Internal Organization Of Cities Research Paper

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Economic activities, land uses, and socioeconomic status of population seldom distribute evenly or randomly in an urban area. They typically differentiate into internally homogeneous clusters. It is difficult not to conceive that this differentiation is governed by some underlying principles of spatial organization. And urban form affects the economic efficiency, social equity, environmental quality, and sense of place. Therefore, understanding theories of urban spatial organization helps advance knowledge and shape better futures for urban areas.

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Contemporary urban development has long spread beyond the political boundaries of a city. A typical urban landscape in an advanced economy is a contiguous urbanized area that consists of multiple cities and their suburbs. Hence, urban spatial organization must be analyzed in the context of an urban region.

Most studies in urban spatial organization have been conducted in North America where an advanced capitalist market economy prevails. Their generalizations may not be completely applicable to cities that have evolved in different economic modes, such as those where the public sector dictates urban development or communal institutions control property rights. Furthermore, North American urban places are different from the rapidly growing mega-cities (having populations of more than 15 million people) in Asia and Latin America.

1. Urbanization And Suburbanization

During the nineteenth century, North America rapidly industrialized and urbanized. For example, between 1820 and 1920, the number of US cities with populations of 5,000 persons or more exploded from 39 to 1,467. During this period, these cities were also under transformation. Originally evolved from a focal point of employment, these cities were relatively small and compact because contemporary transportation systems limited their expansion. Technological advances led to successive transportation systems: streetcar, suburban rail, and subway. Each new system helped to push the urbanized area further.

Similarly, in the early twentieth century, the use of trucks, automobiles, and telephones vastly expanded the urban horizon and dispersed wholesale and manufacturing uses to the suburbs. Meanwhile, new building technologies such as elevators and skyscrapers helped rebuild city centers into central business districts (CBDs)—containing blocks having concentrations of high-rise buildings of offices and retail.

While the urban share of the US population first reached 50 percent in 1920, the most striking change that would sweep America, suburbanization, was delayed by the Great Depression and World War Two. In the postwar period, three interrelated processes restructured the urban landscape. High rates of family formation and the ‘baby boom’ (a surge of births between 1946 and 1964) created extreme housing shortages that the existing urban fabric could not accommodate. Concurrently, huge federal and state expressway-building programs opened up new residential suburbs while urban renewal efforts accelerated the outward movement of blacks from segregated ghettoes into nearby predominantly white neighborhoods. Throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, these last two processes resulted in the so-called ‘white flight’ or ‘flight-from-blight’ phenomena (Mieszkowski and Mills 1993). These processes accelerated an already existing decentralizing trend and led to further dispersal of economic activities. As suburban centers captured jobs, housing, and stores, the central cities lost their dominance in metropolitan population and employment. The result was the growth of sprawling urban regions. These trends continued through the late twentieth century as urbanized areas gradually become polycentric.

By 2000, the US demographic character was firmly established. For example, 80 percent of its population was classified as urban, up from 56 percent fifty years earlier. Furthermore, suburbanization gained momentum. In 2000, the share of the urban population living in the suburbs was 60 percent, a complete reversal from the 40 percent of 1950. Suburbanization is not unique to the US; other nations of advanced economies are undergoing similar changes (Ingram 1998).

2. Patterns Of Spatial Organization

Evaluating urban spatial organization encompasses several patterns, including land use differentiation, population distribution, household characteristics, income and racial segregation, employment distribution, changing building densities, and the rise of sub-centers and polycentric urban forms.

Urban land uses are highly differentiated. Land uses can be compatible or incompatible with one another. Compatible uses generate mutual benefits or positive externalities. Incompatible uses create harmful consequences or negative externalities. Compatible uses usually coexist with one another while incompatible uses show rigid segregation. It is debatable whether public land use control or voluntary market forces contribute to this segregation.

Theoretically, land uses display a number of geometric forms: concentric rings, sectors or wedges, multiple nuclei or small clusters, or a linear formation from a narrow strip to an arc or a corridor. The Burgess model (1925) posits that land uses fall into concentric zones extending outward from the CBD. Two alternative formulations complementing this schema are the sectoral model, arguing that wedges of similar activities radiate from the CBD along transportation corridors, and the multi-nuclei model asserting that secondary CBDs and suburban economic centers emerge to accommodate second-order activities. It appears that these three forms of land-use arrangements can coexist in a single urban area. For example, concentric rings and corridor-type of uses are evident in a polycentric Los Angeles.

