Urban land use patterns and models

By Matt Burdett, 11 May 2018

On this page, we look at the factors affecting the pattern of land use in urban areas, with reference to leading models of city development that claim to describe the pattern of commercial, industrial and residential land use.

  • Can you tell where this is? Models of urban areas simplify the reality of huge differences between cities, and show how they have patterns that are common to many. This is a commercial centre in a city – can you guess which? (Answer is later on the page!) Source: By the author.

What is urban land use?

Urban land use literally refers to what takes up the physical space of a town or city. The main urban land uses are:

  • Residential
  • Industrial
  • Commercial and administrative
  • Infrastructure (including transport)
  • Open space (including planned open space like parks, and derelict space)

Urban land use is generally described as the land use at ground level. This is typically what is shown on maps. It’s important to recognise that as well as a horizontal ground level variation in land use, there can also be a vertical variation. For example, there might be a residential tower block above a shopping mall. This vertical variation is greatest in the Central Business District (see the separate page on economic activity in the CBD).

Variations in urban land use are shown using geographical models, and can be explained by theories including ‘bid rent’. The theory of bid rent is explained elsewhere on this site.

Model versus theory: what’s the difference?

Models and theories are often confused for one another. Many people use them as synonyms, but there are important differences between the two. At the most basic level, models describe, while theories explain.

Models are simplified versions of reality. They are usually created when researchers look at several examples of something, and identify the common elements. In urban studies, models are often used to show how land use varies across a city. Researchers develop these models by looking at one or more cities, and then drawing a simplified version of the land use pattern that they find in most situations. Several examples of models are shown lower down this page. Models can only be used to predict that a new situation will fit existing knowledge, assuming that any factors not referenced in the model are constant (in urban models, this would mean that things like hills, government policy and rivers are totally ignored).

A theory is an abstract idea that tries to explain why something happens. This means it isn’t easily observed in reality. It is usually an untested, and if it is tested and shown to be ‘true’ in all situations, it may be referred to as a law or rule. If it is not ‘true’ in all situations, it remains a theory. In urban studies, theories are used for many reasons including to explain why cities are found in certain places, why land use varies in cities, and why different groups of people are found in different parts of the city.

Models and theories are often developed with reference to one another. For example, the bid-rent theory links closely with the monocentric land use models of Burgess and Hoyt. Sometimes, the actual words are used differently – such as in physics, where the Standard Model is actually a theory about the interaction between particles (Elert, 2018) because when it was created in the 1970s it not only described existing knowledge, but predicted other types of particles which had not been observed.

Leading models of urban land use

There are models that predict where different types of activity will be found around the city. There are two main types of model:

  • Monocentric: there is a single central point of the city
  • Polycentric: there are multiple ‘centres’ of the city

These models have been developed by groups of academics whose work can be linked together by their beliefs about how cities grow. These groups of academic researchers are known as ‘Schools’. They are not literally schools of education, nor are they even made up of people who work in the same building. Instead they are made up of academics who do research along similar lines and have similar beliefs about their subject.

Monocentric models and the Chicago School

Monocentric models of urban land use became popular in the 1920s and 1930s, especially with geographers and sociologists at the University of Chicago in the United States. They were trying to find patterns in the types of people and economic activities across the city. All the monocentric models assume that there is a single Central Business District in the city. The most famous of these models are:

  • Burgess’s ‘Concentric Zone Model’ (1925)
  • Hoyt’s ‘Sector Model’ (1939)
  • Harris and Ullman’s ‘Multiple Nuclei Model’ (1945)

These are examples of the ‘Chicago School of Urbanism’. It was a movement amongst social scientists to understand how different social groups interacted in cities, and how different groups were attracted to different parts of the city, resulting in variations in land use (Lutters and Ackerman, 1996).

Burgess’s Concentric Zone Model

The Burgess Model was developed by Ernest Burgess in 1925. He identified a series of concentric rings coming out from the centre of the city which correspond to different types of land use. In the centre was the Central Business District; followed by an inner city area known as the transition zone, with light manufacturing; then a series of residential zones gradually becoming wealthier towards the edge of the city.

Burgess’s original model can be seen below. It was entirely based on Chicago. The sloping line through the centre shows the shore of Lake Michigan. To the left of this line Burgess labelled the reality of Chicago with names and types of places; to the right, he identified the academic terms he gives to each zone.

  • The Concentric Zone Model, also known as the Burgess Model. Source: Burgess, 1925.

