Residential patterns and ethnicity

By Matt Burdett, 14 May 2018

On this page, we look at factors affecting the pattern of residential areas within urban areas, with a focus on ethnicity.

What is ethnicity?

Ethnicity refers to the cultural similarities within a group of people. It is essentially a description of culture: it can relate to languages, religious beliefs, food, clothing and leisure activities. It is often confused with race, which describes the genetic or biological characteristics of people. This is largely because until relatively recently, almost everybody shared their racial characteristics with the people around them, and their culture was influenced by those same people. In the past two hundred years, it has become much more common for individuals, families and groups to migrate to areas where they do not share the same racial or ethnic characteristics as others. Over time, the in-migrant culture may mix with the dominant culture of the destination. However, in many cities, migrant communities are distinct from others.

The causes of the impact of ethnicity on residential patterns in urban areas

Spatial segregation

When ethnic or racial groups are located in different places around the city, or they are separated in terms of their economic or social opportunities (e.g. having to go to different places of work, or different educational or medical institutions) it is called segregation. The diagram below shows some ways in which segregation arises.

  • Ethnic Minority Segregation. Source: Townshend, n.d.

The two sides of the diagram both show ways in which segregation occurs.

Internal factors

These are factors which are controlled by the minority group itself.

  • Defence: Due to a fear of, or threat from, the majority, the minority deliberately groups together in specific parts of the city.
  • Support: In order to maximise the benefits from having the same language, traditions, faith and so on, the minority groups together.
  • Preservation: To prevent their traditions, language and other heritage from disappearing, groups locate together where these are the ‘norm’ rather than risk being lost in amongst the majority population.
  • Attack: If a group is spread out, they are unlikely to be able to elect sympathetic politicians to positions of power. If they group together, they are likely to be able to control the area more in line with their needs.

External factors

These are factors which are controlled by the non-minority group.

  • Blocking: Creating a hostile atmosphere e.g. making people feel unwelcome in public spaces.
  • Exit: Leaving the area, so the people remaining are from the minority group .
  • Housing markets: Landlords and sellers giving preference to people from one group or another (even if this isn’t deliberate – e.g. showing houses to certain people because they ‘feel they would fit in better to the area’).
  • Fabric effects: The general environment in an area, including the way people speak differently in the local area compared to elsewhere (‘areal content features’), the overall price of housing, and the type of housing available.

The results of the impact of ethnicity on residential patterns in urban areas

Murdie’s model of ecological land use (Murdie, 1969) suggested that a combination of factors including ethnic status result in distinct areas of the city. Note this is also very similar to Burgess’s ability to identify distinct ethnic centres in his Concentric Zone Model, which highlighted ‘Chinatown’, ‘Deutschland’ and ‘Little Sicily’.

However, this doesn’t explain the changing nature of the spatical variation in groups. Over time, groups often disperse throughout the city. There may still be key centres for those groups (e.g. around religious buildings, or streets which are known for a particular cuisine), but the actual residences of the people are spread out.

These spatial outcomes are shown in the diagram below. While a ‘ghetto’ is the most well known, there are also ‘enclaves’ and ‘colonies’.

  • Spatial outcomes of segregation. For an explanation of ‘social distance’ see Social Distance’ later on this page. Source: Newman, 2015.


Ghettos are created when new migrants who are usually relatively poor, locate together in the cheapest part of the city. On the model below, this is shown as being in the inner city near the CBD, in line with the Concentric Zone Model and other models for cities in HICs. Ghettos can, however, form in any part of the urban area.

  • Spatial outcomes of segregation: ghettos. Source: Newman, 2015.

Over time, the ghetto will expand – it will remain an ethnically homogeneous (ethnically similar) area, but will get bigger. It will do so in whatever direction offers least resistance from the external factors outlined above.


Enclaves arise when the inhabitants of the ghetto spread out beyond the immediate contiguous area of the original ghetto. (Contiguous means joined – for examples, the 48 contiguous states of the USA are all the states that are joined together, and excludes the remaining two states of Alaska and Hawaii). Usually the inhabitants have become wealthier, and can afford to move to better housing. However, they remain a little clustered together in the new areas and are not far from the original ghetto, as they wish to maintain contact with other people within the minority group.


Colonies form across the entire urban area as the minority ethnic group mixes more and more with the majority. Initially there is still some clustering, but over time they spread out more and more. By this point, there is little social distance (see ‘Social Distance’ in the key issues section below) between the minority and the majority.

