Initiates the Study of Urban Ecology Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The City, one of the most important urban studies of its time, helped propel the Chicago school of sociology to national prominence.

Summary of Event

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 1925 revelation that the United States had become predominantly urban coincided with publication of The City by sociologist Robert E. Park, with contributions by Ernest W. Burgess and Roderick D. McKenzie. Park and Burgess had already written An Introduction to the Science of Sociology (1921), Introduction to the Science of Sociology, An (Burgess and McKenzie) which proved to be the first truly influential sociology text published in the United States. That volume and The City helped to propel the Chicago school of sociology—that is, the University of Chicago’s sociology department—to national prominence during the 1920’s and 1930’s, principally because of the school’s novel emphasis on urban ecology. As the university’s leading urban ecologists, Park, Burgess, and McKenzie theorized that urban environments are shaped chiefly by two forms of human behavior: dominance and competition. [kw]City Initiates the Study of Urban Ecology, The (1925) [kw]Urban Ecology, The City Initiates the Study of (1925) [kw]Ecology, The City Initiates the Study of Urban (1925) City, The (Park, R. E.) Urban ecology Anthropology;urban ecology Chicago school of sociology [g]United States;1925: The City Initiates the Study of Urban Ecology[06190] [c]Sociology;1925: The City Initiates the Study of Urban Ecology[06190] [c]Publishing and journalism;1925: The City Initiates the Study of Urban Ecology[06190] [c]Anthropology;1925: The City Initiates the Study of Urban Ecology[06190] Park, Robert E. Burgess, Ernest W. McKenzie, Roderick D. Simmel, Georg Dewey, John Mead, George Herbert Hoyt, Homer Harris, Chauncy D.

Typically, according to Park, people with similar interests tend to congregate in particular portions of a city and eventually to dominate those areas. The city center, or downtown, in an American city was invariably dominated by principal businesses and government offices: banks, the leading shops or department stores, hotels, the main post office, courts, and other federal, state, and county offices. Immediately beyond downtown, a ring of wholesale firms or light manufacturing establishments dominated, which in turn were ringed by working-class residential districts. Beyond these lower-class neighborhoods there developed rings of middle-class residences that gave way farther out to upper-class residences. Farther yet from the center, heavy manufacturing industries could be found that gave way to outlying business districts, residential suburbs, industrial suburbs, and finally commuter zones. Concentric-circle theory of cities[Concentric circle theory of cities]

Thus, in Park’s analysis, the spatial and functional structure of an average American city could be diagrammed as a series of concentric circles. Dominance within these circles over time was not necessarily static. Competition of the lower classes, for example, for middle-class housing, or of middle-class residents for upper-class residences, or the expansion of manufacturing districts into residential or into business districts could change the dominant elements within the circles. The general pattern, however, remained the same, because social status and social class, in Park’s view, are closely related to the population’s spatial distribution.

Park’s concentric-circle theory was not formulated as an exercise in geography. Rather, it was an effort to comprehend the drama of community and the human interactions within it. To Park, the city, most particularly Chicago, was a collection of closely interacting organisms forming a community. Consequently, Park adapted to his own investigative purposes concepts that were already employed by plant and animal ecologists in order to explain the processes by which plant and animal communities develop and change. Although other explanations of urban life emerged to rival or supplant Park’s theory by 1940—notably those of Homer Hoyt and of Chauncy D. Harris and Edward Ullman Ullman, Edward —Park’s own ecological approach to urban community life and its interrelationships served as the chief theoretical framework for the research of his own numerous students as well as for other urban ecologists in the United States for another decade. His influence left a permanent impression on sociology.

