Some people think studying geography just means learning where all the capital cities are. Geographers bristle at such a narrow definition, but capital cities are indeed important. They are often the biggest and most prosperous locations in a country, their fame coming from the power and history they contain. Capitals represent the face of the government and are usually filled with stately legislative buildings as well as major theaters, art galleries, and museums that signify permanence and reliability. Whether these places naturally gained capital status because they were large and wealthy to begin with, or the honor fed their success, is kind of a chicken-or-the-egg question. Once established though, capital cities are in a pretty secure situation. So it rather jangles the order of things when a country’s government decides that a capital will be moved.
While it’s not a common occurrence, governments have been doing this sort of thing since ancient times, often in those days to bring the seat of legislation and ruling closer to emerging commercial areas or to a more defensible space. In more recent times, some governments have decided that power has become disturbingly concentrated, or too cozy in its relationship to nearby business interests, and set about planning entirely new cities built for the express purpose of housing the public ministries at a distance. Our very own country, the US of A, famously employed French architect and engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant to design Washington, DC, a backwater at the time, as the place to take over government from New York. He had the vision for the city layout as we know it, but disputes with other officials in the process led to his resigning his post. He was never paid for the design work he did, nor was it very much implemented by the time of his death in 1825. Though many of his concepts for the city did not ever come to fruition, the grand overall design was eventually built, and stands as a huge monument to his vision.
In the middle of the last century, Brazil chose to move ahead with a longstanding plan to relocate its capital from coastal Rio de Janeiro to a spot deep in the interior for greater security and to make the government center a place not particularly allied with any one economic region. In 1960, the inland parts of Brazil were far less developed than they have become, and the relocation of government helped that process along, both for good and not-so-good. The city, Brasilia, was designed with broad avenues and huge, modernist public buildings, and drew criticism for its scale, which dwarfed its human inhabitants. Still, the city grew rapidly from 64,000 residents in 1959, to 272,000 in 1970, and now to over two million. The Federal District surrounding the city is home to another two million.
Australia moved its capital away from Melbourne in 1927. Both Melbourne and Sydney, Australia’s largest city, sit on the edge of the continent, so the selection of Canberra, a site more than 60 miles inland, provided added security from attack by sea. It also avoided giving preference to either one of Australia’s main urban centers. Like Brasilia, Canberra was built from scratch, this one on the grounds of a former sheep station. Our American capital was designed by a Frenchman, but the Australian capital was designed by Americans: the husband-wife team of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, who together won a design competition in a field of 137 competitors. As with L’Enfant, the Griffins had a solid vision, but were met with obstruction and diminished authority, possibly due to their relative youth and outsider status. The Griffins eventually abandoned the project, and though only one of their building plans was ever constructed there, much of their urban layout scheme is what we see in Canberra’s street pattern today.
Nigeria faced the same problem of external security with its coastal capital of Lagos, as well as a situation where some tribesmen were threatening to claim Lagos’ location as their own tribal land. To avoid these and other problems, a new capital was built far inland on lightly settled land. Abuja became the Nigerian capital in 1991. Along with a more agreeable climate than coastal Lagos, Abuja has plenty of open space to expand as the city requires. Around 2005-6, Myanmar, or Burma if you prefer, turned away from its capital of Yangon, located about 25 miles upriver from the Andaman Sea. The government decreed that the city of Nay Pyi Taw would be constructed from the ground up in Myanmar’s interior, about 200 miles north of Yangon. Myanmar didn’t spare any expense. Given that all the wealth is concentrated in the government, they built a city of gargantuan proportions—four times the size of London, with 20-lane highways and huge boulevards, and of course, enormous buildings. Strangely though, there are very few people, and the place feels deserted. Government workers who had to move to the new capital miss the liveliness of old Yangon, even though their accommodations in Nay Pyi Taw are larger and more upscale. Like Brasilia, it may fill in over time, but for now, it’s like a substantially built ghost town.
Sometimes governments aren’t out to move their capital wholesale, but only seek to spread the duties of ruling around to a number of locations. South Korea’s capital shift to 75-mile-distant Sejong City is to make a new home for administrative functions, while Seoul retains the Parliament, the president, and some ministries. As is often the case, the move is seen by some as a colossal waste of money, but it’s far too late to turn back. Now more than a decade since its beginnings around 2006, it has become a functioning entity, although it suffers from some of the same difficulties as other purpose-built cities: the need for more services and entertainment, the ever-present construction projects, and the small population. Built to spread development away from the Seoul area where half of South Korea’s population lives, the new city presently has around 300,000 people. The metro area of Seoul houses 25 million, but Sejong City may be gaining speed. It seems that the new city has a birth rate double that of Seoul. Living is less expensive in Sejong City, and the late-working, hard-drinking lifestyle of the bigger city has been supplanted by a more family-oriented existence in the new capital. Working moms find greater support both on a personal level and in programs aimed at family development, and so feel freer to pursue both a career and children. South Korea has created not only a new capital, but perhaps a new way of thinking that could save it from the consequences of its very low national birthrate.
There are many more stories of the economic and social upheavals wrought by the capital shifts in various countries, but each is like a human laboratory experiment in social engineering. Suddenly creating a major new living and working space with a brand new set of unconnected businesses and community members is the opposite of an organic community emergence from village to city over time. Humans are enormously adaptable, though, and given time, all these places will probably evolve into their own unique functional identities.
Did this article inspire you to finally see our nation’s capital? Find your way around L’Enfant’s design with this National Geographic map of the city, available from Maps.com
caption: An early version of L’Enfant’s design for Washington, D.C.
source: Library of Congress: Pierre Charles L’Enfant/Thackara and Vallance (Public domain)
caption: Modern Washington, DC. The Frenchman didn’t foresee the major highways, and East and West Potomac Parks were yet to be reclaimed by dredging river sediment, but the basic city layout is his.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Tripomatic.com (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)
caption: Brasilia is a big, sprawling city containing many examples of bold architecture.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Government of Brazil (CC by 3.0 BR)
caption: Canberra’s street pattern today is essentially the one the Griffins designed for the new capital.
source: Flickr: Mapbox (CC by 2.0)
caption: Like Canberra and Brasilia, Abuja sits well inland, safe from attack by sea.
source: Wikimedia Commons: United Nations Cartographic Section (Public domain)
caption: Nay Pyi Taw is full of grand architecture and a mega-freeway, but there aren’t many folks in town.
source: Wikimedia Commons: mohigan (CC by SA 3.0)
caption: Sejong City, in South Korea, is also architecturally striking but needing more people.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Minseong Kim (CC by SA 4.0)