Measuring the separation of ethnic groups

Several attempts have been made to measure the level to which ethnic groups separate from one another.

One example is the Dissimilarity Index, used by the United Nations to measure how two individual and mutually exclusive groups vary in space (UNESCO Institute of Statistics, 2018). This test can only be done between well defined groups, such as people who were born in another country, rather than by indistinct classifications of people. It doesn’t have to be done by ethniciyt- any type of group is possible to measure.

Another example is the Interaction or Exposure Index. This measures the level of isolation of a group, i.e. how much a member of the group is likely to interact with a member of another group (Forest, 2005). Again, this can be done with any distinct group of people.

Some key issues across urban ethnicity

Social distance

Social distance refers to the perceived separation by people in terms of their interrelationships. When people have a large social distance, they do not see one another as close on a personal, psychological level. This is regardless of whether they are locationally or spatially close. For example, there could be two families living in neighbouring houses that are spatially close, but the social distance between them could be very large if they don’t share any cultural or personal links.

White flight

The issue of racial and ethnic segregation is very strong in some countries. In the United States, the Black population has historically been socially and economically disadvantaged compared to the White population. On many measures of equality, Black people have poorer standards of education, social problems, public services and employment. ‘White flight’ is the term given to the movement of White people away from racially mixed neighbourhoods (usually in the inner city) to areas dominated by White people (usually further from the city centre). This process began in the 1950s, and along with other factors has resulted in very clear racially segregated areas. An example of this is the city of Los Angeles, as shown on the map below. To see the interactive map yourself, visit

  • Dot map of Los Angeles, showing one dot per person by race. Source: Cable, 2013.

Theories in ethnicity

Several key theories can be applied to the issues of segregation between people of different races and ethnicities within cities. The following is a summary of three important theories, sourced mainly from Bellman (2014).

  • Spatial Assimilation: The most important factor that causes separation is the cost of housing. As each new group of migrants arrives, it will live in the cheapest accommodation. As they becomes more established and wealthy, they move out into other areas that have been left behind by the previous migrants. Over time, migrant groups spread out and assimilate into the city more widely. It is really economics, rather than ethnicity or race, that causes populations to mix together.
  • Place Stratification (also known as Ethnic Stratification): Ethnic groups with power are able to block the less powerful ethnic group from integrating. This can include landlords giving preferential treatment to the non-powerful ethnic group. The result is that minorities are segregated against their will.
  • Group Threat: This theory suggests that the powerful ethnic group will move of its own accord to avoid a perceived threat, and therefore remain as a group. White flight is an example of this. Not only do white people end up living in the same areas, they leave behind empty areas which migrants can then move into.


Bellman, 2014. Segregation and urban form: Towards an understanding of dynamics between race, population movement, and the built environment of American cities.

Cable, 2013. Racial Dot Map: One Dot Per Person. Demographics Research Group.

Forest, 2005. Measures of Segregation and Isolation.

Murdie, 1969. Dimensions of formal social-geographic space.

Newman, 2015. Spatial outcomes of segregation. Unpublished. With credit to: Herbert and Thomas, 1987. Urban Geography

Townshend, n.d. No title. [This diagram was created as part of a PowerPoint slideshow with the credit as follows: Dr. I.J. Townshend U of L. It was not possible to identify the source further although Dr Townshend’s website is here: ]

UNESCO Institute of Statistics, 2018. Glossary: Dissimilarity Index.

Residential patterns and ethnicity: Learning activities


  1. Distinguish between race and ethnicity. [2]
  2. Explain why race and ethnicity are often linked. [2]
  3. What is meant by ‘segregation’? [2]
  4. Distinguish between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ factors that contribute to ethnic segregation. [2]
  5. Identify and briefly outline four internal factors that can lead to ethnic segregation in urban areas. [8]
  6. Identify and briefly outline four external factors that can lead to ethnic segregation in urban areas. [8]
  7. Describe Murdie’s Model of Ecological Land Use. [3]
  8. Explain how ghettos, enclaves and colonies are formed. [6]
  9. Identify two measures of segregation. [2]
  10. What is meant by ‘social distance’? [2]
  11. Explain the process of ‘White Flight’. [3]
  12. Briefly outline the three theories of segregation that are presented on this page. Can you identify links to issues discussed further up the page? [6]

Other tasks

Do you consider ethnic differences to be a factor in the creation of residentially distinct zones in an urban area near you? Can you identify areas that ‘belong’ to a certain ethnic group, for example with visible features such as restaurants, religious buildings and housing styles?