Capital Flight

Cautionary tales from seven of the world's most arbitrary seats of power.


Back in 2006, when he was still the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama found himself in Metropolis, a small town in the south of his state. A photo survives of Obama in front of the town’s giant Superman statue, the then-senator mimicking the Man of Steel’s pose. Never mind the ammunition that picture has been providing ever since to both the president’s friends and his foes. What the geography-obsessed among us want to know is: What is Metropolis doing on the banks of the Ohio River?

The town’s connection with the Last Son of Krypton is post-hoc [1] : Metropolis was founded in 1839, almost a century before Superman was conceived. It was named with something else entirely in mind. As the likely location where the New Orleans & Ohio Railroad would cross the river on its way to Chicago, the fledgling town was hoped to become, in quick succession: a traffic hub, the nucleus of a western District of Columbia, and eventually the new capital of a westward-expanding nation [2]. As place-names go, Metropolis is both grand and bland — generic enough for an as yet nonexistent capital city.

Western D.C. never came to be [3], but the idea of moving the capital to a more central location isn’t as harebrained as it might sound. After all, the Founding Fathers chose the site of eastern D.C. because it was near enough to the geographical center of the original 13 states. This was partly because North and South begrudged each other the chance to host the capital, but also because centrality has a bunch of practical advantages [4].

As the American Empire took a westward course, so did the country’s geographical center. It moved away from Washington, D.C., zipping past Metropolis along the way.  Until the admission of Alaska and Hawaii as full-fledged states, the center of the United States was usually situated near Lebanon, Kansas. After 1959, it moved to 20 miles north of Belle Fourche, South Dakota. America’s center and capital are now over 1,400 miles apart. To put that in perspective: Cancun, Mexico is closer to Washington’s corridors of power than Belle Fourche [5].

At present, nobody [6] is advocating that the three branches of the federal government uproot themselves from the banks of the Potomac to set up shop on the desolate Dakotan flatlands. Politicians from both parties ritually profess the desire to change the way Washington works; neither wants to change where the national government works. But what sounds impossible in the United States has been done elsewhere in the world.

Plenty of other countries have moved their capital, invariably to a more central location. A practical rationale recurs everywhere: countries are governed more efficiently from the center. But a central capital also has symbolic value. Its location subtly reinforces the raison d’état: this country is a “natural” unit, its political borders are as they should be, and its capital radiates power evenly across its entire domain [7].

Even in the era of instant communication, the interplay between practical and symbolic value of “capital centrality” still holds. It creates a symbolic center of gravity with practical, bricks-and-mortar consequences: new roads and airports will point towards the new capital, minimizing the difference in average distance that national representatives need to travel to their parliament [8].

By accident of history, some countries are endowed with such capitals: France’s traditional centralism owes much to the relative centrality of Paris [9]; in spite of its many border changes, Poland’s capital Warsaw manages to be relatively close to the country’s geographic center of gravity [10]; and Brussels looks to be slap bang in the geographical heart of Belgium [11]. Midway between Nepal and Burma, Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka is near the country’s geographical center. Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, is so close to that country’s midpoint that nobody seems to have bothered calculating where it actually is. And Minsk is only 22 miles north of Belarus’s geographical midpoint, the museum town of Dudutki. But the kicker has to be Madrid, only 6 miles north of the actual center of Spain, at Cerro de los Angeles [12].

Less fortunate nations have sometimes chosen to right a geopolitical wrong by moving their geographically eccentric capital to a more central location. But as some of the examples below show, such transplants are in serious danger of rejection by the body politic. For the symbolic charm and practical advantages of a centrally placed capital are quite often ephemeral, and perhaps for good reason: settlement occurs not because a location is central, but where it is deemed advantageous. Still, the urge to recalibrate national capitals cuts across so many cultures that it may be deemed to represent a universal human trait — the never-ending tension between the attraction of the obvious and the urge to plan something better.

[1] In 1972, DC Comics (and, a few months later, the Illinois State Legislature) declared Metropolis, Illinois, to be the “hometown of Superman.” Ironically, numbering only a few thousand residents, the town bears more resemblance to Clark Kent’s hometown of Smallville than to the big city of Metropolis, where he went to pursue joint careers in journalism and heroism.

