The power of diagrams in urban studies (2): Von Thünen’s agricultural rings model

I wrote in a recent blog post about the power of diagrams in conveying complex ideas in urban studies (and the consequential risk of over-simplification). I have since come across the Von Thünen’s (1826) model of agricultural land use, which was created by the farmer, landowner, and amateur economist Johann Heinrich Von Thünen (1783–1850) in a book called “The Isolated State with Respect to Agricultural Economics” (Der isolierte Staat in Beziehung auf Landwirtschaft und Nationalökonomie). While his book discussed a whole array of problems regarding intensity, he is most famous for his discussion of the economics of agriculture and management of farming, and, most relevant to urban theory, his discussion of land use patterns in relation to the various uses that agricultural land can be put to. He argued that the controlling factor in determining the use of agricultural land was the return of investment from the land, and he concluded that economic rent would ultimately draw the greatest return, and therefore would displace other uses.[1]

Robert Sinclair summarises Von Thünen’s theories in detail,[2] stating that the conception laid out in “The Isolated State” was that – of the three factors that influence agricultural land uses: the cost of land per year, the price of crops when sold, and the cost of transportation to market – it is distance from the city that was the most meaningful factor in determining agricultural land uses patterns, as they were shaped by the cost of bringing goods to market. The diagram below illustrates the concept, which Sinclair drew to illustrate Von Thünen’s claim that the increase in intensity of land uses corresponding to an undetermined distance from the city.

Sequence of rings in Von Thunen

Figure 1. Theoretical sequence of land uses around expanding metropolitan area from Sinclair, 1967, based on Von Thünen’s Der isolierte Staat in Beziehung auf Landwirtschaft und Nationalökonomie (1826).

In fact, Sinclair argues that this simple model belies the complex reality of urbanization: both road and settlement patterns, and farmers’ own preferences, will be important contributing factors in shaping land use patterns. Indeed, it is rare to find a single isolated city set within an agricultural rural region.

It is unlikely that Burgess’ model[3] was in any way influenced by Von Thünen (especially as the latter’s work was only translated into English in the 1960s). What this does demonstrate though, is the power of diagrams in urban (or in this case, rural) theory.


[1] The assumption was of a uniformly flat land: ‘Assume a very large city in the middle of a fertile plain which is not crossed by a navigable river or canal. The soil of the plain is uniformly fertile and everywhere cultivable. AT a great distance from the city the plain shall end in an uncultivated wilderness, by which the state is separated from the rest of the world.’ – quoted in Johnson, Hildegard Binder. 1962. A Note on Thünen’s Circles. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 52 (2): 213-220, p. 214.
[2] Sinclair, Robert. 1967. Von Thünen and Urban Sprawl. Ekistics 24 (141 (Rural Housing in an Urbanizing World)): 139-143, p. 139.
[3] Burgess, E.W. 1925. The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a Research Project. In The City edited by R. E. Park, E. W. Burgess and R. D. McKenzie. Chicago University of Chicago Press.

Poverty concealed, but just around the corner

E.P. Thompson, the ‘New Left’ social historian of seventeenth and eighteenth working-class England has written how by the 1830s and 40s the working people were “virtually segregated in their stinking enclaves” – this was not just social segregation, but spatial segregation too, with the middle-classes getting as far out of the polluted industrial cities “as equestrian transport made convenient.” Even in comparatively well-built Sheffield,

‘All classes, save the artisan and the needy shopkeeper, are attracted by country comfort and retirement. The attorney-the manufacturer-the grocer-the draper-the shoemaker and the tailor, fix their commanding residences on some beautiful site.’

Even more was the case in Manchester, where the poor lived in courts and cellars “hidden from the view of the higher ranks by piles of stores, mills, warehouses, and manufacturing establishments, less known to their wealthy neighbours … than the inhabitants of New Zealand or Kamtschatka”. Thompson quotes a contemporary writer stating how:

‘The rich lose sight of the poor, or only recognise them when attention is forced to their existence by their appearance as vagrants, mendicants, or delinquents. We have improved on the proverb, “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives,” changing it into “One half of the world does not care how the other half lives.’ …”[1]

Victoria Bridge, Manchester by James Mudd, c.1864 (GB124.Q38)
Victoria Bridge, Manchester by James Mudd, c.1864 © Manchester Archives & Local Studies Central Library, M60991 (GB124.Q38)

It is in fact interesting to see how the notion of ‘How the Other Half Lives’ was later picked up by Jacob Riis in his own account of life in the New York tenements of the 1890s, where he describes how the unventilated courts were a breeding ground for disease, hidden away from the eyes of the people of the city.[2]

The spatial nature of poverty was especially apparent in the Cheetham Hill area of Manchester, which suffered from its geographical situation, sloping down to the railway in the valley of the Irk,[3] with houses arranged in cramped rows along excavated shelves separated and supported by flimsy retaining walls. This area of ‘classic slum’ was, according to Bill Williams physically invisible: “self-contained and shielded from view by the lie of the land and a facade of shops and public buildings, socially barricaded by the railway and industries in the polluted valley of the Irk, and so neglected and ill-lit as to be in a state of ‘perpetual midnight'”.[4].

I write in Mapping Society how no language, especially when used to describe marginality, is entirely neutral. When Engels was roaming the streets of London, visiting the slums, but also negotiating his way through the streets of ‘The Great Town’, he wrote: ‘The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels’.[5] This could be interpreted as a repulsion against the lack of care towards the city’s poor, but equally, his words can be read as horror at the degradation of their behaviour as well. Out of sight is truly out of mind and it is thanks to the social investigators of a century and a more ago that we are a bit less complacent about the poverty that is situated just around the corner.