The way that population is distributed displays some regularities as well. Urban population densities tend to be higher around the CBD and lower at the edges. Alonso (1964) developed a monocentric model to reflect this pattern and calculated a density decay function, D(µ) =D.exp( – bµ), where the average density, D, starts at the fringe of the CBD and declines at a rate, b, per unit distance, µ, away from the center. This function flattens as time changes, i.e., densities at the fringe will marginally increase or the limit of a city continues to expand. Over time, population densities have decreased around the core, reflecting the depopulation of most of the central cities since the 1950s. The monocentric model is limited because its approximation of densities is specific to a specific scale of observation. The gross population density, a commonly used measure, tends to underrepresent the net density in the periphery because it factors unpopulated and nonresidential areas into the analysis. Comparing neighborhood by neighborhood, the net residential density in the outer suburbs may not be too different from that in the inner suburbs.

The spatial distribution of household characteristics is not uniform. Households of small size, female-headed, or with no children are more concentrated in the core. Families and larger size households are more dispersed in the periphery where larger lots and detached housing are more abundant. The differences in preference also reflect the impact of family cycles in housing choice. Families tend to be more sensitive to house size and school quality.

Income segregation is the most noticeable feature of American urban spatial organization. Broadly speaking, higher income groups reside in the suburbs while the low-income groups stay in the core. This general pattern is skewed by the high concentration of poverty in the core and also interrupted by other irregularities. Small high-income precincts are commonly found in the urban core (e.g., Coral Cables in Miami, Georgetown in Washington DC, and Pacific Heights in San Francisco). Similarly, not all suburban households are high-income because many suburban development projects target the middle class. Unlike population density, changes of income level rarely move smoothly away from the CBD. Neighborhoods with large income differences are often separated by such physical barriers as rivers, highways, or even manmade barriers.

Employment distribution exhibits more dispersal than residential distribution. Manufacturing activities started to move out from the center in the 1900s as trucks replaced rail freight movement. By mid-century, as air transportation become important, manufacturing and distribution centers gravitated toward airports. Expressway expansion has provided ubiquitous access within urban areas and diminished the locational advantages of their cores. Today, manufacturing and wholesale activities tend to cluster around freeway interchanges in the suburbs. Lowerorder retailing activities have also moved to the suburbs as purchasing power has shifted in that direction. Suburban malls were first developed in the late 1950s and within decades modern and bigger malls were built in the newer suburbs, leaving CBD and old suburban retail centers to falter. Despite that the average CBD’s share of metropolitan employment has fallen to less than ten percent, CBDs have not completely lost their role because most of them still represent the biggest single concentration of specialized services and government activities.

Building and development densities also exhibit a distance decay relationship with the CBD but their gradients are much steeper and often disrupted by surges of density in secondary CBDs and suburban centers. In general, high-rise development and multifamily housing cluster in the primary and the secondary centers more than in other part of the urban region.

The rise of subcenters and polycentric urban form is a direct result of continuous urban expansion and shifts in population and employment distribution. As population and employment disperse, they gravitate to suburban centers and transform the old monocentric urban structures into polycentric ones. These centers have a propensity to cluster or distribute loosely in a sectoral form. These centers evolve from older settlement points or they create their own set of activities and population concentration. Garreau (1991) characterized the rise of these centers as ‘Edge Cities,’ recently developed places with a sizeable office and retail space attracting large numbers of commuters. Today, these centers are increasingly self-contained and making suburbs independent of the cores of their metropolitan regions. Recent studies reveal that office and professional service activities are continuing to scatter. As a result, more than half of the commuting traffic is among these centers.

3. Searching For The Principles Of Spatial Organization

Explaining the organizing principle(s) of spatial organization requires sophisticated understanding of the social, economic, technological, cultural, and other phenomena influencing urban form and structure. Spatial organization is derived from observable patterns specific to the scale of observation. Also, the paradigm adopted by a researcher generally shapes the findings. This section identifies and discusses common determinants of urban spatial organization.