[2] In which case the name Metropolis would again have been a misnomer: its etymology suggests a Greek Mother City, like Athens or Sparta, spawning a string of colonies. Had Metropolis become the nation’s capital, the former one, Washington, D.C., would have been the metropolis.

[3] A planned Capitol City, across from Metropolis on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, never made it off the drawing table.

[4] “[… T]he search for a geographic location, cast in terms of geographic centrality, rested on the conviction that the capital had to be as near and as easily accessible through central location to the citizens as possible. The greatest possible centrality would preserve the electorate’s ability to watch over its representatives, improve representation, and limit corruption.” Jason S. Kassel: Constructing a Professional Legislature: The Physical Development of Congress, 1783-1851.

[5] The population center of the United States, by the way, has also shifted west-southwest since the 1930s. And it keeps moving. In 2010, it was 2.7 miles northeast of Plato, Missouri. By 2020, it is projected to be around 10 miles north of Hartville, Missouri.

[6] Public opinion being the many-splendored thing it is, probably not nobody. But apart from the Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce — not an awfully large crowd.

[7] This chimes with the theory of the axis mundi, a central location where heaven and earth supposedly connect. Examples include sacred mountains (Fuji, Kailash, Ararat), but also capital cities: Cuzco is Inca for “navel,” and Rome’s road network radiated from a location called the Umbilicus. See also [12].

[8] This may seem abstract, but it has practical implications — in fact, it was the stuff of the so-called expenses scandal in Britain a few political seasons ago. As some members of Parliament need to travel extremely far to get to London, they could claim compensation for second residences in the capital. But since many from the densely populated southeast live within commuting distance, quite a few of their second homes were not really needed — opening up all sorts of possible avenues of misuse, like renting out the government-sponsored second home for personal gain.

[9] The honor of being France’s most central location is disputed by at least 10 villages, in the départements of Allier and Cher.

[10] Usually placed at Piatek, under 70 miles west of the capital.

[11] The actual geographical center of Belgium is near the little town of Walhain, 25 miles southeast of Brussels.

[12] And not the Puerta del Sol, in the center of the city, as some sources claim. That would have been a bit too neat, as this is where the Kilómetro Cero is located, the zero mile marker for all official road distances in Spain.

J. Stephen Conn/Flickr

Burma: Junta City

These things are a whole lot easier in a dictatorship. In 2002, the generals then still running Burma, under the appropriately revolting acronym SLORC [13], decided to move the capital 200 miles north from Rangoon to a site they called Naypyidaw [14]. That name was revealed, tellingly, in 2006 on Armed Forces Day: a fact best understood in the context of the hold of astrologers over Burma’s top brass. After all, it was senior general Than Shwe’s personal stargazer who selected the location for the nation’s new capital. The relocation proceeded with the swiftness, precision, and incontestability of a military operation. With their option to refuse reduced to near zero, a large influx of Burmese civilians helped make Naypyidaw one of the world’s fastest growing cities: from zero Naypyidawians a decade ago to over a million today [15].

Again, primal geopolitics help explain the move, which places the Burmese capital closer to the country’s center — and to rebellious border states like Shan and Kayin, which may be easier to keep in check if the central government — and its army headquarters — are that much closer. The move may also have been a defensive move by the junta, digging in at a place where it would be much more difficult to dislodge them, away from bustling Rangoon, overcrowded with civilians.

Since the (disputed) elections of 2010, Burma’s junta has released the country’s most famous dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, to date the most visible sign of a fragile process of political liberalization. One of the question marks over Burma’s future: if democracy really comes to the South Asian country, will it continue to be centered in the junta’s capital, or moved back to Rangoon?

[13] State Law and Order Restoration Council.

[14] a.k.a. Nay Pyi Taw, Naypyitaw or Nepranytau. All of which means something like “Royal City of the Sun,” and was traditionally used as an add-on for former Burmese capitals. Burmese is a difficult language to transliterate, in part because the large differences between formal and colloquial registers. Hence also the competing names for the former capital Rangoon (Yangon) and for the country itself (Burma and Myanmar, supposedly merely different spellings of the same word in Burmese).