The model is useful because it shows a heavily simplified version of reality that could be applied to many cities. It doesn’t actually explain why these zones are in those locations, but it is the basis for theories that do: the main one is bid-rent, discussed elsewhere on this site. Some other explanations that follow from the Burgess model are:

  • The CBD is in the middle because it is the central location, and therefore easiest to get to. This encourages businesses to be located there because they can access the most customers.
  • Low class residential (the ‘zone of working-men’s homes’) is near the factory/transition zone because it is an undesirable location (polluted and congested), and because these people must walk or use public transport to get to work in the factories
  • People on low incomes cannot afford large houses, so these areas become densely populated; the population density on the outskirts is lower as the house size is larger
  • High class residential is around the outside because these people can afford the private transport to get to the city centre quickly and conveniently

However, the model is also criticised for many reasons:

  • It is too specific to North American cities; it does not fit more historic cities or those that have recently grown
  • At the time of writing this page, the model is over 90 years old! It does not fit the modern age and is “a product of its time” (Rodrigue, 2018) both in terms of the wording used on the model and the way that the model is organised
  • There are many assumptions in the model that mean it doesn’t fit other cities very well

Hoyt’s Sector Model

In 1939 Homer Hoyt published “The Structure and Growth of Residential Neighborhoods in American Cities” in which he developed Burgess’s ideas further. Hoyt studied 142 cities in the United States. He recognised that they were more complex than simple rings of land use, and suggested that industrial land use is linked to transport routes. He also suggested that the location of transport and industry within the city affects the location of residential districts. This results in ‘sectors’ of the city with different land uses.

  • An extract from Hoyt’s work, showing the different rents charged in different parts of cities across the United States, which he called ‘sectors’. Source: Hoyt, 1939 p77.

Hoyt’s model (see below) follows on from Burgess’s model in that the CBD remains in the centre of the city because it is the easiest place to access and therefore there are more potential customers for commercial businesses, and the sectors are clearly visible in rings radiating out from the centre. However, there are important differences. The manufacturing zone is found along transport routes – especially railways, but also highways and rivers or canals – that link the city centre to other cities. The low class residential land is found nearby, with the high class residential the furthest away. The high class residential may also follow transport routes, especially highways, as wealthier people have private cars which they use to get to their jobs in the CBD.

Harris and Ullman’s Multiple Nuclei Model

In 1945, Chauncy Harris and Edward Ullman continued the work of Burgess and Hoyt by publishing a new model of the city. This model recognises that as cities grow, they swallow up smaller settlements around the edge. Meanwhile as the city becomes larger, travel between the outskirts and CBD becomes impractical and smaller centres grow throughout the city.

  • Generalisations of internal structure of cities. Harris and Ullman’s model is shown at the bottom left. Source: Harris and Ullman, 1945.

The model has the advantage of being more flexible than the earlier models, as it doesn’t have a specific location for each zone. Instead, the zones are recognised as existing nearby to one another but can be in different places depending on the city. It also accounts for the development of the motor car, with the CBD no longer necessarily the easiest place to get to.

Like the other models of the Chicago School, the Multiple Nuclei Model makes does not recognise several key features of cities that could affect how the model applies to reality (Planning Tank, 2016):

  • High-rise buildings that could affect population density are ignored
  • Each zone is homogenous throughout (meaning that there is no variation within each zone)
  • Government policies are not considered, e.g. planning laws
  • The model is hard to apply to non-Western cities

Even so, it is the balance between the flexibility of the model and its simplicity that makes it still useful today.

Polycentric models and the Los Angeles School

Although the Ullman and Harris Multiple Nuclei Model identifies more than one centre in the city, it still identifies a core Central Business District. This is the common view of a monocentric city. However, more recent scholars have argued that this is not the way modern cities develop.

The Los Angeles School of urbanism was a group of academics who were mostly based in southern California in the 1980s to the 2000s. (Some members of the group are still working but the group has become less influential in the twentieth century.) They formed the idea that large modern cities do not grow around a single Central Business District, but in fact grow haphazardly “in a sprawling fashion, as a multiplicity of commercial, industrial and residential areas spread outward without noticeable pattern” (Florida, 2013). This means that rather than having a main CBD, there will be many centres, and instead of having a similar mix of land use in those centres, they might have different functions. The school generally argues that the core of the city is in decline, while the periphery of the city is expanding, an idea that relates closely to the issue of urban sprawl.

The work was based mainly on the study of the US city of Los Angeles. As the map below shows, the land use in Los Angeles has little clear structure to it. Therefore it is difficult if not impossible to model it in the way that the Chicago School had done for cities earlier in the twentieth century. For this reason, there is no standard model in the Los Angeles School, which is a key difference to the Chicago School.

The New York School

The New York School of urbanism is something of a halfway house between the Chicago School which places emphasis on a Central Business District and the Los Angeles School which claims there is little or no centrality in the growing modern city. Proponents of the New York School claims that “most economically productive districts and the most desirable residential areas are concentrated in and around the city’s dense center; growth in the periphery is less patterned” (Florida, 2013).

