The power of diagrams in urban studies

There has been a flurry of retweets of my response yesterday to a cartoon by John Atkinson (@WrongHands1 ‏), Simplified City Map, which I suggested was reminiscent of the classic chart by Ernest Burgess’ from his 1925 paper ‘The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a Research Project’.


simplified city map
Simplifed City Map, copyright John Atkinson, Wrong Hands, published February 12, 2016:

Readers may be interested in the following excerpt from my forthcoming (open access) book, Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography, where I discuss Burgess’s chart, in the figure below. Ernest Burgess was one of a group of sociologists based at the university of Chicago who were known as the ‘Chicago School’. Robert Park, together with Ernest Burgess and colleagues, was one of the first to propose that the complexity of urban societies requires an empirical approach that controls the shape and form of the spatial environment as one might control a chemical in a laboratory.[i] The combination of their institutional backing and the setting of the rapidly growing city made Chicago the ideal place to ‘do urban research’ for much of the period leading up to the Second World War and on into the 1950s.[ii]

Ernest Burgess' Chart 2 - Urban Areas, showing concentric zones in cities from Loop at the centre to commuters zone at the edge
Chart 2 – Urban Areas, illustrating the growth of cities. From E.W. Burgess, ‘The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a Research Project,’ in The City, ed. R.E. Park, E.W. Burgess and R.D. McKenzie (Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1925), p. 38

One of the School’s most influential ideas was Burgess’s conception of cities as if they were made up of concentric zones. In an idea first articulated in 1925, Burgess proposed that the growth of cities typically followed a concentric process of expansion: from an inner Zone I (termed Loop – clearly Chicago was the model) surrounded by a Factory Zone, set within Zone II (the Zone in Transition), surrounded by Zone III (the Zone of Workingmen’s Homes), surrounded by Zone IV (a Residential Zone) and finally Zone V (the Commuters’ Zone). Despite Burgess’s explanation that his chart was ‘an ideal construction’,[iii] its impact on planning ideas continues to this day. But another idea that appears in the same paper, disorganisation theory, is equally important for its long-term influence on the discipline of criminology.

Burgess argued that as cities expand, ‘a process of distribution takes place which sifts and sorts and relocates individuals and groups by residence and occupation’[iv]. The result, he wrote, is a mosaic of social worlds comprised of immigrant areas such as Chinatown or the Jewish ‘ghetto’, whose inhabitants move progressively through each zone, seeking ‘the Promised Land’ beyond. These naturally evolved areas have developed alongside other residual areas, ‘submerged regions of poverty, degradation and disease’, where accepted rules of social behaviour are absent. If cities grow too fast, Burgess wrote, the internal movements of people through the zones create a ‘tidal wave of inundation’, leading to excessive social disorganisation in the form of crime, disorder, vice, insanity and suicide. He was stating that social disorganisation occurs where there is a lack of collective social values and effective social control on deviant behaviour; so delinquency is the outcome of community breakdown, rather than individual deviance. Shaw’s later work with McKay, which expanded the study to 21 American cities, supported Burgess’s hypothesis that the physical deterioration of residential areas accompanied by social disorganisation is greatest in a central zone in the business district, and declines progressively from the inner city to its peripheral areas.[v] These propositions have since been refuted by scholars who argue that the model does not explain the reality of complex urban processes, yet the beauty of its simplicity means that notions of disorganisation – as well as the concentric zones model – continue to hold in many criminology studies today.


[i] Park and Burgess, The City; R.E. Park, ‘The Urban Community as a Spatial Pattern and a Moral Order,’ in The Urban Community, ed. E.W. Burgess (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1926); R.E. Park, ‘The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the City Environment,’ American Journal of Sociology 20, no. 5 (1915); R.E. Park and E.W. Burgess, Introduction to the Science of Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1921).

[ii] T.F. Gieryn, ‘City as Truth-Spot: Laboratories and Field-Sites in Urban Studies,’ Social Studies of Science 36, no. 1 (2006, February 1), p. 5.

[iii] EW Burgess, ‘The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a Research Project,’ in The City ed. RE Park, et al. (Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1925), p. 36.

[iv] Burgess, ‘The Growth of the City,’ p. 38.

[v] C.R. Shaw and H.D. McKay, Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas: A Study of Rates of Delinquency in Relation to Differential Characteristics of Local Communities in American Cities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942).

Author: (sub)urbanite

Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Lab, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Online in a personal capacity.

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