Concentric Circle Theory

Concentric Circle Theory, one of the earliest in sociology, predicts that urban social structures develop in concentric circles about a city’s center 2. Applying this theory, city planners, corporations and even individuals can better use a city’s resources.


Sociologist Ernest Burgess first proposed the Concentric Circle Theory in 1925 2. His theory was among the first to explain urban social structure and its evolution. Noting that concentric bands of similar land use seemed to arise without planning about the city center, Burgess argued that such growth could be forecast.


The Concentric Circle Theory provides for five zones: the central business district, the transition zone with both residential and commercial uses, the inner city (lower class), the outer suburbs (middle class), and the commuters zone (upper class) 2. The central business district is composed of the city administration and the major business. The spokes of the commuting systems meet here. The most valuable real estate tends to be here. The transition zone bridges the commercial and residential areas. Lighter commercial endeavors exist side by side with inexpensive housing. The inner city provides housing for those who must rely on central transportation, such as buses and light rail, and lower housing prices. The suburbs provide better housing at higher prices for those who can take advantage of some commuting, usually by personal motor vehicle. The commuter zone provides upscale housing with long commutes. Housing prices are high. Commutes in the larger metropolitan area may be over an hour each way.

Organization From Chaos

The underlying challenge to the theory is explaining how a set of vastly different actors, each with his own agenda, organize this way without planning. For example, an expanding business might seek available land while a housing developer might seek the same land.


Real estate agents, city planners, housing developers, and even individuals apply this theory. Real estate agents will show houses in the band that matches the potential buyer’s needs. City planners create zoning ordinances to foster better use while recognizing the underlying forces. Housing developers develop similar housing in bands about the city. Individuals select their homes from the band around the city that best fits their needs. Even infrastructure obeys this theory. Commuting lines move people into (and then back out of) the central business district across the bands. As cities grow, inner-belts and outer-belts move people along the bands.


Understanding that the organization of urban social structures comes about naturally, without the influence of city planners or corporations, provides important insight. While planners can control certain aspects, the basic organization evolves regardless of most efforts.


Improvements on the Concentric Circle Theory today help us to better predict urban social structures 2. Newer theories take into account businesses moving to the suburbs and urban renewal, which Concentric Circle Theory does not 2.


Concentric Circle Theory provided early insights into the organization of urban social structures 2. While today newer theories better describe this evolution, this theory was the first to explain that these structures arose naturally, without planning.