[15] The new capital is laid out in a style that could be dubbed tropical Stalinism, but with less of an egalitarian reflex. While many labourers live in slums, the brand new zoo is equipped with a climate-controlled penguin house. At least in the Soviet Union, the penguins too would have lived in a slum.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

South Korea: Home out of Range

The most recent example is South Korea: in September 2012, the first government departments will move to Sejong, 100 miles to the south of Seoul. By year’s end, almost 5,000 bureaucrats will have relocated. First proposed as new capital in 2002, and still under construction on former farmland, Sejong is a lot more central than Seoul.

Developing Sejong as an administrative, technological, industrial, and educational hub should help redress some of South Korea’s internal economic imbalances [16]. Sejong’s centrality has a uniquely South Korean advantage, telling of the geopolitical stalemate dividing the peninsula: unlike Seoul, which almost hugs the DMZ [17] that separates it from the North, Sejong is well outside the range of North Korea’s artillery.

However, it’s doubtful whether Sejong ever will be the undisputed capital of South Korea. Fierce opposition [18] has led to backpedalling, leaving its final status in doubt. By 2030, it is projected to count half a million residents and 36 government agencies; but the presidency, legislature, and judiciary may stay in Seoul. Sejong may have to content itself with being South Korea’s junior capital.

[16] Seoul Metropolitan District is in the northwest, holds half of the country’s 50 million inhabitants and generates half of South Korea’s GDP.

[17] Demilitarized Zone. Which is ironic, considering how many guns are aimed at each other across it.

[18] When still mayor of Seoul, South Korea’s current president Lee Myung-bak at one point threatened to “mobilize the military” to prevent the capital’s move to Sejong City.


Kazakhstan: the Town that (President) Nursultan Built

In 1997, the then recently independent Kazakhstan relocated its government from the old Soviet capital of Almaty [19], nestled in the country’s south, to Astana, on the windswept northern steppes. Officially, the move was made because of Almaty’s susceptibility to earthquakes, and Astana’s geographic centrality. But it also didn’t hurt that the relocation put some distance between the Kazakh government and the Chinese border, and restated the country’s claim on its northern regions, geographically and ethnically closer to Russia.

Though the new capital suffers a harsher climate and while Almaty (pop. 1.5 million) remains Kazakhstan’s cultural and economic center, Astana it is a fast-growing town of 700,000, housing a collection of brand-new, grandiose buildings, including the Palace of Peace and Harmony, a giant pyramid designed by Norman Foster, and the Baiterek, a bizarre tower representing a white poplar tree crowned with a golden egg laid by Samruk, a mythical bird of happiness. This hypermodern materialization of a Turkic folk tale is apparently the personal design of  Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev himself.

Like the Baiterek, the capital in its entirety is very much a creation of Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s first (and, so far, only) president since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A good summary of Nazarbayev’s flair for enlightened autocracy may be gleaned from his reaction to the sycophantic suggestion in 2008 by Kazakhstan’s obsequious parliament to rename the capital Nursultan. Rejecting the accolade, the president said: “The decision to change the name will be made by another generation,” leaving the door open for posthumous immortalization [20]. But it remains to be seen whether there’ll be much enthusiasm among ordinary Kazakhs to stay on as extras inhabiting Nazarbayev’s windswept mausoleum of a town after his passing.

[19] Founded as the Russian Fort Verniy (Loyal) in 1854, it was renamed in 1921 Alma-Ata (Grandfather of the Apples), after an earlier Kazakh settlement. But the Soviets got the suffix wrong. In 1993, the name was modified to the historically correct Almaty (Apple Town). The region is rich in apple groves, wild and domesticated, and may be the original home of the apple.

[20] Once the tsarist fortress town of Akmolinsk, then from 1961 Tselinograd (Virgin Lands City), and after Kazakh independence in 1991 again Aqmola (White Shrine), Astana is a Persian-derived term for capital (or awesome threshold) that is used for several cities housing shrines of Islamic saints. It is rumored that the capital’s name is deliberately generic, to facilitate a future name-change to “Nursultan.”


