Central Business District

The central business district (CBD) is the down town of the American city, which in the early twentieth century possessed two sorts of centrality: first, it was usually at or near the city’s geographical center and, second, it hosted its most important economic functions. The term emerged as business districts were developing in outlying areas, but downtowns, with their sky scrapers, mammoth department stores, and movie palaces, remained dominant. However, after downtowns peaked in importance in the 1920s, policy debates and sociological discussions increasingly focused on (1) problems related to their decline and (2) organized attempts to bolster or reestablish their centrality.

Like the term downtown, the idea of a CBD was uniquely American, reflecting a sharp separation between place of work and place of residence that distinguished US cities from those in Europe. In the 1920s CBDs were dense concentrations of businesses that were largely depopulated, but visited on a daily basis by a majority of the city’s residents who came to work, shop, or seek amusement. It was commonly thought that their standing was confirmed, rather than challenged, by the decentralization of population and business. This notion was theoretically affirmed by Ernest Burgess, one of the founders of the Chicago School of Sociology, who proposed that as the city grew it expanded radially from the CBD in a series of concentric zones or rings. Fusing notions from human ecology and neoclassical economics, Burgess depicted the CBD as a crucible of competition that improved efficiencies in land use across the city; only intensive users that could exploit its central location (e.g., department stores, banks, central offices) could afford to pay its high prices while others were dispatched to search out the places that best fit their respective needs and abilities to pay. Thus, he concluded that the CBD naturally remained the center of economic, political, and cultural life.

The concentric zone thesis inspired several decades of research, but by the 1930s down towns were beset with falling property values and tax revenues, decaying residential areas, and unrelenting traffic congestion. Subsequently, real estate interests and their allies repeatedly mobilized to revitalize CBDs. Their argument that the central city needed to be made more attractive so as to draw capital and middle class residents back spawned notions such as urban redevelopment and urban renewal, and influenced federal policies for over three decades. These efforts disrupted many minority neighborhoods, but had limited success in revitalizing CBDs, which were buffeted by the extension of freeways, suburbanization, racial tension, and industrial decline. In the 1970s, the federal government left cities on their own, while market thinkers proposed that their fortunes depended on their ability to compete for capital; some suggested that it was natural that CBDs were declining in importance. Against the naturalism of market thinkers (and human ecology) a critical approach (urban political economy) emerged, stressing that the city was a built environment shaped by economic and political power. Critical scholars linked the changing fortunes of CBDs to investment cycles and showed that centrality was accompanied by social exclusion and hierarchy. In the 1980s, they focused on growth coalitions wherein city officials and various interests joined to boost property values and how gentrification fed off of, and reinforced, the centrality of downtowns.

In the 1990s, scholars drew attention to new forms of centrality in CBDs related to the growing economic importance of globalization and culture. Global city theorists proposed that the diverse resource base of some major cities, along with their positioning vis a vis communication networks and corporate headquarters, allowed them to assume several central functions in the global economy: to exercise command and control over decentralized production systems and to serve as sites for new dominant sectors, namely, finance and producer services, and for related innovations and markets. Their centrality involves their standing vis a vis global net works: their CBDs are less connected to, and provide few benefits for, other areas and social segments within their own region. Another body of work focused on issues related to the roles cities play in the symbolic economy: a new focus on organizing consumption, including publicly subsidized construction of large entertainment projects (e.g., professional sports stadiums, festival malls) that aim to bring the middle class to the CBD as visitors; the role of artists in altering property images and values; and the rising importance of creative workers – a less conventional middle class segment drawn to the city’s distinctive lifestyles and employment opportunities.

Identifying the boundaries and essential features of CBDs has become ever more problematic as the production of centrality is increasingly wedded to flows of images and finance capital. During the 1990s, areas on the margins of CBDs gained instant centrality through linking up with Internet infrastructures, startups, and financing networks. It is unclear how resilient this sort of centrality will prove to be. Concentrations of creative firms can exploit advantages of face to face interaction to make new applications of digital technology. But technology also facilitates further decentralization – an option made newly attractive by the threat that terrorism poses to symbols of global centrality.


  1. Burgess, E. W. (1924) The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a Research Project. Publications of the American Sociological Society 18: 85-97.
  2. Fogelson, R. M. (2001) Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880 1950. Yale University Press, New Haven.
  3. Gotham, K. F. (2001) Urban Redevelopment, Past and Present. In: Gotham, K. F. (Ed.), Critical Perspectives on Urban Redevelopment, vol. 6. Elsevier, London, pp. 1-31.
  4. Harvey, D. (1973) Social Justice and the City. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
  5. Sassen, S. (1991) The Global City: New York, Lon don, Tokyo. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  6. Zukin, S. (1991) Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disney World. University of California Press, Berkeley.

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