Bending the Linear toward the Circular
Building New Capitals is Not a New Idea
3 min read

Building New Capitals is Not a New Idea

Capital-city relocation and construction projects as described in my previous post are not new.

  • We can go all the way back to Roman Emperor Constantine, who created a new capital more than 1,000 miles from Rome (more than a month’s journey in those times), to improve communications and address the administrative challenges imparted by his predecessor Diocletian, who'd cleaved the original empire into western and eastern divisions.
  • More recently, new capitals were created out of whole cloth in Ankara, Turkey, and Brasilia, Brazil.
  • And of course, the fledgling United States created its own, new capital city named after its first president to succeed New York and Philadelphia, after the country's founders decided to seek a central location between its distinctly northern and southern regions.
  • China has had many capitals during its multi-thousand-year history, with Beijing emerging as the single, unified administrative center in medieval times as a central bulwark against Mongol invaders. Its northern location in modern-day China is far away from most of the nation's regions and population (moderately analogous to Washington, DC's location relative to the modern USA).
  • Kyoto was the medieval capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years, and remains, to most visitors, the most interesting place to visit in that country.
  • An interesting example is provided by Germany, which decided to re-locate its capital to its (by far) largest city of Berlin after unification in 1989. Modest, pleasant Bonn had served a separate West Germany well for more than 40 years after the end of World War II, and retains about one-third of the country's federal employees today.
  • We can study a modern empire-wannabe with the European Union, with 27 separate nations (not including withdrawee UK) and about 450 million people. Rather than locate its capital in clearly dominant Paris, administrators followed a precedent set in the EU's antecedent days and established humble  Brussels as its capital. Alsatian Strasbourg (with a long history of contentious ownership between France and Germany) clings to the European Parliament and some influence within the EU.

How well does all this capital-moving work?

  • Rome was past its peak during Constantine's time, though the western empire lasted another 150 years or so and the eastern lived on for 1,000 years as the Greek-centric Byzantine Empire.
  • Beijing has the feel even today of a magesterial, imperial city, more august than the country's economic dynamos Shanghai, the cities of the Pearl River delta, and others. Its hard to argue with China's recent economic success, driven by policy created in Beijing.
  • Tokyo is the world's largest metropolitan area, a massive megalopolis that dazzles and boggles most every mere Western mind that visits it. It's not classically beautiful, but is central enough and seems effective in continuing to drive this most perplexing of nations forward economically.
  • Washington DC has succeeded in its location in a malarial swamp, despite routine calls to drain its political swamp. No serious alternative as a national capital has ever been proposed, as the city remains a convenient punching bug for whatever ails the folks in the USA's regions and states.
  • Despite Brasilia's commitment early-on to create an architecturally distinctive world city, it remains a modest-size metropolis 65 years after its creation of 3-4 million people, compared to the more than 20 million in greater São Paulo and 12 million or so souls in the Rio de Janeiro area, and drawing a fraction of the tourists who visit the country's two dominant cities.
  • Ankara maintains a modest presence in Turkey, known more as a gateway to historic, hilly Cappadocia than a prime tourist spot itself. Yet its metro population of 5 to 6 million is comparable to historic, unique Istanbul.

None of this statistical and anecdotal evidence provides a good predictive model as to whether this recent trend of building new capitals and major cities will achieve progress. I do, however, examine how I think things will shake out,in my companion piece on this topic.

Please let me know what you make of these projects and my take on them.