3.1 Factors That Influence Urban Form And Structure

Second to topography, the urban morphology, the built environment and the associated property rights, is the most important constraint to urban development. The ‘urban capital stock,’ i.e., lots, buildings, streets, road grids, rail tracks, and expressways are relatively inelastic to changes. Since modifications of urban morphology involve very costly land assembly, older areas in the core are likely to be left derelict. Similarly, streets and freeways usually form impasses of a land use or boundaries to a neighborhood. Infrastructure, such as transportation facilities and transshipment centers and their ancillary uses resist changes. Their obsolescence or closure causes dereliction and blight. Though building structure is malleable and conversion of uses is possible, these transitions are lengthy and sometimes costly, especially in the absence of market demand and public intervention. In contrast, development in the fringe is less risky, subject to less uncertainty and cheaper. As real estate activities tends to be cyclical, construction occurs in waves. Investment converges on certain locations for a short duration and then wanes. Sometimes, these activities create an impressive mark on urban form—power centers, corridors of strip malls, and sprawling gated communities. Successive urban expansions have reflected the impetuous and speculative nature of the development process.

Technological changes greatly affect spatial organization. The prime factor behind persistent decentralization has been advances in transportation technology. For example, expressway systems have radically extended urbanized areas. Contemporary sprawl typically hops along newly developed transportation corridors. Similarly, the development of remote and difficult terrains is possible because of technological changes to such infrastructure systems as water supply, power grid, and sewerage and drainage. Finally, the advent of modern telecommunications incorporating personal computers, facsimiles, and cellular telephones is producing new locational requirements for firms (Graham and Marvin 1996). While some speculate that the revolution in information technology will cause the ‘death of distance’ and the reintegration of home and workplace, evidence indicates that it merely expands choices of human interaction and does not reduce commuting (Kotkin 2000). Its impact on urban structure is still not clear, as it has generated both centralization and decentralization of economic activities.

Income, wealth, and preferences have a great influence on population distribution. Income and wealth affect consumer preferences and the ability to live in specific locations. Research on housing choice has consistently shown the importance of such attractive attributes as neighborhood amenities, school quality, personal safety, and quality of life. As the spatial distribution of these attractive attributes is highly differentiated, higher income groups tend to outbid lower income groups in all localities in the price competition for these attributes. Therefore, high-income group clusters are not confined to the suburbs. Both ‘middle-class flight’ and ‘gentrification’ reflect how higher income groups are sensitive to the perceived changes of neighborhood quality. Furthermore, preferences in choosing neighbors along racial or ethnic lines are translated into such discriminatory practices as selective real estate information, fiscal zoning and other restrictive land use regulations. These practices challenge the argument that income and racial segregation is voluntary. Evidence that minority inner-city residents have greater difficulties in dispersing to the suburbs in comparison to other groups of similar income level indicates that racial preference has prevented smooth and market-driven neighborhood transition.

Economic restructuring destabilizes the old order of industrial location. Traditionally, manufacturing firms were sensitive to transportation costs reflected in the distance toward market or raw material. However, in today’s postindustrial era, minimization of transportation costs has become less important as their share in total production costs has declined. Such factors as labor costs and quality, business climate, economies of scale, and quality of life are new considerations. In addition, the agglomeration effects where inter-industry and inter-firm linkages allow sharing of innovations and access to large labor pools and networks of suppliers and purchasers are important. The postindustrial era has also witnessed the employment dispersal that, together with residential decentralization, has developed into a multi-point and multi-directional commuting pattern. Under the new economy, knowledge-based industries require the new set of locational considerations discussed above (Wheeler et al. 2000). Finally, under globalization, urban regions have developed more external links and expanded their hinterlands. While at the same time, the economic functions of inner-city neighborhoods have changed. In some instances, the increase flow of capital, information, products, and people has given rise to specialized districts such as ethnic quarters for immigrants and clusters of import and export firms. In others, especially where in economically isolated neighborhoods, high rates of unemployment have led to severe distress.

