The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Why do countries relocate their capital cities? Six strategies

Following the release of his book Capital Cities: varieties and patterns of development and relocation, Vadim Rossman explains the main trends and motivations behind a phenomenon as common as it is misunderstood.

Vadim Rossman

Vadim Rossman

Cities: Putrajaya, Brasilia, Astana

Topics: National governance

Currently more than 40 countries on different parts of the globe are contemplating the relocation of their seats of government. Some have unveiled plans to build new capital cities; others have committed resources or have established special committees to study the issue. Most are developing countries, but this is also a recurring theme in many developed nations such as the UK, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Remarkably, in the last 100 years more than 30 countries have relocated their capitals, amongst them Turkey (Ankara), Australia (Canberra), Brazil (Brasilia), Pakistan (Islamabad), Nigeria (Abuja), Tanzania (Dodoma), Kazakhstan (Astana), Malaysia (Putrajaya) and Myanmar (Naypyidaw). Though there are many more cases that are no less remarkable for being lesser known.

The role of urbanisation

The motives, strategies and outcomes of these projects have not been systematically researched and governments' motives still poorly understood. Capital Cities: varieties and patterns of development and relocation is the first monograph-length study to do so.

Urbanisation trends are often implicated. Generally, in developing nations the proportion of capital city dwellers relative to total urban population tends to be significantly higher than in developed nations. In many Latin American and African countries at least 25% of the urban population lives in the capital city. Oversized capitals are characteristic for many poor and underdeveloped nations. This is why it is important to understand capital cities - how they function and evolve over time.

In contrast to other cities, capitals are typically not self-governed entities, and they differ from regular cities in many other ways. In assessing the character and quality of urbanisation it becomes necessary to understand the relationship between capital cities and other cities, their relative size, how effectively they deliver public goods to a nation's citizens, how inclusive they are of its constituents. Many capital city relocations seek to alter these relations to make capital cities more efficient within the urban hierarchy.

A recurring theme

The main lesson is that capital city relocations are not something exotic and extraordinary. They are a typical theme in political development and, perhaps, an essential factor in the history of most nations. Interestingly, many nations label entire periods of their history after their capital cities.

The construction of designed capitals is also not unique and specific to recent history. Such cities as Constantinople, Baghdad, Kyoto, Cairo, Seoul, Madrid and even London first emerged as designed capitals. In the case of London, the Romans founded it as an entirely purpose-built provincial capital unfettered by tribal politics and loyalties in contrast to the previous capital, Colchester.

Another important lesson is that the location and design of a capital city matter for the success and viability of the state. Capital cities whose locations offer a spatial compromise and inclusivity within a nation's geography contribute to their lasting success, especially federations. Capital cities built in regions with a thick cultural identity are less successful compared to capitals built in more neutral places.

Not just about power

Critics of relocations tend to provide narrow explanations interpreting them either as a tool for the self-aggrandisement of authoritarian rulers or as a tactical instrument of ruling elites to marginalise protest and opposition. They have also been called manifestations of "Keynesianism on steroids". I argue that in most cases relocations had broader purposes than simply self-serving. They have been meant to reconstitute the relationship between different regions and ethnic and religious groups; they have had important geopolitical rationales, improving connectivity with important global mega-regions or creating channels of influence into neighbouring countries; they have aimed to provide stimulus to underdeveloped parts of the country. For some the location was meant to project control or influence over contested territories.

Common strategies

In Capital Cities I distinguished six strategies that govern all capital city relocations. These strategies help to understand to what extent transferring the seat of government is effective at resolving the practical issues at hand. They also capture the distinct patterns of capital city transfer that are specific to different types of political regime.

Newly formed nations often assert themselves against separatism, foreign invasions or former colonial masters. Many relocations took place against a background of powerful separatist movements. In Nigeria it was the Biafra region, in Kazakhstan the potential for Russia separatism in the north, in Myanmar there were the Karen, Shan and mountain tribal movements. Several countries that debate relocations today experience significant separatist movements: Aceh, West Papua and border conflicts with Malaysia in Indonesia; Mindanao in the Philippines, Hungarian separatism in Romania, and Scottish independence in the UK. The presence of secessionist movements tends to intensify these debates, the proposed new seat of government hoped to integrate such regions and groups.

Nations must also often assert themselves against nature and wilderness. It is not an accident that many new capitals are built amid swamps, virgin lands, tropical selva, desert sands, and other unpromising terrains, with examples including St Petersburg, Mexico City, Washington DC, Canberra, Brasilia, Astana and Naypyidaw.

Many countries, especially developing ones, exhibit a number of troubling tendencies in their primary cities that typically are also capital cities: congestion, gridlock, high transport costs, social segregation. In many of these countries more than 20% of GDP is produced in the capital. Proposals to move the capital seek to establish a more polycentric urban hierarchy to rectify these imbalances.

The polycentric system is seen as not only more economically efficient, but also fairer. The disproportionately high concentration of resources and well-paid jobs in capital cities causes resentment. Some proponents believe in a sort of "capital city imperialism" that perpetuates colonial control and domination over an emerging nation, maintains social inequality and diminishes social mobility, and see relocation as an anti-colonialist remedy. Less ideological proponents may simply believe that sharp regional disparities in economic development are harmful to the economy overall, urging to move the seat of government to provide stimulus for regional development.

Some champions of capital city transfers argue that a dual structure where government and economic power are separated into distinct cities is economically more efficient. Such a system, they believe, creates structural conditions for more efficient development by preventing the collusion of interests between business and government.

Geopolitical rivalry for regional leadership and pan-regionalism also play their role, often manifesting in competition between capital cities. This took place in Latin America where Brazil's rising economic power and growing political influence has undermined Argentina's aspirations for regional leadership. The construction of Brasilia against the backdrop of a declining Buenos Aires marked this transition. Today such a rivalry takes place in Southeast Asia where Indonesia and the Philippines contemplate building new capital cities that would rival Putrajaya in Malaysia.

Many capital cities have been built in seismically active zones or floodprone areas and contemplate relocation out of necessity. Tehran, Kathmandu, Dhaka, Caracas, Lima, Dushanbe, Accra, Nairobi, Jakarta, Manila, Managua and Wellington are tectonically precarious capitals. Flooding is a serious issue for Bangkok and Nouakchott.

Evolving contemporary themes

In Capital Cities I show the continuities and discontinuities between modern and pre-modern states in their decisions to move capital cities. Governments employ compromise and territorial integration strategies in both eras. However in pre-modern states relocations were never provoked by technical and properly urban considerations; in most cases they were motivated by considerations of security, military strategy and the like. On the other hand today the backers of these proposals focus more on overpopulation, congestion and other urban and economic factors, emphasising the deficiencies of infrastructure. Identity politics also plays a more prominent role in contemporary debates.

Capital Cities: varieties and patterns of development and relocation is available now through Routledge.

is a professor at the Higher School of Economics, St Petersburg.