• Ernest Burgess’s concentric zone model, also known as the Chicago concentric zone model and the Burgess zonal hypothesis, is one of the earliest theoretical models used to explain urban social structures.
  • Burgess’s circular zones consist of a city center, a transitional area where immigrants and the poor live, a working-class area with single-family tenements, a middle-class family residential area, and, finally, the commuter zone. Those from each of these residential zones commute to the city center.
  • According to Burgess’s zonal hypothesis, crime occurs most frequently in the transitional zone and least frequently in the commuter zone.
  • Burgess’s concentric zone model fits into the larger construct of human ecology, a field that he and his collaborator Park devised to describe the interactions of people from different social groups within an ecosystem.

What is the Concentric Circle Model?

The concentric zone model, commonly referred to as the Burgess model, explains urban social structures in terms of socioeconomic clusters grouped in concentric circles around the city center. It was proposed by sociologist Ernest Burgess in 1925.

In creating this model, Burgess sought to explain the clear divisions in socioeconomic status within and immediately outside of Chicago.

Eventually, Burgess identified 5 city zones, each of which had its own attributes. Burgess’s original (1928) publication blatantly divided areas based on their population of African Americans.

However, modern criminologists have taken a more broad socio-economic stance in determining where to draw lines between areas.

Concentric Zone Circle Model

According to the concentric zone model, cities can be broken down into roughly circular, concentric areas. This geometry happens because the city evolves through radial expansion. In the center of a city”s concentric circle is the central business district, otherwise known as the Loop.

This is the oldest part of the city and often socio-economically prosperous. This zone is commuted to by the inhabitants of the other four zones.

Just outside of the central business district lies the transitional zone, consisting of recent immigrant groups, deteriorated housing, factories, and abandoned buildings. Lersch (2013) describes this “Zone in Transition” as “the least desirable area to live in the city.”

This area combines those who are poor with immigrants and criminals (Burgess, 1928) and have dilapidated housing and infrastructure due to neglect by residents, municipalities, and landlords.

Further out is the working-class zone with single-family tenements. This zone is occupied by those who can move out of the second zone and second generations of immigrant families (Lersch, 2013). Burgess describes this working-class zone as close enough to the city center that workers can reach their workplaces on foot.

Outside of the working class zone is the residential zone, which consists of single-family homes with yards and garages. The inhabitants of these zones are generally well-educated, middle-class families. Finally, the commuter zone consists of suburbs and those who can afford larger and more expensive housing as well as transportation to and from entertainment and work.

According to the concentric zone model, most criminal activity happens in the second innermost, transitional zone. This happens because people in the zone of transition experience the most anomie and discrimination, causing them to struggle to adapt to the stresses and demands of their new society.

As a result, this area experiences high rates of social disorganization and dysfunction, causing deviance to flourish. However, as each generation of immigrants assimilates, they move upward in the social structure and to outer zones, leaving behind disorganization, dysfunction, and deviance.

In this perspective, deviance is a structural phenomenon, not a function of the characteristics of any ethnic or racial group.


The concentric zone model has drawn heavy criticism from modern urbanists. According to Quinn (1940), there are two types of criticism that scholars have brought up regarding the Burgess zonal hypothesis:

  • Criticism argues that an ideal pattern could not exist

  • Criticism admitting a tendency toward a theoretical ideal pattern, but arguing that the gap between real cities and burgess’s concentric model makes it unworkable

Irregularities in Cities

Perhaps one of the most important and important criticisms of the Burgess zonal hypothesis is its common inapplicability to cities outside of the United States. Paris is an example of one such city where the concentric zone model is not accurate.

In this city, wealthy citizens live in the areas surrounding the city center. The inner ring of the city consists of older attached homes, which often have high property values.

Rather than being housed in the inner city, the urban poor of Paris live in the suburbs on the outskirts of the city. This is a trend that can be seen throughout Europe.

Mountainous South American cities are another testament to inaccuracies in the concentric zone model. In Medellin, Colombia and Rio de Género, Brazil, for example, the high-elevation, outermost regions of the city are skirted by poor settlements, sometimes referred to as favelas.