Ivory Coast: A Capital Fit for a Pope

The colonial powers that sliced up West Africa did so from the sea. As French, Dutch, English, Danes, and Portuguese competed fiercely for seafront property, they cut out narrow, deep strips of territory [21], each with a coastal capital. Decades after independence, coastal cities remain capitals in all but two of the 12 independent states between Cap Blanc [22] and the Bight of Benin.

One of those two is Ivory Coast, a former French colony, the anthem of which still refers to its old colonial capital: l’Abidjanaise. With close to 4 million inhabitants, the port city of Abidjan remains the country’s commercial hub. In 1984, the then Ivorian president, Félix Houphoët-Boigny, moved the capital 140 miles inland, to the relatively modest town of Yamoussoukro. It was the fourth Ivorian capital in less than a century [23], but, maintained the president, the first one chosen by Ivorians rather than the French. Apart from being more central, and not chosen by the French, Yamoussoukro had one other crucial boon for Houphoët-Boigny: it was his place of birth [24].

The founding father and president-for-life [25] was determined to bestow a personal legacy on the new capital. He ordered the construction of the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix de Yamoussoukro. The basilica was clearly inspired by St. Peter’s in the Vatican, and designed to be the largest church building in the world [26]. Built between 1985 and 1989 at a cost of $300 million, it was consecrated in 1990 by Pope John Paul II [27].

While Houphoët-Boigny still flanks Jesus on the stained-glass windows of the basilica, the world outside has changed dramatically. The formerly stable Ivory Coast has suffered a deadly civil war between the north and south, with Yamoussoukro in the frontline. In 2010, Northern forces took Yamoussoukro, but the city’s limited capital function meant the civil war wasn’t over until Alassane Ouatarra’s troops captured his opponent Laurent Gbagbo, holed up in…Abidjan.

[21] Not unlike the seigneuries, the system of land distribution employed in French North America.  

[22] a.k.a. Ras Nouadhibou, a peninsula peculiarly filleted in two in 1900 by then colonial powers France and Spain. It is still divided, now between Mauritania and the Western Sahara. But as neither Morocco nor the rebel movement Polisario Front control the Western Saharan half, Mauritania de facto controls the entire area.

[23] After Grand-Bassam (1893), Bingerville (1900) and Abidjan (1933).

[24] Then still known as N’Gokro. It was renamed after Yamousso, a local queen, and the great-aunt of Félix Houphoët-Boigny.

[25] Houphoët-Boigny led Ivory Coast to independence in 1960 and remained its president until his death in 1993.

[26] It was recognized as such in 1989 by that most catholic of publications, the Guinness Book of Records. In fact, the title depends on what you count — and by many counts, St. Peter’s is still bigger. Yamoussoukro’s accomodates fewer people, and its dome is slightly smaller, but it reaches higher thanks to a larger cross on top. With a height of 518 feet and a diameter of 300 feet, it is the tallest church with the largest church dome in Africa.

[27] But only on condition that he could also lay the foundation stone of a nearby hospital — as of September 2012 still under construction.


Nigeria: Africa’s Brasilia

Like most West African countries, Nigeria is marked by a religious territorial divide: an Islamic population concentrated in a northern band, with Christians prevalent in the coastal south. In 1976, the Nigerian government therefore decided to move the federal capital from Lagos, the teeming metropolis on the coast, to a neutral place at the center of the country. Abuja [28], designed by Japanese urbanist Kenzo Tange, was inspired by Brasilia, the then newly built capital of Brazil (finished in 1960). It is generally considered Africa’s best planned town — even if only about a quarter of the original plan has as yet been executed. 

Abuja, constructed in the 1980s and inaugurated as capital in 1991, shares some problems with other planned towns and capitals. While the center has seen the most development, unplanned shantytowns dominate the outskirts. The city is rife with spectacular buildings, like the National Mosque, the Castle of Law, and the Ship House (home to the Ministry of Defense), but feels somewhat bereft of more “informal” accoutrements of metropolitan living, like urban density, and a good selection and spread of cinemas, shops, and other entertainment.

