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28 June 2012
Definition: The Chicago School of urban ecology is in reality an approach to the sociology of cities. The Chicago School grew out of the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago in the first two decades of the 20th century. It adopted its major ideas from biological ecology of the time, for which the University of Chicago and its downstate neighbor, the University of Illinois, were major seedbeds. The growth of the city and the spatial patterns that resulted were interpreted as a kind of ecological succession, with waves of immigrant groups replacing one another, and establishing rings of structure around the central business district. Competition among human communities was assumed to be a major driver of spatial differentiation across the city.
Figure 1. An idealized, simple model of urban social structure based on the situation in Chicago, Illinois, in the early 20th century. The loop is the local term for the central business district. The shoreline of Lake Michigan is the wavy line running near the middle of the bullseye. To the right of that line is the generalization of zonation derived from the idealized empirical experience in Chicago, shown on the left. This model, though important for the establishment of ecological approaches to cities, has been found lacking by later generations of researchers.
Why important: The principals of the Chicago School were confronted by a city that was doubling in population and bringing people from overseas and the American South together in high density and novel mixture. The Chicago professors were troubled by the abandonment of traditional or rural social norms with immigration, and with the social pathology they associated with urban life. The spatial approach they founded acknowledges the importance of spatial patchiness in urban systems, but it was criticized for being too focused on group activities and not enough on individual behaviors. While the Chicago School is labeled one of urban ecology, the ecological study of the city in the sense of biogeophysical science was not a part of the Chicago School. Contemporary critiques of the ecology behind the Chicago School do not always recognize the difference between the biophysical ecology of the early 20th century, and the conceptual and empirical developments of that field that have emerged in the last several decades.
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