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.

The language of poverty

Slightly late for its inclusion in Mapping Society, I’ve come across this quote from Max Weber, writing about the stockyards of turn of the twentieth century Chicago as a landscape of “lowing, bleating, endless filth”. His likening of the city as akin to ‘‘a human being with its skin peeled off and whose intestines are seen at work”[i] is an example of how language has been used over years to express visceral disgust towards slum areas of cities. Not only is the use of graphic imagery a means to convey the urgency of the problem, (and in this instance to reveal the extent of the problem just as a dissection might do), but also to argue for its solution: whether to cleanse, or to separate it out.

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Men on horseback herding cattle during the 1904 Stockyards Strike. Photograph by Chicago Daily News, Inc. Source: Chicago History Museum

Separating the unclean from the cleansed is not of course a new idea. David Sibley has written how the Greeks and the Romans saw themselves as standing at the centre of the civilised world, so that the farther away a group was from the imperial hub, the ‘greater was its “vice”’.[ii] Any civilisation that was inferior to the Greek or Roman culture was in effect deviating from the mean – or the norm – in its statistical as well as its physical sense. A map of prostitution, he argues, provides essential information about ‘the social topography of the town. The basic principle of medieval regulation was to designate certain areas to prostitution, either inside or outside the walls, and limit vice strictly to them.’ This was a form of ‘social hygiene’, locating prostitution in poor districts, ‘often close to the river’ or beyond the city walls.[iii]

By drawing boundaries around people other from themselves, European powers defined the separation of the centre from the periphery. This analysis recalls similar ideas put forward by Richard Sennett regarding the treatment of the Jews of Venice. Sennett writes of the ‘fear of touching’ that led the Christian community of Venice five centuries ago to seek to isolate its foreign inhabitants, as if they were ‘isolating a disease that had infected the community . . . with corrupting bodily vices’.

Despite the complexity of the subject, many nineteenth-century texts continued to use powerfully negative imagery to describe the poor, foreigners and other people viewed as marginal to society in emotive, sensual terms – emphasising their moral contagiousness. David Sibley has described how a distinction was made between the ‘pure bourgeois and the defiled proletarian’ in mid-nineteenth century Paris as part of an effort to ‘deodorize utopian city space’ during the reshaping of the city under Baron Haussmann.[iv]

Minority groups are typically not the only people to be marginalised spatially. So too are the poorest classes. Despite the slum clearances that took place throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, the increasing numbers of people moving into the city from the countryside, coupled with a lack of organised city planning, led to the formation of poverty areas constituted by an ‘almost endless intricacy of courts and yards crossing each other . . . like a rabbit warren’.[v] Robin Evans has commented that the campaigns to clear the slums were due to their being viewed in the public eye at the time to be breeding grounds for indecency ‘. . . as if the homes had been one great block of stone eaten by slugs into innumerable small chambers and connecting passages’.[vi] Overcrowding was linked with immorality, while poverty was associated linguistically with the animal (in this instance, the insect) world, suggesting the poor to be non-human in their behaviour. At the same time, likening the city’s morphology – its physical form and layout – to a rabbit warren shows how the city was itself viewed by people as a source of the immorality of its inhabitants.[vii]

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’.[viii] 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.


[i] “(Weber, 1904, quoted in Nolan J. L. What They Saw in America: Alexis De Tocqueville, Max Weber, G. K. Chesterton, and Sayyid Qutb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2016), p. 72.

[ii] D. Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West (London; New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 50.

[iii] Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion, p. 87. Bronislaw Geremek has similarly described how the city walls of medieval Paris were seen as a purifying device, defining territory within and without the walls, and placing the prostitutes beyond them. B. Geremek and J. Birrell, The Margins of Society in Late Medieval Paris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[iv] Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion, p. 57. For more on Baron Haussmann’s reconfiguration of Paris, see section on the contemporary mapping of disease, in Chapter 2 of this volume (p. 000).

[v] H. Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor vol. 4 (London: Griffin, Bohn, 1861); Penguin Classics reprint edition, ed. V. Neuburg (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), pp. 299–300.

[vi] R. Evans, ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings: English Housing Reform and the Moralities of Private Space,’ in Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays, ed. R. Evans (London: AA Documents 2, 1997, first published 1978). ‘Rookery’ is a term dating from the 1820s to describe a particularly low quality of housing, closely packed with people of the poorest class (it refers to colonies of rooks, which nest in trees in large populations during the breeding season).