In spite of its relative success as a planned city, non-essential visitors (a.k.a. tourists) shun Abuja for its lack of excitement. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Perhaps Abujans can work to export that particular quality of their city to the more restive parts of Nigeria: maybe urban blandness of a certain type could quell the frequent, violent confrontations along the religious fault line that threaten to cut the country into a Muslim north and a Christian south.

[28] Named after a nearby town, which was then renamed Suleja. Wouldn’t it have been easier to name the new capital Suleja?


Brazil: Prophesied by Don Bosco?

For most of the first half of the 20th century, a rectangular area in the inlands of Brazil was marked on maps as Futuro Distrito Federal. Brazil’s first republican constitution, signed in 1891 in what was then the nation’s capital, Rio de Janeiro, mandated a capital city closer to the country’s geographical heart. But an adviser to Brazil’s Emperor Pedro I formulated the original idea in 1827: a city named Brasilia, to be established on a more neutral, more central location in the vast country occupying half of South America.

Ground was eventually broken in 1956, and the main building phase for Brasilia completed in 1960, at which time the entire Federal District counted under 150,000 inhabitants. Today, Brasilia is the country’s fourth-largest city [29], with well over 2.5 million inhabitants. This, of course, was not foreseen: the city was laid out for half a million residents. Brasilia was the world’s largest city at the close of the 20th century that did not exist at its start [30].

Brasilia’s distinctive, modernist look is the creation of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who designed the city’s layout and many of its major buildings. Depending on how you feel about it, Brasilia can feel grand or empty, modern or monotonous, and either refreshingly or naively utopian. Surrounding the planned city are a string of non-planned satellite cities, absorbing the capital’s surplus population.

As with other planned capitals, Brasilia is also presumed to have a mystical, transcendent side. One of the city’s main churches is devoted to Don Bosco, the Italian saint who in 1883, during one of his many visions, saw “[i]n the southern hemisphere, between the parallels of 15 and 20 degrees, around a lake, […] a great civilization arising. Honey and milk flow from its center, and gold is hidden underneath the earth” [31].

Less lyrical was Robert Hughes, the Australian art critic who visited Brasilia for his 1980 documentary The Shock of the New. His scathing remarks reflect on all planned cities (and capitals), and bear repeating at length: “Brasilia is a facade, run up under political pressure. Finished in 1960 and already falling to bits. Cracking stonework, flaking concrete, rusting metal: a ceremonial slum. So what Brasilia became in less than 20 years wasn’t the city of tomorrow at all. It was yesterday’s science fiction. Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future. This is what you get when perfectly decent, intelligent and talented men start thinking in terms of space rather than place…you get miles of jerry-built platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens. This, one may fervently hope, is the last experiment of its kind.”

[29] After Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador.

[30] Chicago holds that distinction for the 19th century. Nyaypidyaw is the best candidate so far for the 21st century.

[31] Brasilia lies near the 16th parallel, next to an artificial lake. Some also read esoteric meanings into layout of Oscar Niemeyer’s city plan, and the shape and form of his buildings. In their view, Brasilia is a modern-day reinvention of the ancient holy city of Akhetaton in Egypt, which the then future Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek had visited in the 1930s.


Turkey: Ankara, not Constantinople

The state Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded on the ashes of the tired old Ottoman Empire in 1923 was to be a few things its predecessor was not: resolutely secular, and entirely Turkish. Thus Constantinople, the multi-ethnic metropolis that was also the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate, was not such a great choice as capital for the new Republic of Turkey. But Atatürk’s choice of Ankara [32] was not just a symbolic break with the past: it had a much more practical reason. At the end of World War I, the Allies occupied Constantinople [33], so Atatürk set up his headquarters in Ankara, an ancient town with a conveniently central location in Anatolia. Ankara kept its central role even after the Turks beat back the Allies, retaking Constantinople and the Ionian coast.

