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February 02, 2006

Primate Cities

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

There's a concept that's been kicking around the fields of Geography and Demography for quite a while called the Primate City. No, this has nothing to do with the monkey house at the local zoo, though some might beg to differ.

A Primate City is a city that is far larger and more important than any rival within (usually) a country or (perhaps) a sub-region such as a state. A short explanation is here.

For instance, London, Paris, Tokyo and Mexico City are far more populous than other in-country cities and are the political, business and cultural capitals to boot. Some other examples are Athens, Dublin, Oslo, Buenos Aires and Manila.

Vienna, Budapest and Prague are the primate cities of Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, respectively. But 100 years ago, all were in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although Vienna was probably primate, the other two were worthy rivals.

Not all countries host primate cities. The Wikipedia link above mentions Brazil, where the political capital is Brasilia, the economic capital is São Paulo and the cultural capital is Rio de Janeiro. In Germany the political capital is Berlin, but the financial capital is Frankfurt-am-Main while Munich rivals Berlin as a cultural center. Rome is Italy's political capital, but Milan is the business capital and arguably the cultural capital as well.

If the United States hadn't decided to create a political capital, it's possible that New York, for a time the political capital, might have become a Primate City. Possible, but not likely: I think it would have worked only if the nation's boundaries stayed the way they were in 1790. Expansion across the continent assured that strong rivals would emerge.

Today Washington is the political capital and New York is the financial capital. This situation isn't likely to change in the foreseeable future. What seems to be evolving is the position of cultural capital.

Boston and Philadelphia could have made strong claims to being the nation's cultural capital at one time or another, but New York was clearly dominant by the late 19th Century. This dominance continued through the first two-thirds of the 20th Century.

By the late 1900s Southern California essentially ruled the entertainment industry and was wresting New York's cultural capital claim. At the same time, other areas became culturally stronger -- their museums, orchestras, theaters and pop music styles attaining nationwide reputations.

This is probably not news to 2Blowhards readers. And I doubt you are surprised that the Internet seems to be making the geographical source of cultural material irrelevant. In the case of blogs, it often doesn't matter where the blog is located. For instance, Terry Teachout's blog's content originates in New York and Chicago and 2Blowhards is written in the New York, Los Angeles and Seattle areas.

So the United States is decentralizing culturally as its population decentralizes from the north and east to the west and south. It also seems to be decentralizing in terms of business (not necessarily finance) if you compare the locations of headquarters of recent Fortune 500 corporations to those from the original list.

The only centralization appears to be political. Is that a permanent trend, or will that too change?



posted by Donald at February 2, 2006


One amusing feature of American politics is that so many state capitals are definitely *not* their states' primate cities. Of course there are some exceptions - Atlanta, Phoenix, Boston, Denver, Providence, Indianapolis, Little Rock and Honolulu come immediately to mind - but then you have such unlikely capitals as Montpelier, Jefferson City, Bismarck and Salem.
I would imagine that historical and geographical reasons lie behind many of these capital/primate city splits.

Posted by: Peter on February 2, 2006 12:20 PM

It's an interesting concept I hadn't been aware of. I can dimly see how some significance might be pulled from it: how a country that has a primate city might be different in character than one that doesn't, etc. (I've always maintained to lefty friends who think the US should be more like France, for instance, that we never will be in part because France is so resolutely organized around Paris, and we have no such central city. They're smallish, and they're heavily centralized, and they're fine with that. If we try to model ourselves after them, it'd be like trying to shoehorn five wriggly size 11 feet into one ballet slipper. Why even make the attempt?) But that's me going off on a bender. What kind of use are the demo-geo crowd mostly making of the concept? Tks again for an interesting post.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 2, 2006 12:25 PM

In both Canada and the US all media and publication matters are dominated by the eastern part of the country, with an occasional nod to the West Coast. If one has the luck to be published by a company in the east, the editors will insist on changes that make the Western world look like the Eastern world. Many of the agents and editors are ladies with nice manners and excellent educations who can't tell a concho from a cinch and don't believe anyone would EVER blow their nose without a hanky. (Let alone manage such a feat while growing a mustache.) Since much of the salty flavor is edited out and since most Easterners only come West to attend summer festivals or pack around in the mountains, they never get the reality of the Rockies.

As German soup companies buy up the publishing houses and reduce salaries in order to get their accustomed 10% profit, the nice ladies tend to migrate to the Western academic publishing houses, nicely sheltered on campuses, where they continue to cut out all the juicy parts of books. Of course, no one hires them to direct presses, which are traditionally directed by male academics who don't much like classrooms. We need a publishing center in the West.