[1] Thompson, E.P. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class: Penguin Books (A Pelican Book), pp. 321-2. I’m grateful to Duncan Hay from Survey of London for bringing this passage to my attention.

[2] Riis, Jacob August. 1890. How the other half lives: Studies among the tenements of New York. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[3]See Makepeace (1997).

[4]  The district became an area of high density settlement by Jewish immigrants from the 1870s onwards. Quote is from: Williams, B., 1985. ‘The Anti-Semitism of Tolerance: Middle-Class Manchester and the Jews 1870-1900’, in: Kidd, A., Roberts, K. (Eds.), City, Class and Culture. Manchester UP, Manchester, pp. 74-102, p. 81.

[5] F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (New York and London: Panther Edition, 1891 (first published Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1845), p. 57.


Intemperance in New York: “Where Lager Reigns, 1883”

I spotted a tweet by the New York Map Society the other day, featuring a map of saloons in the city from 1894, one of many examples to be found during this period in the world’s most crowded cities. This was a period when temperance societies were fighting their hardest against the dual evils of poverty and excess drinking, preaching godliness and offering (mainly in vain) alternative attractions such as church and ‘mutual improvement’ in the form of public lectures and societies.

Liquordom in New York City, 1883. Robert Graham, 1883. Copyright Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography

As I write in my chapter on crime in Mapping Society, ‘intemperance’ was often linked with various other social evils supposedly relating to immorality – the one being often viewed as the progenitor of the other. In the UK, James Kneale has written, the social context of drink – the role of the drink trade and rituals of conviviality (‘treating’, or buying a round of drinks amongst friends or acquaintances) – became common discussion points in temperance documents.[ii]

The temperance societies in the United States had a similarly challenging role. In Chicago and other major cities the various temperance societies did battle with the large number of saloons on the city streets. Robert Graham’s 1883 pamphlet, ‘Liquordom in New York City, New York’, contained a series of maps of sections of the city’s streets, marked up with the various types of ‘liquor’ available. New York’s infamous Bowery district is shown with an almost uniform array of saloons on every street in the area, although closer inspection reveals lager beer is present on many more streets than ‘liquor’ (spirits). His pamphlet compares the numbers of saloons, or drink-shops, and the churches and schools in New York City, writing that:

‘It is an undoubted fact that just where the poverty and misery is greatest, there is the largest number of saloons. Granted squalid and overcrowded homes, with a minimum of comfort and a maximum of filth, it is not to be wondered at that saloons with polished woods, meretricious gilding, light, warmth, and freedom, should compete with and beat out of the field the three bare and comfortless rooms which are home only in name. To the real home in the city of New York, which is within the reach of every man in it, there can be no deadlier enemy than the 10,168 saloons which crowd its alleys and throng its courts.’[iii]

The attraction of the gilded interior was in contrast with the squalor of the surrounding housing. Almost simultaneously with Graham’s work, Henry Blair, a Republican senator from New Hampshire, was drawing up a map locating saloons across New York City to accompany his book The Temperance Movement or the Conflict between Man & Alcohol, published in 1888. I recommend viewing the map in all its glory on the Cornell website, but a snippet below gives one a sense of the masses of drinks establishments, yet also of the patterning of their distribution: denser on some streets and lighter on others. It is possible to see a regularity in this distribution, which I attribute to the patterns of street accessibility in the city, what we call in space syntax theory, the ‘movement economy’.

Looking at the analysis of the street layout of 1891, we can see that while there is a social logic to the distribution of saloons, it also follows a spatial logic: Christie and Forsyth streets (running left to right – that is, south to north – on the map) are both highly accessible streets at the neighbourhood scale; in other words, you would expect there to be much more passing traffic along those streets than on the streets lying to their east. On the other hand, when considering patterns of accessibility at a more local scale, the streets at the heart of Manhattan’s Jewish quarter formed a localised area of relative inaccessibility, which would have helped create a sense of an inward-looking district that simultaneously connected outwards along its main roads.[iv]

Detail of The Temperance Movement or the Conflict between Man & Alcohol (Saloon Map of New York City), 1888, overlaid on space syntax analysis of Manhattan c.1891.
The section of the saloon map is highlighted with a black, dashed box.
Original map by Henry Blair, 1888, copyright Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography. Spatial syntax analysis overlay by Garyfalia Palaiologou, 2017.


[i] Graham, cited in P.T. Winskill, The Temperance Movement and Its Workers: A Record of Social, Moral, Religious, and Political Progress (London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and New York: Blackie, 1892), p. 51.

[ii] J. Kneale, ‘The Place of Drink: Temperance and the Public, 1856–1914,’ Social & Cultural Geography 2, no. 1 (2001), p. 53.

[iii] The map states that ‘On the 30th day of April 1886, it appeared from the records of the Board of Excise Commissioners, that there were 9168 Licenses to sell intoxicating liquor in force in the city, and 1000 places, by estimate, were selling without license. Total number of saloons or places where liquor was obtainable, 10168; of which over 9000 licensed places are located on this map.’

[iv] The analysis of the street layout of Manhattan at the scale of the entire island finds the main north–south routes being the most accessible; at the more local, neighbourhood scale (segment angular integration at radius 2500, illustrated in the main space syntax image in Figure 6.10), it is avenues such as the Bowery, running on to become Second Avenue, that are the most likely to have generated high rates of pedestrian movement alongside significant vehicular transport. The inset of shows analysis of the same measure at the radius of 800m, a scale which predicts local movement flows. Full space syntax analysis of Manhattan over time can be found in G. Palaiologou, ‘Between Buildings and Streets: A Study of the Micromorphology of the London Terrace and the Manhattan Row House 1880–2013’ (Ph.D. diss., UCL, 2015).