Fire in the City: Spatial Perspectives on Urban Structural Fire Problems; Syracuse, New York

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




John H. Thompson


Socioeconomic, Geographical patterns, Fire hazards

Subject Categories



The hazard of fire and explosion in the modern living environment is a socioeconomic problem of large and growing dimensions in the United States that reflects some predictable geographical patterns. This dissertation is a geographical appraisal of certain aspects of the national fire problem with primary focus on structural fire in the city. More specifically, the study selects Syracuse, New York, as a case in which to analyze the spatial variation of structural fire occurrences and fire hazardous conditions as they exist in the urban environment.

Urban structural fire problems are reflected in a combination of physical and social factors that produce a variety of hazards, increasing the risk of a serious structural fire. These factors also contribute to the wider context of urban fire problems, such as the rising rates of all types of arson, the collapse of the normal market for fire insurance, and the adverse effects of residential succession on a district's housing market and economic development. This study defines and identifies the relationship between fire incidence and (1) place within the city, (2) type and function of structure, and (3) demographic, social, and urban morphological characteristics of various city districts.

The Syracuse case study (1972-1975) shows that structural fire incidence varies substantially in specific ways within the city. Structural fires (including arson) vary in numbers and levels of severity among inner, middle, and outer city districts in Syracuse. No outer city district had significant fire problems, only a few middle city districts had moderate fire problems, but all inner city districts (except the renewed CBD) had high rates of fire and arson.

Syracuse's largest inner city district (Model Cities - Southwest Side) was found to have the worst record of fire incidence and hazardous conditions of all city districts. Several other inner city districts were found to have generally high rates of fire incidence and hazardousness: South Side, Near Northeast Side, Syracuse Hill-Thornden Park East, and the Old North Side. Certain patterns of socioeconomic and structural conditions prevail in these fire-dense districts: poverty and welfare status of residents, renter-occupancy and absentee landlordism, low educational attainment, high population and structural densities, old age and deteriorating conditions of structures, abandonment, mixed land uses, lack of or unenforced zoning ordinances and building/life safety codes, and neighborhood instability from the stress effects of (1) urban renewal and relocation and (2) residential succession and the in-migration of poor minority population groups. Thus, certain neighborhood characteristics adversely affect fire incidence in Syracuse.

An urban analytical methodology for rating the fire hazardousness of urban places is also developed in the Syracuse case study. A systematic direct observational survey at block-face scale identifies unsafe existing conditions in selected fire-dense city districts. The survey comprises five key variables relating directly to unsafe existing conditions: (1) exterior condition of structures, (2) building occupancy and usage, (3) structural density and spacing, (4) vacancy and abandonment, and (5) land use mixture. Several related incidentals such as the presence of fire-resistant construction materials and/or sprinkler alarm systems are also noted in the survey.

The combination and concentration of unsafe conditions vary, both within the city as a whole and within the fire-dense inner-city districts. Parts of the Southwest Side and Near Northeast Side have the most fire-hazardous conditions in the city. In the most hazardous block-faces, the potential is great not only for a fire to get started, but also for it to become a serious incident because of rapid fire spread to adjacent buildings (close spacing and high fire load leading to group fire or conflagration).


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