The city is at the center and the town wraps entirely around it, except for the portion that is under Cayuga Lake. There is an urbanized city center with a pedestrian street surrounded by commercial offices and retail businesses and an increasing amount of residential real estate. The town is a mixture of suburban and rural land uses with one large village, Cayuga Heights, to the east of the city.
The town covers over 30 square miles, but only 3,400 acres of it is still under cultivation. Historically, nearly all of it was. The town, except for a portion that traverses the Cayuga Inlet valley, is in the uplands that surround the steep slopes and once-swampy flats of the city, so it is relatively well drained and arable. Parts of it were settled before the city. Forest Home, a hamlet on Fall Creek, north of the university, grew up around a mill after 1794. There were other mills on Cascadilla, Fall, Six Mile, and Buttermilk creeks. The last of them disappeared in the early 20th century. More modern industry existed on South Hill during the 20th century including facilities for National Cash Register (NCR) and Morse Chain (later Emerson Power Transmission). These industries left the area in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but the NCR building has been repurposed as an office park, and the Emerson complex may be redeveloped as a multi-use community. (It straddles the town/city border.) Ithaca College moved out of downtown and onto South Hill in the mid 1960s. Its campus has led to some commercial and much residential development in its vicinity. Shortly thereafter the county hospital was moved out of the city to West Hill, the former site of a tuberculosis sanitarium. The hospital is next to the old Odd Fellows orphanage and retirement home. The former became the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in the 1950s, which in 2003 was enlarged with the construction of the Museum of the Earth. The retirement home was for many years the home of the Finger Lakes School of Massage. But in a reversal of the historical trend, the school has just moved downtown, and PRI will expand into the space. Cayuga Heights was established as a separate village a century ago, originally as a “trolley suburb,” but soon became a modern garden suburb. Much of it resembles places like Riverside, a planned community outside of Chicago designed in 1869 by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, but with more dramatic topography.