Other distinctions lend more variation and subtlety to the definition of a CBD. In many cities, the CBD is distinct from the cultural or historic core. In some cities these other kind of urban cores overlap partially or completely with the CBD. Other cities have more than one CDB. Regions will often include more than one CBD, and in some regions, the CBD will cross multiple jurisdictions. The technicalities of these distinctions are why central business districts are generally considered distinct from the broader term “downtown,” which might include more historically residential neighborhoods or CBD-adjacent historic and cultural centers of the city.
A central business district (CBD) is a geographic area sometimes referred to as downtown, but with key distinctions critical to an understanding of city and regional planning.
For the sake of data collection and official definition, the U.S. Census Bureau publishes American Community Survey data that can be used to compare and contrast CBDs around the country. Although the U.S. Census Bureau ended its official program to define CBDs by census tract in the early 1980s, analysts at think tanks like the Brookings Institution have since created their own methodologies for defining CBDs. As evidenced by a study published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the journal Cityscape in 2019 , the question of how to define CBDs for the purpose of statistical analysis is the source of ongoing debate.
A branding identity around the local CBD is a common economic development tool—an effort to attract businesses and residents to the area and also provide a steady economic base for the rest of the city and region. Beyond branding, CBDs are frequently associated with an extra layer of cultural and political prominence, in addition to economic clout, in some, but not all, cities. It’s no coincidence that in many cities (but again, not all), the city’s skyline is most recognizable as a symbol of the city because of the buildings located in the CBD.
What Is a Central Business District (CBD)?
A central business district is exactly what it sounds like—the area of densely concentrated commercial activity that forms a core of economic and population density in a city or region. In some cities, the central business district will also be called the financial district, but that’s usually true in cities where the financial industry has a large footprint in the downtown office market. Central business districts usually include numerous kinds of business and commercial ventures—all of which are likely paying a premium to set up shop at the center of the economic action.
Paris (pictured here) and Mexico City are two global cities where the historic and cultural center of the city has been preserved and a central business district has grown in a different part of the city. | VLADJ55 / Shutterstock
The heart of an urban area, usually located at the meeting point of the city’s transport systems, containing a high percentage of shops and offices. High accessibility leads to high land values, and therefore intensive land use. Consquently, development is often upwards. Within the CBD, specialist areas, such as a jewellery quarter, benefit from external economies. Vertical land-use zoning is also common, so that retail outlets may be on the ground floor, with commercial users above them and residential users higher up. See Chang (2007) Urb. Plan. & Dev. 133, 2 on measuring and assessing the economic activities of CBDs. The CBD is under threat from traffic restrictions, and out-of-town developments, such as superstores. ‘Arguments on the future [of the CBD] range from a speculated centre-less form to one of centrality’ (Wong (2004) Land Use Policy 21).
Methods of delimiting the CBD include the central business height index, recording the percentage of floor space given over to CBD functions, charting high level pedestrian flows, and surveying pavement chewing gum.