In practice, all three schools offer insights into the historical and current development of cities. None is so general that it can be applied to all cities everywhere, but equally they are not so specific that they only apply to the city which gave them its name. This is the geographer’s constant issue with models: either they are too general to be of use when studying a particular settlement, or they are too specific to be applied to more than one city. A middle ground between these two is the aim.

Non-Western models of urban land use

A major criticism of all the models presented so far is that they apply to cities in the United States, and often North America and Europe in general. But cities that are not in Western countries often have very different patterns of land use. Models that exist for other parts of the world are presented below.

Latin America

Latin America is the portion of North, Central and South America south of the United States, stretching from Mexico to Chile and Argentina. Cities in Latin America have often experienced rapid industrialisation and population growth since 1950. The core of many cities is a colonial-era (approximately 1500-1939) centre which has recently seen redevelopment, surrounded by much newer urban development. This model is often applied to Sao Paulo in Brazil.

The model above was updated in 1996 from the original version in 1980 published by Ernest Griffin and Larry Ford. As with all models, it is a simplified version of the common features of cities. In the model:

  • The Central Business District is the commercial heart of the city.
  • The most historic part of the city surrounds the CBD, and contains a mixture of old colonial buildings along with more modern hi-rise development.
  • There is also a commercial ‘spine’ along major roads , which extends the CBD outwards from the centre towards edge-of-city retail parks (‘malls’ on the diagram below).
  • The elite housing zone is the highest class residential area, and it exists near to the commercial districts because the time taken for journeys is generally very long due to traffic congestion, so wealthy people avoid travelling long distances between their homes and work.
  • The ‘periferico’ is a ring-road that helps traffic move around the edge of the city
  • The periferia (or periphery – meaning ‘edge’) is the home of the poorest people, who are generally new migrants to the city. They settle on the outer edges of the city because there is no space to occupy in the middle of the city, and they are too poor to afford the rent. These ‘zones of disamenity’ are squatter settlements but they gradually improve into permanent residential areas.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian cities often have a very well developed colonial centre, although it has often been redeveloped out of all recognition. Most major cities in southeast Asia are port cities, and were originally located on the coast because they offered trading opportunities. Therefore these cities are prevented from expanding in all directions by the coastline, so are not represented by rings around the centre, but by a wedge or semi-circular shape instead.

Terry McGee developed the most influential model of a southeast Asian city in his book The “Southeast Asian city: a social geography of the primate cities of Southeast Asia” published in 1967. It has been updated to reflect the fast growth of population, and therefore the expansion of the urban area, since then. Especially important is the location of new industrial zones, which are not on the coast but inland where there is plenty of cheap land. Note how similar it is to Hoyt’s Sector Model, but with adaptations to suit the Asian experience.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Harm de Blij was a geographer who, among many other interests, studied the urban development of cities in Sub-Saharan Africa. He recognised that there was frequently an old CBD with colonial buildings and some redevelopment (especially tower blocks). However, he identified that cities often have an ‘open air market zone’ in which informal economic activity takes place. Residential areas are distinguished from one another not only by household wealth (the poorest are often on the edge of the city, because new migrants set up squatter settlements there) but also by ethnicity. This is partly because some African countries were created from arbitrary colonial borders rather than from tribal or national groupings, so ethnically similar people group together when they migrate to the city. (Look at a modern map of Africa and observe the large number of straight-line borders. Many of these reflect agreements made by European powers in the 1984-5 Berlin Conference, which separated territories between European countries for the purposes of colonial expansion. When countries achieved independence, these borders were retained.)


The modern Chinese city has developed according to the planning principles of the Chinese government, which maintains strict control over both internal migration and construction. Since the late 1980s, the Chinese government has presided over the largest mass migration in history, with over 80 million people permanently migrating from rural areas in the centre and west to urban areas in the south and east (and also some to the far west), and perhaps over 230 million moving for seasonal work while retaining a link with their home (such as leaving their children there) (Roth, 2012).

The result has been a planned expansion of both population and urban footprint of many Chinese cities. Some huge cities have resulted including the megacities of Chongqing, Shanghai and Beijing. In the 1990s, Piper Gaubatz, an urban geographer at the University of Massachusetts (Gaubatz, 2018), studied the general layout of these new cities and identified patterns of urban planning, including the development of specific areas for manufacturing and commerce. The model below shows the outcome; moreover, the pace of development means many areas are very similar, as shown in the photograph at the top of this page. It is a shopping district in Chongqing, one of the largest cities in China.

Mediterranean Europe (Spain, France, Italy, Greece) and North Africa

Models can be even more specifc. The two models below were sourced from the ‘Access to Geography: Urban Settlement and Land Use’ textbook (Hill, 2005), but were not credited to any specific author. [If you have any information about where these came from, please share it via the contact form in the ‘About’ section of this site. Thank you!]