Although the private sector leads urban development, the public sector plays an important role as the major undertaker of infrastructure projects and provider of such services as public schools, law and order, waste collection and disposal, parks and recreation, and land use regulation. Infrastructure steers future development and the level of public services directly affects the quality of life. In addition, local tax levels and the efficiency and attitude of local government shape the business climate that most private businesses rely on in making investment decisions. American urban areas commonly contain a large number of small municipalities. This fragmentation has resulted in great variations in the quality of services and business climate. Labeled as the Tiebout effect, these variations induce businesses and residents to move among places, leading localities to compete with one another to attract investment and middle-class residents. This competition is often unequal because some municipalities have fewer resources, and suffer from eroding tax bases and the desertion of the middle class. Such unequal competition reinforces segregated and fragmented spatial organization.

3.2 Interpretations Of Spatial Organization

The study of the spatial organization of urban places can take many approaches. Each casts a different image and each adopts a particular set of methods and paradigms. Here are the major approaches.

The ecological approach developed at the University of Chicago was the earliest systematic study of urban form (Park 1925). It viewed the city as a composite of multiple ecological colonies segregated by income, class, and ethnicity. Its organization principle was that the succession and invasion of one colony into another yielded a specific urban form of concentric zones. It suggested a distribution of colonies where the transients, low-income groups, and recent immigrants clustered around the CBD. The working class and more stable immigrant groups were further out. Single-family dwellings came next and commuters occupied the outmost urban zone. This approach stimulated generations of urban studies. It highlighted the competition and conflict over space among socioeconomic groups. It treated spatial form as a manifestation of a dynamic process of commanding space.

The utility maximization model has been the most dominant approach used to analyze spatial organization in the latter half of the twentieth century. Based on Alonso’s seminal monocentric model that assumed that firms and individuals made tradeoffs between transportation costs and locational rent, it stimulated numerous studies focusing on land use and transportation modeling (Ottensmann 1975). The subsequent work commonly adopted neoclassical economic principles as the underlying organizing theme and treated an urban area as one aggregate unit of optimization where each agent settled in the location that maximized its utility and profit. This work was generally mathematical and followed a set of deductive methods that required vigorous formulation of premises. Although the resulting findings followed strong reasoning, they were contingent on the assumptions stated in the model. This work has been employed for the simulation of outcomes of one variable when other variables were under careful control.

An emerging interdisciplinary field, urban morphology, examines the physical form of cities, stresses the historical effects of the built environment and property rights, and studies the interaction of elements of the physical structure at various scales (Vance 1990). A related approach, space syntax, correlates human activities and attributes with physical configurations and linkages of buildings and street blocks. Architects and urban designers have adopted these techniques to examine the evolution of building forms and styles, street layouts, and the massing of buildings throughout history (Kostof 1992). They have extended beyond principles of design to interpretations of historical and institutional constraints and behavioral interactions with space.

The systems approach attempts to understand spatial organization in its entirety (Bourne 1982). It views the city as a human body where its internal environment interplays with its external environment. It tries to understand spatial organization holistically by studying the form, interrelationships, behavior, and evolution of activities of an urbanized area. It considers urban structure an undefined reflection of the historical and organizational principles of society, which, in turn, are the products of current and previous operating rules of culture, technology, economy, and social behavior. Since this approach refuses to isolate these elements, it has had to devise an overarching analytical framework to incorporate various organizing principles. The difficulties in developing paradigmatic coherence have prevented this attempt to flourish.

The most recent effort to understand spatial organization, the postmodern approach, has been adopted across such disciplines as geography, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, and urban studies (Dear 2000, Soja 1989). Sometimes containing neo-Marxist doctrines, it examines urban development in the context of the rapid transformation of society under globalization and economic restructuring. It is sensitive to the worldviews held by groups differentiated by gender, class, ethnicity, and race. While it does not specifically examine spatial organization per se, it provides insights onto how space is perceived, battled over, and controlled. It legitimizes the use of qualitative methods to study the complex urban process. It considers the city not as one economic unit or a production center but a place with multiple functions. It also stresses the interaction of countervailing internal, regional, and global forces in polarizing and tearing apart the traditional connections of urban spaces.


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