One of the most significant of all urban ecologists, Park possessed a background different from that of most academic sociologists. Born in Harleyville, Pennsylvania, in 1864, he attended the University of Michigan, where he was influenced by philosopher John Dewey. Like Dewey, Park had a lifelong passion for social reform. He started his career as a journalist, observing and writing about city life in vivid detail. When journalism proved an insufficient challenge, he enrolled in Harvard University’s philosophy department, but he remained only for a year. He then moved to Germany, which at the time was regarded as a principal center of world intellectual life. In Berlin, he met Georg Simmel, a Jewish sociologist of broad interests who was making a brilliant, if precarious, career on the margins of the German academic establishment. Eventually, Simmel would become best known for his small-group research as well as for his theories of symbolic interactionism and exchange.

Simmel’s lectures provided Park with his only formal training in sociology and exerted a profound influence over both Park and another later notable Chicago colleague, Albion Small. Completing his doctorate at the University of Heidelberg in 1904, Park refused a job at the University of Chicago, opting instead to work for the Congo Reform Association and then, later, joining Booker T. Washington Washington, Booker T. to help African Americans, especially through the activities of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. He remained devoted to minority education throughout his life.

By the early 1920’s, Park had become president of the American Sociological Society and had secured a full-time faculty appointment at the University of Chicago, a post he held for more than twenty years. During these years, his dedication to social reform, particularly to race relations, his conversion of his beloved Chicago into a laboratory for sociological research, and his interest in symbolic interactionism left an indelible mark on Chicago sociology.


Robert Park, in company with Ernest Burgess, Roderick McKenzie, Albion Small, and William I. Thomas and their students, swiftly created a sociology department at the University of Chicago that for a time was the most significant one in the country: the Chicago school. As a department, its chief characteristics were its strong religious convictions—Small has been quoted as declaring that “sociology must be essentially Christian”—and its collective view that sociological research must be conducted both scientifically and with an interest in social reform, first and foremost in Chicago. Park’s career reflected all these characteristics.

Aside from his intellectual contributions, which were considerable even though he was not a prolific writer, Park was a leading sociologist for several reasons. He became the salient figure in his own department, and his department, in turn, became the most significant one in the nation, a position it held into the 1930’s. In addition, Park’s European studies—his association with Simmel, for example—allowed him to introduce the theories of famous European sociologists to his Chicago colleagues. Simmel’s ideas, notably his theory of symbolic interactionism, helped shape the Chicago school’s own theoretical bent. Of equal importance, Park had become aware of the critical nature of urban problems firsthand as a journalist, and he was convinced that sociological research and the data underpinning it had to be collected in the field—primarily in Chicago—through personal observations. It was this perspective that gave rise to the Chicago school’s dedication to urban ecology, to the city as a social laboratory.

The insights that Park, among others, drew from symbolic social interactionism were initially rooted in American pragmatism, aspects of which Park had first imbibed from John Dewey at the University of Michigan. To this were added other influences from the psychological behaviorism often identified with the radical-behaviorist studies of John B. Watson, whose disciples at Chicago included Park’s philosophical and sociological colleagues George Herbert Mead, Charles Horton Cooley, and William I. Thomas.

The basic theory of symbolic interactionism Symbolic interactionism states that human beings are endowed with thought, the capacity for which is shaped by social interaction. Through social interaction, people acquire an understanding of meanings and symbols that in turn allow them to conduct distinctive human relationships. These meanings and symbols can be modified or changed on the basis of people’s individual interpretations of situations, much as pragmatists suggested was true of the real world. Such changes or alterations occur because individuals cannot interact with themselves. Social interaction allows the individual to examine the advantages or disadvantages of particular courses of social action and to choose among them. Taken together, all these patterns of interactions make up groups and whole societies. The meanings, symbols, and interactions that went into composing specific Chicago groups and societies were the principal objects of the research conducted by Park, his colleagues, and their students.

