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How are cities organized? This is a central question that has been explored for almost a century. In this lesson, we’ll look at three of the common models to explain urban structures in America: the Burgess model, the sector model, and the multiple nuclei model.

Urban Areas

Sally is very interested in her city.

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She likes to walk around a lot and has noticed that there are distinct neighborhoods that seem to serve different purposes. There are areas with a lot of skyscrapers and businesses, and areas with factories and low-rise buildings. There are areas where people live in apartment buildings, and areas where people live in houses.

Every area of her city seems different to Sally!An urban area is a place with a high population density and mostly non-agricultural jobs. That is, there are a lot of people and not very many of them work in farming and ranching. Like most other cities, Sally’s city is an urban area.

How are urban areas arranged? Sally has noticed different neighborhoods, but she wonders how the neighborhoods are laid out on a map. To understand the way that urban areas, like Sally’s city, are arranged, let’s look at three popular models of urban structures: the concentric zone model, the sector model, and the multiple nuclei model.

Concentric Zone Model

Sally has noticed that there are a lot of different types of neighborhoods in her city and is wondering how those neighborhoods might appear if they were mapped out.The simplest and one of the earliest models of urban arrangement is the concentric zone model, which is sometimes called the Burgess model after Ernest Burgess, who first wrote about it in 1923. The concentric zone model says that a city is made up of neighborhoods shaped like rings that circle around a central business district. When mapped out, the concentric zone model kind of looks like a bull’s eye.

Burgess identified five concentric circles, or zones, that he believed were common in cities. They are:

  • Zone 1 is the central business district or downtown area of a city. This is the center of the city, where there are often skyscrapers and lots of businesses.
  • Just outside of zone 1 is zone 2, which is made up of many factories.

    This area is where many goods are manufactured. Like the downtown area of zone 1, zone 2 does not have a lot of homes. Instead, these two zones are where most people work.

  • Circling the factories in zone 2 is zone 3, which is a working class neighborhood. This is where many of the factory workers live, mostly in apartments.
  • Zone 4, which surrounds zone 3, is a middle class neighborhood. Here, the people live in modest houses instead of apartments.

  • Finally, zone 5 is the outermost ring in the concentric zone model. It is an upper class neighborhood, made up of expensive houses where the richest citizens of the city live.

The concentric zone model, as we mentioned, is one of the first models to try to explain urban structures. And it kind of makes sense to Sally. After all, she’s noticed that there are factories near the downtown area in her town, which echoes the ideas of zones 1 and 2.

Sector Model

But there are some things that don’t make sense to Sally. When she looks at the bull’s eye map of the concentric zone model, it looks very neat.

But the neighborhoods in her city just don’t seem to be that organized and neat.In 1939, Homer Hoyt expanded on the concentric zone model to create the sector model, which is also called the Hoyt model after him. The sector model proposes that zones in a city extend outward by transportation, such as railroads and highways.

Sector Model
Sector Model

Because the neighborhoods in the sector model lie along major transportation, a neighborhood could radiate outward from the city center to the farthest areas of the city. If the concentric zone model looks like a bull’s eye, the zones radiating outward in the sector model make it look like a pie.

According to Hoyt’s model, a slice of the city pie could have the same general demographic from the downtown area to the outermost parts of a city. That is, one slice could be made up of mostly middle class residents and, instead of being an orderly ring like in the concentric zone model, the slice would push outward from the downtown area. The sector model fits British cities better than it does American cities, but it still has some similarities to urban areas in the U.S.Sally can see how the sector model might fit her city. After all, it’s not as neat and organized as the concentric zone model, and she’s noticed that there are some neighborhoods that seem to stretch across the city instead of circling it.

Multiple Nuclei Model

But there’s still an issue that Sally has noticed with the sector model and the concentric zone model.

In both of them, there’s a single downtown business district and a factory district, but then all the other neighborhoods are residential. But in Sally’s city, there seem to be several business districts. There’s a downtown, but there’s also an area where a lot of the banks are, and another business district that’s where the local college is and much of the local government buildings are.In 1945, Chauncy Harris and Edward Ullman designed the multiple nuclei model, which pointed out that, though a city might have started with a single business district, other business districts develop in other parts of the city, creating multiple business districts with surrounding areas.Think of each business district as a nucleus around which other neighborhoods revolve. The multiple nuclei model says that there are several business districts, and homes and neighborhoods spring up around each of them. On a map, the multiple nuclei model looks much more disorganized than the other two.

In fact, it doesn’t really resemble anything at all!

Lesson Summary

An urban area is a place with a high population density and mostly non-agricultural jobs. There are several models to explain how urban areas are organized.One of the earliest models was the concentric zone model, also called the Burgess model, which says that there are five zones laid out in concentric circles, with the central business district in the center and the most affluent residential neighborhoods in the furthest circles of the city.

On a map, the concentric zone model resembles a bull’s eye.The sector model, also called the Hoyt model, says that urban zones lie along transportation lines and therefore zones radiate outward from the central business district, making the model look more like a pie than a bull’s eye.Finally, the multiple nuclei model acknowledges that many cities have multiple business districts around which neighborhoods spring up.

Learning Outcomes

After you’ve completed this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Define urban area
  • Describe three models that explain urban area organization

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