model.

A current incarnation of this basic model was utilized to present ninety years of St. Lucie County (FL) legal property tax data that was broken into six(6) bands to demonstrate city urban growth over time, as presented in a recent Geo Info Systems article {"Ninety Years of Urban Growth as Described with GIS: A Historic Geography"}.  [CLICK HERE for link to article reprint.]   Classic land use economic theory was described and visualized spatially over the time span by means of GIS manipulation techniques on land parcel data.

Given a map of land uses and residential characteristics, any student of urban structure can discern evidence of concentric patterning, and of sector differentiation. Evidence favoring one of these does not rule out the plausibility of the other.

The Los Angeles School of Urban Geography: The Ecology of Fear

Much of the urban research of the last half century has been predicated on the precepts of the concentric zone or sector theories of urban structure. Their influences can be seen directly in factorial ecologies of intraurban structure, land-rent models, studies of urban economies and diseconomies of scale, and in designs of planned communities and ideal neighborhoods. The simplicity of the Chicago concentric ring model does much to explain its persistence and popularity over time.

As a columnist and critical historian of Los Angeles, Mike Davis, the author of the book, City of Quartz {City of quartz: excavating the future in Los Angeles}, and most recently The Ecology of Fear, in 1992 used the now ever enduring and familiar concentric rings to produce a sketch of his vision of an ecology of fear in modern day Los Angeles {"Think Green", p. 60}. See Figure 10. Burgess postulated as part of his theory that there was a human ecology in cities which automatically determined spatial relationships, as in the plant and animal world. This concentric circle theory of urban land uses is carried forth in Davis' vision of patterns in the urban structure of Los Angeles.  The narrative description of this vision was not published in the cited Los Angeles Times article with the sketch, but rather as a separate pamphlet by Open Magazine {"Beyond Blade Runner: urban control the ecology of fear."}  [CLICK HERE for an electronic version of the text, updated July 1995.]  In the narrative, Davis refers to the University of Chicago's canonical study of the American City as "Burgess' dart board."  (see Figure 1, above)  Both, another revised version of the narrative and a furthered revised computer generated graphic version of his sketch, (along with a computer graphic of Burgess' Chicago overlay, see Figure 2, above)  is printed as the final chapter to his 1998 book.  This chapter is simply titled "Beyond Blade Runner."   In all of Davis' versions, he carries forth the Chicago School's now routine ecological determinants as income, land value, class and race, and then adds a new factor.  That factor is fear.  He states that this fear is channeled by the City of Los Angeles Police Department and Community Redevelopment Agency to become this, his vision of the zonal theory for Los Angeles.




Carter, H. 1985. Study of Urban Geography, third edition. London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd.

Davis, M. 1990. City of quartz: excavating the future in Los Angeles. New York: Verso.

------. 1992. Think Green. Los Angeles Times Magazine, 13 December:58-64.

------. 1992. Beyond Blade Runner: urban control the ecology of fear.  Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, Pamphlet#23, (December).

------. 1998. The ecology of fear: Los Angeles and the imagination of disaster.  New York: Metropolitan Book.

Golledge, R. G. 1996. Geographic theories. International Social Science Journal 150 (December):461-476.

Hoyt, H. 1939. Structure and growth of residential neighborhoods in American cities. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Jackson, W. A., Douglas. 1985. The shaping of our world, a human and cultural geography. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Park, R. E., E. W. Burgess, and R. D. McKenzie. 1925. The City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peet, J. R. 1969. The spatial expansion of commercial agriculture in the Nineteenth Century: a von Thunen interpretation. Economic Geography 45 (October):283-301.

Thrall, G. I., M. McClanahan, and Elshaw-Thrall Susan. 1995. Ninety Years of Urban Growth as Described with GIS: A Historic Geography. Geo Info Systems, April:20-27, 45.

von Thunen, J. H. 1826. Der isolierte Staat in Beziehung auf Landwirthchaft und Nationalokonornie. Rostock.