The effect of Park’s work was the initiation of a fresh research process that sought to unravel the meanings, symbols, and interactions that distinguished the peoples of urban communities. Park’s efforts in making the city a focus of research had greater long-term significance than did his concentric-circle theory. In this regard, other scholars swiftly discovered that not every city displayed Chicago’s peculiar characteristics. In the late 1930’s, for example, Homer Hoyt, on the basis of investigations of San Francisco and Minneapolis, developed the sector theory Sector theory of cities to explain the spatial and functional configurations of these cities. Hoyt agreed with Park that cities grow outward from distinguishable centers, but in Hoyt’s view, they could be diagrammed as evolving in wedge-shaped sectors that grew, among other ways, by ribbon development along railroads, main thoroughfares, or highways. These sectors had somewhat different social connotations in regard to where the rich and the poor lived or where businesses or industries were located.

Similarly, by the 1940’s, both the concentric-circle theory and the sector theory had again been modified by the studies of Harris and Ullman. Unlike either Park or Hoyt, Harris and Ullman rejected the notion that cities had all grown outward from a single discernible center. On the contrary, their evidence indicated that some communities had developed around a number of discrete centers, or multiple nuclei. Nearly all these scholars agreed, however, that their theories applied only to American cities, for the social evolution of European cities, among others, clearly had been quite different.

Although specific aspects of Park’s work have been modified or rejected, his pioneering role in helping to found urban ecology as a major sociological field of inquiry has had lasting influence. He was largely instrumental in directing sociologists and social psychologists to the organic groups and societies of cities as vital areas of scholarly investigation. He and his students, for example, published a series of studies on such topics as urban gangs, racial and ethnic groups, neighborhoods, ghettos, criminals and marginal populations, the urban moral order, urban social mobility, and the urban temperament and environment. Park stands as a classic example of a scholar who raised questions of enduring social and professional relevance. City, The (Park, R. E.) Urban ecology Anthropology;urban ecology Chicago school of sociology

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, Chauncy D., and Edward Ullman. “The Nature of Cities.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 242 (1945): 7-17. Introduces the multiple-nuclei theory of urban development in nontechnical language. Provides an interesting comparison with Park’s theory. Includes footnotes and select bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoyt, Homer. The Structure and Growth of Residential Neighborhoods in American Cities. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939. Report on a federal study presents Hoyt’s sector theory, which represented the initial challenge to Park’s theory, with particular application to San Francisco and Minneapolis. Not easy reading, but rewarding for serious scholars. Includes graphs and bibliographic notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lindner, Rolf. The Reportage of Urban Culture: Robert Park and the Chicago School. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Unique study relates Park’s research methods to those of urban journalism in the early twentieth century. Includes bibliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mumford, Lewis. The Culture of Cities. 1938. Reprint. New York: Harvest Books, 1970. Brilliant exercise in urban ecology with deep as well as comprehensive historical range. The author shares many of Park’s views, including that the city is a vital but neglected area of research and that the correct approach to cities is an ecological one. Focuses on New York City. Includes many photographs, extensive annotated bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Park, Robert E. Human Communities. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1952. Scholarly volume deals with the city and human ecology. Clearly written and straightforward. Includes notes and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Park, Robert E., and Edward W. Burgess, with R. D. McKenzie. The City. 1925. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. Presents Park’s principles, his objectives, and his major sociological theory. Although Burgess and McKenzie contributed chapters, the major essays and chief influence are Park’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ritzer, George, and Douglas J. Goodman. Sociological Theory. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003. Superb nontechnical survey of the subject. Provides an excellent treatment of the Chicago school and an extensive analysis of Park’s ideas along with valuable biographical information. Includes photographs, biographical sketches, references, and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sennett, Richard, ed. Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Collection of essays lives up to its title. Features ten thought-provoking essays by seven distinguished sociologists, an anthropologist, and Sennett, a major urban scholar. Fine introductory essay briefly reviews the development of urban sociology, including urban ecology.

Garbage Industry Introduces Reforms

Euthenics Calls for Pollution Control

Dewey Applies Pragmatism to Education

New York City Institutes a Comprehensive Zoning Law

Rockefeller Center Is Completed

Categories: History