Culture Magazine

What Makes a "Good" Capital City?

By Conroy @conroyandtheman

by Conroy

Capital Cities

Above the Washington Mall

Have you ever wondered how capital cities ended up where they are? In some countries the capital city is just where you would expect; is it any surprise that France's capital is Paris or Italy's capital is Rome? These cities have been the historical center of their nations and have acted as the capital or seat of government for centuries. But for many "new" countries, this isn't the case. Consider a few interesting examples.
In Search of a Capital

Let's start with the United States. A few weeks ago I spent the weekend in New York City. Spend anytime in New York, particularly Manhattan, and you must be struck by the vibrancy, the hum of the place. New York is one of the world's largest cities and a major global center for commerce, finance, the arts, media, fashion, and international affairs (among other things). By multiple measures it ranks as an "alpha" world city, along with places like London, Paris, and Tokyo. But unlike those other three cities and despite it's vast size and influence, New York is not the capital of the United States. Indeed New York is not the nexus or focal point of the United States in the way London is for the United Kingdom (and especially England), or Paris is for France, or Tokyo to Japan.
This was certainly true when the United States gained it's independence from England. At the time the capital moved constantly, but the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783 convinced the nation's founders that a permanent capital was needed. But where would this permanent capital be located? As a political and geographic compromise, the new city was to be situated on the Potomac River, about the halfway between Maine in the north and Georgia in the south. Uniquely at the time but emulated in several cases later, the new capital would not be part of any state but an independent federal region.

Capital Cities

The L'Enfant Plan for Washington

George Washington picked the final location, the new city was named in his honor, and the new federal district, the District of Columbia, was carved out of portions of Maryland and Virginia (Virginia eventually took it's portion back). For decades after it's founding Washington remained a small city. But after the Civil War it began to grow quickly and as the federal government has expanded since World War II, Washington has become one of the nation's largest cities. Today, Washington is a major global city - the Rome of our times as Gregg Easterbrook has termed it - and not the southern backwater it was viewed as after it's founding. The combined Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area is the fourth largest in the United States behind only New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
Being a new city, Washington was largely planned from scratch by Pierre L'Enfant as a city of wide streets radiating from squares and circles. This plan wasn't always adhered to during the city's first century of existence, but major modernizing and redevelopment efforts in the early twentieth century returned the city to L'Enfant's original vision. I've worked on road projects in Washington and I can attest to how ardently city planners continue to be guided by L'Enfant's plan.
In addition, the city is widely known for it's neoclassical architecture exemplified by the White House and Capitol Building, but a visit will reveal that Washington, consistent with a new city, is actually a wide mix of styles from various times and movements. It's look is much less consistent than it's older European counterparts like Paris and London. Still, over time Washington has grown into a very distinct place, a similar story can be told about America's northern neighbor.

Capital Cities
Like the United States, as Canada gained increasing domestic independence from Great Britain during the nineteenth century a permanent capital was needed. You would think that the large cities of Toronto or Montreal would be good choices, but once again political and geographic considerations came into play. The final location was picked by Queen Victoria, who chose the small city of Ottawa. The place was picked because it was located on the border of English-speaking Ontario and French-speaking Quebec, was geographically equidistant from the larger cities of Toronto and Quebec, and was far enough from the United States border to be considered defensible (hard to believe that this needed to be a criterion, but the U.S. and Canada had fought before).
I haven't been to Ottawa but according to a few people I know who have, it's supposedly lovely. It has grown to be the fourth largest city in the country and by at least one measure is highly livable.
Capital Cities
As with Washington and Ottawa, Canberra, Australia's capital, was built as a new planned city after the nation gained independence from Great Britain. Again, the location was chosen as a compromise and placed between the country's largest cities of Sydney and Melbourne. Canberra is unique in Australia because it's the only city of any real size that isn't located on the coast. It grew considerably in the second half of the twentieth century, but it's still much smaller than to state capitals (and coastal cities) of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide.

Capital Cities

Central Brasilia

Like Australia, for much of it's history, the population of Brazil was concentrated along the nation's coastline. For two centuries, from 1763 to 1960, the capital was Rio de Janiero, which was in line with the population concentration in the southeast of the country. However, there was desire within Brazil as early as the 1820s to move the capital to a more central location in order to foster a greater sense of nationhood. However it took until the 1950s before the site, well north of Rio and Sao Paulo, was finally chosen and the city constructed. The capital was officially moved to Brasilia in 1960.
The city has a distinctive layout and cityscape, and it is the only city built in the twentieth century to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city grew swiftly from the beginning and is now the fourth largest in the country (though far smaller than Rio or Sao Paulo), and the largest inland city.
Saint Petersburg

Capital Cities

Winter Palace Square in Saint Petersburg

In Russia, Tsar Peter the Great had the opposite desire from what would be later advocated in Brazil. In the early eighteenth century he wanted to open Russia to the West and the sea. During the Great Northern War Russian forces gained a foothold on the sea in 1703 on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland. Peter ordered a new city, modestly named Saint Petersburg, constructed there and moved the capital from Moscow to the new city in 1712. The city would remain the capital of Russia for over two centuries until 1918 when a German invasion threatened the city and the nascent communist government moved the capital back to the historic center of Moscow.
Saint Petersburg ended up growing into a major city, Russia's second city. Its historic center is, like Brasilia, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it remains a major cultural center. It's the northern most city of more than one million people. Saint Petersburg is also unique in that historical forces caused it's name to be changed several times, from the German-sounding Saint Petersburg to Petrograd during World War I, then to Leningrad in 1924 just before Lenin's death, and finally back to Saint Petersburg with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Leningrad was besieged for nearly 900 days during World War II, one of the longest and most brutal sieges in history.
New Delhi

Capital Cities
In India, the British ruled the Raj from Calcutta, but by the early twentieth century it was felt that a new more central location would be better, so the city of Delhi was chosen. A new capital area, New Delhi, was constructed. The city was inaugurated in 1931, and since India's independence from Great Britain in 1947, it has remained the capital. The Delhi area is a historic center to India and the city has continued to grow and is now the second largest in the country behind Mumbai.
Capital Cities
New Delhi must be one of the hottest capitals in the world with summer temperatures that average over 90 degrees. I did a quick search and of the twenty largest cities in the world (metro area), it has easily the hottest summers of any of those places.
Certainly there are many other capitals with similarly interesting histories. Cities are the focus of civilization and a great concentration of humanity is inherently compelling. What if none of these cities above had ever been created? What if the capital was placed in an already established location? Interesting aspects of history, politics, and geography seem to go a long way to determining where a capital city will be located but the cities that result end up being far more fascinating.

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