In Montana there is no town that has as many as 100,000 people in it and the population is aging, so that the "primate" towns are "primarily" based on either health issues or military installations. Both industries are booming. Neither is really that interested in powerful Western writing.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 2, 2006 1:04 PM

I find I have a lot more to say, but I'll mention just one more. When I was working for the City of Portland, we were asked to reflect on the nature and future of the city. One insight was that our crime scene was centered in Los Angeles: this was 1990's and Hispanic drug peddlars and gangs were coming up the big interstate arteries, hitting Portland, and then driving all night to be innocently back in their grandmother's house before the cops could get mobilized. There was a good deal of shooting in the downtown area, which never got publicized. You never knew when a bullet would come out of nowhere and shatter the nice modern bus stop rain shelter where you were sitting. But the media was fed an image of green serenity. The police called the town "Little Beirut."

This is not the sort of primacy most towns have in mind and it has since been considerably curtailed. The mayor of Portland is the former police chief.

On a different note, most Western towns "gelled" around crops and their transportation. Great Falls, of course, was built where it is because the falls themselves were like a natural dam that supplied the enormous amounts of energy needed to process natural resources, now mostly exhausted.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 2, 2006 1:11 PM

Interesting. I wonder how that could be applied to sub-regions, such as the Wasatch Front (population ~ 1.5 mil) in Utah (population ~ 2 mil).

Posted by: ptm on February 2, 2006 1:36 PM

"The only centralization appears to be political. Is that a permanent trend, or will that too change?"

I think the network effects of politics are too strong to be overcome. You need to be able to have lunch with people to make the sort of alliances and deals that are the heart of politics.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on February 2, 2006 1:44 PM

Paris is definitely a primal city. The French describe their country as "Paris et le desert". Outside Paris, France (a country slightly smaller than Texas, and thus one of the largest in Europe) is a vast landscape with tiny towns and large cities that are barely a tenth the size of the capital city. This kind of centralized political and economic development has contributed to starkly different mentalities between the people who live in Paris and everyone else outside. Naturally, I tend to prefer the provinces since they offer a more 'authentic' cultural experience than the internationally cosmopolitan Paris.

Having lived in the Primate city of Colorado (Denver) and one that is not even though it's larger (Dallas), I prefer to live in a state that contains a multitude of competing large cities. One has more options professionally and more variety in picking where I would desire to live. Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin share a healthy commercial rivalry, and each concedes its share cultural importance. Heck, Dallas is hardly a primal city in its own region, what with Fort Worth always trying to outrival its neighbor's cultural prestige (and doing so quite well).

Posted by: corbusier on February 2, 2006 2:20 PM

Interesting. The old metropole/periphery gets a new look. These days, primate cities, especially ones in developing contries, have become the centers of one way rural-to-city migration. This confounds whatever reciprocity might exist between the two. As more and more people move into the cities, it becomes less likely that the technology, culture, and infrastructure of the primate city will find its way into the periphery. What does make it there is an ever growing transnational narrative that centers hope for the future around the primate city. These primate-city-narratives have always and continue to strain traditional narratives that still have much to offer humanity. I wonder, what kinds of influences on the primate cities by their less densely populated counterparts do you see?

Posted by: chris on February 2, 2006 6:04 PM

Donald wrote (in part):

A Primate City is a city that is far larger and more important than any rival within (usually) a country or (perhaps) a sub-region such as a state. A short explanation is here . . . .[link to Wikipedia article].

Not all countries [or sub-region or states] host primate cities . . . . If the United States hadn't decided to create a political capital, it's possible that New York, for a time the political capital, might have become a Primate City. Possible, but not likely: I think it would have worked only if the nation's boundaries stayed the way they were in 1790. Expansion across the continent assured that strong rivals would emerge.

Benjamin writes:

I'm curious why you feel this way, expecially since you also say, "Boston and Philadelphia could have made strong claims to being the nation's cultural capital at one time or another, BUT NEW YORK WAS CLEARLY DOMINANT BY THE LATE 19TH CENTURY. THIS DOMINANCE CLEARLY CONTINUED THROUGH THE FIRST TWO-THIRDS OF THE 20TH CENTURY." [Please forgive the capitalization, but the PC I'm working on doesn't seem to have italics.]

It seems to me that except for not being either the political capital of either New York State or the U.S. (except for a brief period in the late 19th Century) that NYC was (up to say WWII) indeed the primate city of the U.S. (even despite the relatively large size of the U.S.).

Reading about New York City, in say the 1930s, it seems to me that the City fit the term "primate city" as much as any of the other cities listed -- except for the fact that it wasn't a political capital.

In addition to being the business, retail, financial, advertising, financial, cultural and (at least still) the entertainment capital, New York was also the most populous city in the U.S. -- by far more than twice the size of Chicago. And, I believe, Brooklyn by itself would have been the third largest city in the U.S. after a Brooklyn-less NYC and Chicago. (Also, I think the guidebooks of the time said something along the lines of, "you can see 1/20 of the population of the U.S. from the top of the Empire State building.")

New York City in those days also dominated in terms of shipping and even manufacturing. I think just one section of New York City, the area on the borderline between Brooklyn and Queens, was either the most important or second most important manufacturing area of the country in terms of the value of the items manufactured.