Both these models show how it is possible to be very specific to a type of city. These very specific models – going beyond a continental location and down to a sub-region – provide an interesting opportunity for further study and the creation of more models for individual cities.


Burgess, 1925. The growth of the city: An introduction to a research project. In Park et al., 1925. The City. https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/39709965/A1-_Burgess__Ernest_W._1925__The_Growth_of_the_City.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1526004784&Signature=ioYy0pcxhgVSDoR4q8%2FUOi2%2BVE0%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DA1-_Burgess_Ernest_W._1925_The_Growth_of.pdf Accessed 11 May 2018.

Elert, 2018. The Standard Model. https://physics.info/standard/ Accessed 11 May 2018.

Florida, 2013. The Most Famous Models for How Cities Grow Are Wrong. https://www.citylab.com/design/2013/08/most-famous-models-how-cities-grow-are-wrong/6414/ Accessed 11 May 2018.

Gaubatz, 1998. Understanding Chinese Urban Form: Contexts for Interpreting Continuity and Change. Built Environment, Vol. 24, No. 4, Eastern Urban Form and Culture, pp.251-270 http://www.jstor.org/stable/23289160 Accessed 11 May 2018. A similar version is available at the author’s webpage: https://blogs.umass.edu/gaubatz/research/ Accessed 11 May 2018.

Gaubatz, 2018. Home: Blog. https://blogs.umass.edu/gaubatz/ Accessed 14 May 2018.

Harris and Ullman, 1945. The nature of cities. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 242(1), pp.7-17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1026055 Accessed 11 May 2018.

Hill, 2005. Urban Settlement and Land Use (Access to Geography). https://www.amazon.com/Urban-Settlement-Land-Access-Geography/dp/0340883456 Accessed 14 May 2018.

Hoyt, 1939. The Structure and Growth of Residential Neighborhoods in American Cities. https://archive.org/details/structuregrowtho00unitrich Accessed 11 May 2018.

Knights, 2008. Hoyt Model. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Homer_hoyt1.png#filelinks Accessed 11 May 2018.

Lutters and Ackerman, 1996. An Introduction to the Chicago School of Sociology. https://userpages.umbc.edu/~lutters/pubs/1996_SWLNote96-1_Lutters,Ackerman.pdf Accessed 11 May 2018.

No author specified, no date. Models to Know. https://aphug.wikispaces.com/Models+to+Know Accessed 11 May 2018.

Planning Tank, 2016. Multiple Nuclei Model of 1945 by C.D. Harris and Edward L. Ullman. https://planningtank.com/settlement-geography/multiple-nuclei-model-1945-harris-ullman-model Accessed 11 May 2018.

Rodrigue, 2018. The Burgess Urban Land Use Model. https://transportgeography.org/?page_id=4908 Accessed 11 May 2018.

Roth, 2012. China: The Largest Migration in Human History. https://geography.washington.edu/news/2012/02/28/china-largest-migration-human-history Accessed 14 May 2018.

The Nature Conservancy, 2005. Land use across Greater Los Angeles. Via the Natural History Museum Los Angeles County, 2018. What is the City Nature Challenge? https://nhm.org/nature/blog/what-city-nature-challenge Accessed 11 May 2018.

Urban land use patterns and models: Learning activities


  1. Give at least four examples of urban land use. [2]
  2. Distinguish between a model and a theory. [2]
  3. Distinguish between monocentric and polycentric models. [2]
  4. Name the three models most closely associated with the Chicago School of urbanism. [3]
  5. Identify the features common to each of the models from the Chicago School. [2]
  6. With reference to the Concentric Zone Model, describe how land use varies with distance from the centre of the city. [3]
  7. Explain why the wealthiest people live on the outskirts of the city in the Concentric Zone Model. [4]
  8. Suggest why the model is not widely used today except for educational purposes. [2]
  9. Identify the key principle behind Hoyt’s Sector Model that makes it different from Burgess’s Concentric Zone Model. [1]
  10. Explain why there are multiple commercial centres in the Multiple Nuclei Model. [2]
  11. What is the guiding principle of the Los Angeles School of urbanism? [1]
  12. Describe the main view of the New York School of urbanism. [1]
  13. Choose two non-Chicago School models. Describe how land use varies across the models, and explain the main factors that influence this. [3 + 3 for describe, and 3 + 3 for explain]

Other tasks

Look at a map of the city nearest to you. (Using Google Maps or a similar map programme, you can view it in different ways e.g. change the view to ‘terrain’ mode.) Can you identify links to any of the models on this page? If so, what is the same? How much does your city differ from the model, and why?