Even in Chicago — the city that originated the concentric zone model — the zones fit more closely into a pattern of concentric semicircles than complete circles, and this semicircle pattern has important irregularities.

Within other cities in North America, such as Montreal in Canada, the zones take the form of irregular ovals and crescents; and New Haven, Connneticut eschews circular zones altogether (Quinn, 1940).

The concentric zone model also suffers in the light of gentrification — the process whereby buildings and land and previously poor areas are bought and resold at higher prices, replacing a lower-class population with a higher-class one.

Defining Distance

Distance can be defined both spatially and temporally. It may take far less time to walk a one-mile stretch on a flat street than one winding up a hill with many intersections. This difference between ways of measuring distance is a complicating factor that Burgess’ zonal hypothesis fails to account for, with implications for how zones can be drawn in cities.

The impact of time cost on how zones develop can be seen in cities that have a rectangular grid pattern. In this case, a circle of “time” could be rectangular, as it could take equal amounts of time to get from one part of the grid to another (Quinn, 1940).

Finally, the concentric zone model has been criticized for assuming an even, unchanging landscape. Certain features — such as hills and water features — may make some locations unusually desirable or undesirable for residential purposes.

Impact and Importance

The concentric zone model shaped and was shaped by environmental criminology. Besides the concentric zone model, Burgess (1928) was notable for developing what he called human ecology. This field provides context and justification for Burgess”s thinking on crime.

Human ecology was directly influenced by plant biology. Warming (1909) proposed that plants lived in “communities” where they interact with each other in different ways. Generally, communities with many different species tended to be in greater competition with each other than the environment.

Park and Burgess used the biological concept of symbiosis — the interactions between organisms living in close proximity to each other — in the context of human communities where people work together toward common goals while also competing for resources.

The researchers also applied Warming’s concepts of dominance and succession in communities to describe a situation where a stronger group would disrupt the community through change, eventually reestablishing order by replacing (that is, succeeding) a group that was previously dominant.

In the context of the concentric zone model, this is similar to describing how certain populations of people move in and out of areas over time.

Park, Burgess, and McKenzie (1967) expanded on this general theory of human ecology by observing that groups of people with similar characteristics tended to cluster in rings with a radius of roughly one mile from the center of Chicago outward.

These patterns changed dramatically from one ring to the next. From these observations sprung what the researchers called the Burgess zonal hypothesis, or the concentric ring model.


Using Park and Burgess’ human ecology — and the concentric zone model — Shaw and McKay sought to study where high levels of juvenile delinquency accumulate. They proposed that areas with high rates of juvenile delinquency were close to areas of heavy industry, were physically deteriorated, and populated with highly transient residents.

The researchers hypothesized that areas where populations frequently shifted experienced high rates of delinquency because of invasion, dominance, and succession as the members of one (typically ethnic) group moved into another group”s neighborhood, disrupting the social organization of an area.

Shaw and McKay (1942) mapped industrial areas and the home addresses of juvenile delinquents. The researchers, like Park and Burgess, found that a zone of manufacturing and industry surrounded the central business district, and this industrial zone was surrounded by a ring where groups frequently moved in and out, and subsequently high rates of delinquency.

Finally, Shaw and McKay found that the more vacant and condemned homes there were in an area, the higher its delinquency rate. All of these characteristics correspond to those that Park and Burgess (1928) describe to be of high-crime areas.

Also following Park and Burgess’ theory, Shaw and McKay examined the effect of rental prices on rates of delinquency. Again, the researchers found that, as rental prices rose, rates of delinquency decreased, and as homeownership rates increased, levels of delinquency dwindled.

The farther away from the city center, the more rents and rates of home ownership increased (Shaw and McKay, 1942). Adding to Park and Burgess, the researchers believed that high rates of delinquency existed in these high-turnover communities because those who rented had less motivation and resources to maintain social organization within their neighborhood.


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Shaw, C. R., & McKay, H. D. (1942). Juvenile delinquency and urban areas.

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