One complicating wrinkle of course are the unusual political boundaries in the NYC area, with the much of the city's population and economy spilling over into nearby New Jersey (including the one time bustling "sub-cities" of Bayonne, Hoboken, Jersey City and Newark). Given this unusual circumstance, it seems to me that the issue would be more clear cut if something like a standard metropolitan area (inlcuding nearby areas of New Jersey) was used for the period between, say, 1850 and 1950.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on February 2, 2006 6:48 PM

Many of the comments above strike me as being pretty much self-contained essays. I'll remark on a few that I'm able to contribute to.

Peter -- State capitals are an odd thing. Sometimes, they're found in an older, larger city. Other times, they're located somewhere near the geographical center of the state, as are some of those you mentioned. I might be wrong, but I suspect that Tallahassee, FL was originally near the center of Florida's population when it became a state. Southern Florida didn't really start growing until the 20th Century; now Tallahassee is peripheral.

Michael -- I haven't looked into this Primate City subject in decades, so I can easily be missing important recent research. Basically, it's a kind of curiosity that pops up in some settings and is absent in others (Brazil vs. France) Related to this is something called the rank-size rule popularized by George Zipf 60 or so years ago. Simply put, the likelihood that a city's population is greater than n is proportional to 1/n. Alternatively, you can transform population numbers and national size-ranks to natural logarithms and their plot will be a fairly straight line. The phonomenon is widespread, but the cause is unknown (though hypotheses have been advanced). So I suppose all of this is basically just an excuse for an interesting bull session.

ptm -- Check out my answer to Michael, above. As best I remember, where the relationships don't hold or there is no Primate City (North Carolina?), it's hypothsized by proponants that you need to properly specify some sort of "natural" urban system such as an entire nation might represent. This seems to open things up to results-fudging -- changing definitions till the results agree with the theory. That's not Karl Popper-type science.

Benjamin -- I was going to discuss the problem of identifying cities, but dropped the matter in interest of focus and word-count. Lord knows how often my eyes have glazed when the subject of "what's urban" or "what's rural" have popped up. Simply put, municipal boundaries are pretty crude tools for defining "natural" or "organic" cities. Modern U.S. Census Bureau metro area definitions mostly involve counties (outside New England and maybe Virginia), and counties are a crude measure too. Worse, in recent decades, federal money can flow (or not) depending upon whether an area is officially (by OMB) defined as metropolitan. This can get ugly and political. I like the Census Bureau concept of "urbanized area" best for getting at the organic aspect.

No matter what measure one uses, I'm pretty sure New York (including tri-state sprawl) has been less than 20 percent of the U.S. population for a long time, perhaps forever. A 10-15 percent share strikes me as not very primate compared to the case of Vienna or Athens or London.

All this is number gaming. But fun to discuss, isn't it?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 2, 2006 9:56 PM

It was a very deliberate decision in the U.S. to discourage "primate cities", precisely because of fears of centralization. In the beginning this had to do with the South's fear of centralized domination by the North, which is why we stuck our Federal capital in a swamp in the middle of nowhere (or what at the time was practically such). But then you see the same dynamic repeated in state after state.

I actually think we could use a few more great cities than we have in this country. For a nation the size of a continent, there aren't really that many great and distinctive large cities here.

Posted by: MQ on February 3, 2006 1:34 PM

Many of the Eastern European/ex-communist countries I visited had primate cities as well.

I had always assumed that dictatorships prefer to centralize authority, but now that I think about it, I have no idea whether these primate cities in fact predated communism. Probably.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on February 3, 2006 7:41 PM

"...the Internet seems to be making the geographical source of cultural material irrelevant." Really?

I can't say I agree with this contention. It strikes me that as the internet allows us to encounter cultural content and discussion from a far wider range of places than ever before, it becomes more and more interesting to consciously ponder and unconsciously feel how different parts of the world are distinctive (and similar) from our own experience.

That said, I should reveal my bias: I'm a student of geogaphy/urbanism and tend towards place-based explanations as a first reflex. My second question (if I'm not so impatient as not to ask someone's name first) is usually 'So, where do you live/come from?"

Interesting discussion re the primate cities though- the presence (or lack) of one in a given country appears, at first glance anyway, to correlate with a lot of other interesting cultural and economic facets of life.


Posted by: Desmond Bliek on February 6, 2006 1:24 PM

Desmond -- The point I was trying to make about geography was that it matters less that something originates in Minneapolis, say, than in NYC. When I was young, the fact that something came out of New York or maybe Chicago created in my mind an imprimatur that it was the best stuff. Of course I'm generalizing from me to everyone else, though I suspect that the TV callout "LIVE ... from NEW YORK CITY!" wasn't without impact.

Nowadays some important blogs come out of the Minneapolis area and this fact means little to most readers, I suspect.

Of course this is entirely different from geographically-based subcultural differences, where origin has a huge impact -- who could (in the abstract, anyway) take "Kennebunkport Zydeco" seriously? So your point is taken and I apologize for not fleshing out my argument.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 6, 2006 2:53 PM

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