Today, Ankara, with its 4 million inhabitants a distant second to Istanbul’s 14 million, has not managed to displace the former capital as the beating heart of the Turkish state. But through its much smaller size, it bears a much deeper imprint of Atatürk’s attempts to recast Turkey in a modernist, secular light. As in later “new” capitals, an entirely new section was designed, in Ankara’s case by the German architect Hermann Jenson, who laid out a series of zones, each with different urban functions, along two boulevards, running north-south and east-west. Jenson’s 1927 design was somewhat reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s 1924 guide The City of To-morrow and its Planning. But Ankara would also become a city of the past, dotted with memorials to the region’s Hittite history, and mausoleums, the grandest of which was Atatürk’s own Anit Kabir — a secular equivalent to Islam’s holy sites, many of which, like the Aya Sofia, were turned into museums under Atatürk. As a result, Ankara is an old-new city, an attempt at Westernizing in a part of the eastern world; a secularist beacon in a country now rediscovering its religious heritage.

[32] Known until 1930 as Angora, as in certain long-haired animals: angora rabbit (cf. angora wool), angora cat and angora goat (cf. mohair).

[33] The city officially became Istanbul, a Turkish name that had been in use for centuries. Ironically, it also derives from Greek — more specifically, from the road signs pointing Eis tin polin (“towards the city”).


Some ideas for the future

The examples above list some of the countries that over the past century or so recalibrated their capitals to a more central position. But why stop there? What if other states today decided to relocate their capitals? Here are three countries with invitingly eccentric government seats, and suggestions on how to make these more central. Maybe they’ll inspire you to grab a hold of the world map and take a stab at this urban variant of Risk: Which capitals would you move?

Britain: Leeds calling

London has been the capital of Great Britain since Roman times [34], for one simple reason: it sits at a bend in the Thames where it’s both fordable and navigable, making it an ideal crossroads for inland trade routes and naval commerce with the rest of Europe. But its eccentric location, combined with its enormous growth and economic weight — London represents roughly 20 percent of total British gross domestic product — imbalances Britain. Perhaps Westminster should redress the balance, and move the capital to a more central city. Leeds, for example, is halfway between London; or what about Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, which has in recent months already been named the wi-fi, jogging, and bargain car capital of Britain?

[34] One of the short-lived capitals of Roman Britain was Colchester, then known as Camelodunum — possibly the source for the ephemeral toponym Camelot

Mark Ramsay/Flickr

India: Next stop Nagpur

India should consider giving up New Delhi as its capital: it was chosen by the British, for one, and it is far too northern. The next capital should be Nagpur [35] (pop. 2.5 million): recently voted India’s cleanest and one of its greenest cities, it’s the winter capital of Maharashtra state and thus an economic and political center in its own right. But most of all, it lies exactly at the geographical center of India — it even has the country’s Zero Mile Marker.

[35] Literally “Snake City,” after the serpentine bends of the river on which banks it is built.

cycling is good for you/Flickr

Australia: Capital Springs

Four out of five Australians live within 30 miles of the sea, and almost all of those do so in the southeast corner of the continent-sized country, in or near the big cities Sydney and Melbourne. Canberra, the federal capital, was built in between the rivals, as a compromise. So the capital is on neutral ground, but hardly in a central location — it sits in Australia’s Fertile Crescent, more than 2,300 miles from the western metropolis of Perth. But now, when mining is replacing agriculture as Australia’s prime industry, perhaps the arid interior should no longer be left out of the equation. There’s a town already at Australia’s center, poised to take up the capital mantle. Alice Springs, population nearly 28,000, is so near to a few of the proposed geographical centers of Australia that it almost seems like that’s why it was put there. But in fact, it was the presumed location of a permanent watering hole on the route connecting north and south Australia.

Will Alice Springs ever be the capital of Australia? It’s as likely as the U.S. government moving house to Metropolis, Illinois. The idea that central government should be centrally located is absurd — but only as absurd as the belief that humankind is really master of its destiny. As long as we remain convinced that political geography is something we can improve on, no capital city on the edge of its national territory will remain safe from the shadow of the central planners … and their moving vans.


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