[vii] Evans, ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings’.

[viii] 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.

Mapping Disease: Tuberculosis in Chicago, 1906

Last week we saw how a doctor in New York had sought to diagnose bad housing by mapping its morphological aetiology. Almost at the same time another doctor, this time in Chicago, made a comprehensive study of the incidence of tuberculosis in the Near West Side of Chicago. His report’s striking graphics, which show built form and land use alongside the mortality cases, were another step forward in using maps as a way to test hypotheses regarding the causes of contagious disease (Figure 1 and detail in Figure 2).

Figure 1: ‘Tuberculosis in a congested district in Chicago, Jan. 1st, 1906, to Jan. 1st, 1908, including the district represented in chart 1, population chiefly Jewish’ / by Theodore B. Sachs. Image credit: University of Chicago Map Collection


Figure 2: Detail of ‘Tuberculosis in a congested district in Chicago, Jan. 1st, 1906, to Jan. 1st, 1908, including the district represented in chart 1, population chiefly Jewish’ / by Theodore B. Sachs. Image credit: University of Chicago Map Collection


The spatial solution for disease in the ‘body’ of the city shifted over time. By the end of the nineteenth century, Charles Booth was advocating suburbanisation as the best solution to “the evils of over-crowding”, proposing a system of tramlines to provide easy commuting routes that would allow London to be broken up into suburban centres. These were to be constructed alongside a programme of widening thoroughfares, and the opening up of courts to allow for a battle to be fought against “the war with dirt, disease, and premature death.[i] At the same time in the United States, following the New York State Commission, other states picked up the issue of overcrowding, not only at building scale, but also at the scale of the lot or the block (in something of a recollection of the early Housing Acts of the city). In one example, a map of a Blind Alley in Washington and its associated report was explicitly attributing the lack of through passage as one of the causes of disease and crime in the city (see Figure 3).[ii]

Figure 3: The Blind Alley of Washington: seclusion, breeding, crime and disease


The ‘Blind Alley’ map was published in a ‘Directory of Inhabited Alleys in Washington’ from 1912, which was drawn up to allow for easy inspection of the alleys .[iii] The directory cites the death rate in the alley as exceeding the death rate in streets by a considerable degree, with the highest causes being pneumonia and tuberculosis. The solution is also outlined in the directory; it cites the relevant District Codes which will allow for the alleys and minor streets to be extended, widened or straightened for purposes of improving health. In fact, the subtle analysis of Alley Life in Washington by James Borchert refutes this argument, describing how rather than being hidden communities marked by immorality and disease’, the Black-American immigrants from the Southern states had made the most of the layout of street layouts such as these to reinforce internal communal ties, creating a reciprocal relationship of support.[iv]

Figure 4: Alley Life. Source: DC Public library via


By the end of the nineteenth century major advances in bacteriology meant that the biological causes of diseases, a long list of which includes tuberculosis, tetanus, dysentery – and the old enemy cholera – shifted  the focus from mapping disease to the new urban problem of the era: mass immigration. Not only was this seen to be intensifying poverty in urban areas, but was also coupled in the public mind with contagious disease, reaching its peak when outbreaks of yellow fever became associated with Chinese migration to major cities in Australia, the US and the UK. One striking example of how fear of contagion led to racialized mapping of San Francisco’s Chinese quarter will be look at in a later blog post. In the meantime, we will see next week the impact of race on motorcar ‘accidents’.

[i] Booth, C. Improved Means of Locomotion as a First Step Towards the Cure of the Housing Difficulties of London. Abstract of the Proceedings of Two Conferences Convened by Albert Browning Hall, Walworth. London: Macmillan, 1901, p. 23. Sources have his contemporary (General) William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, advocating moving the poor from the filth and squalor of the slums to “a neat little cottage in the pure air of the country”

[ii] The map was published in Dr. Thomas Jesse Jones. “Directory of Inhabited Alleys of Washington.” Washington: Housing Committee Monday Evening Club,, 1912, p. 1. The scan from the directory is courtesy Jenny Schrader from her web log

[iii] Jesse Jones, 1912, p. 6.

[iv] Bochert, J. “Viewing the “Underclass” and Ghetto from the Top Down.” Journal of Urban History 25, no. 4 (May 1999 1999): 583-93, p. 2.