Primate Cities

Jun 12, 2015 by

[Note to readers: in the last few days I’ve been preparing slides for my upcoming mini-course on St. Petersburg and it has become apparent to me that it’s been losing its primate status. Hence, I am reposting the following post, originally published in GeoCurrents in November 2013]


The map posted on the left shows countries that do not have primate cities in red and those that do have primate cities in grey. According to the Wikipedia article:

“A primate city is a major city that works as the financial, political, and population center of a country and is not rivaled in any of these aspects by any other city in that country. Normally, a primate city must be at least twice as populous as the second largest city in the country. The presence of a primate city in a country usually indicates an imbalance in development — usually a progressive core, and a lagging periphery, on which the primate city depends for labor and other resources.”

The concept of “primate city” is distinct from that of “global city”: the latter highlights the role of an urban center in the world’s politics, economy, and culture, while the former refers to the role of the city on the national stage. Among the best-known examples of primate cities are London and Paris. Greater London’s population stands at nearly 10 million, almost four times that of UK’s second largest city—Greater Manchester (population 2,553,379 in 2011). Two other British urban areas are comparable in size to that of Greater Manchester: Birmingham (West Midlands Built-up area) and Leeds (West Yorkshire Built-up area). Similarly, Paris, with its population of over 2.2 million in the city proper and 12 million in the metro area, is much more than twice as large as France’s main secondary cities, such as Marseille, with a core population of 850,726 (in 2010) and a metropolitan population of 1.6 million, or Lyon, which has a metropolitan population of 2.1 million . Other major primate cities include Dublin, Athens, Vienna, Budapest, Cairo, Baghdad, Tehran, Seoul, Buenos Aires, Lima, and Mexico City. Bangkok is considered “the most primate city on earth”, being forty times larger than Thailand’s second city, Nonthaburi City, which many regard as a mere suburb of Bangkok.


Many countries without a primate city were established relatively recently and are, or were, federal in nature: the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Italy, Germany, and Spain are among the most notable examples. In the United States, financial and cultural centers are widely dispersed throughout the country in cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, while the political center is located in Washington, D.C. The importance of several US cities is further highlighted by the common use of the expression “the City”, a term applied primarily to New York City, but also to Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and several other metropolitan cores shown on the dialectal map created by Joshua Katz, based on data collected by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder in the early 2000s.

The capital city of Canada—Ottawa—is mostly a government town, overshadowed by the larger global cities of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Similarly, in Australia, the two main cities of Melbourne and Sydney vastly overshadow Canberra, which is the seat of political power. In South Africa, three official capitals in Pretoria, Cape Town, and Bloemfontein each house a different branch of government, yet the country’s main commercial center is located elsewhere, in Johannesburg.

In Europe, Italy, Germany, and Spain are notable for their lack of a primate city. The former two countries were unified relatively recently, and Germany was reunified less than quarter of a century ago. As a result, several large Italian and German cities play important political, economic, and cultural roles. In Italy, the political seat in Rome is balanced by the business, financial, and fashion “capital” of Milan. Germany is unique in that Berlin is a former primate city, serving that function between the end of the Franco-Prussian War and the end World War II, that subsequently lost its standing. Today Berlin’s role as a political center is rather weak, as several major government institutions are located elsewhere in the country, in Bonn (the former West German capital) and Karlsruhe (seat of the federal constitutional court). But Frankfurt is Germany’s most important financial center and the location of the country’s busiest airport (FRA is also the world’s 11th busiest airport by passenger traffic and the world’s 6th busiest airport by international passenger traffic). Hamburg, Düsseldorf, and Munich are also vital to Germany’s economy. Arguably, the country’s cultural “center” is split between Berlin, Munich, Cologne, Dresden, and several smaller cities.

Although Spain was essentially unified in the 15th century, Madrid never assumed the role of primate city. It did not become the capital until 1561, when Philip II moved his government from Toledo to the smaller city of Madrid. As David Ringrose argued in his Madrid and the Spanish Economy, 1560-1850, the move was economically damaging to Spain, as Madrid, far from any navigable waterways, was notoriously difficult to provision in the pre-railroad era. Throughout the Early Modern period, moreover, Spain remained a relatively decentralized realm. In recent times, Spain’s status as a “an indivisible nation that joined together several territorially defined nationalities”, along with its political structure based on seventeen so-called autonomous communities (see the GeoCurrents map here), have allowed for several major regional cities to play prominent roles. The population of the capital Madrid is about twice as big as that of the next large city, Barcelona, but Barcelona’s metro population is almost as large as that of Madrid (5.3 million vs. 6.3 million). Significantly, Barcelona is also the capital of Catalonia, a region ardently seeking greater autonomy or even independence.

Two other European countries depicted on the Wikipedia map as lacking a primate city are Poland and Lithuania. Warsaw’s status as a primate city is questionable: its population is arguably more than twice that of the next biggest city, Krakow (over 1.7 million vs. 767 thousand in the cities themselves, and 2.6 vs. 1.7 in their metro areas). However, Krakow is a leading center of Polish academic, cultural, and artistic life and one of the country’s most important economic hubs. Similarly, Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania, retained its economic and cultural significance and continues to overshadow the capital Vilnius in many ways. Historically a leading centre of Lithuanian economic, academic, and cultural life, Kaunas served as the temporary capital of Lithuania during the interwar period, in contrast to the declared capital in Vilnius, which was under Polish control from 1920 until 1939. Kaunas was likewise the capital of Trakai Voivodeship of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania since 1413 and of the Kovno Governorate from 1843 to 1915. It is also the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kaunas. Moreover, the current population of Kaunas is more than half that of Vilnius.

Curiously, all four of the so-called BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—lack a primate city. In India, the six main cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, and Kolkata serve as the capitals of their respective states/territories (Delhi, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal) and function as important economic and cultural hubs. Brazil’s capital and political center, Brasilia, is dwarfed in size and culture by São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte. In China, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing are comparable in population (depending on whether the “built-up area” or the “urban area” is considered, either Guangzhou or Shanghai comes up on top, and the population of Beijing is similar in size to that of Shanghai). While Beijing is the capital of China, Guangzhou is the capital and largest city of Guangdong province and a key national transportation hub, trading port, and manufacturing center. Similarly, Shanghai is a major financial center and the busiest container port in the world.


Finally, Russia is also considered to be a country without a primate city because of the historical rivalry of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The population of Moscow is only a little more than twice that of Saint Petersburg (approximately 11 million vs. 5 million). Moreover, as can be seen from the graph on the left, the numerical primacy of Moscow is fairly recent and is due both to the constant growth of population in the capital (mostly due to migration) and the relative stagnation of Saint Petersburg. But numbers do not tell the whole story. While Moscow is the current capital of Russia, Saint Petersburg was the Imperial capital of Russia for some 200 years (from 1713 to 1728 and from 1732 to 1918). Alongside Moscow, Saint Petersburg is a federal city with the status of federal subject of the Russian Federation. Saint Petersburg is also a major European cultural center, often considered the cultural capital of Russia. The city is home to the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world. It is also arguably the birthplace of the Russian rock music. Moreover, Saint Petersburg is economically important as it is a major port on the Baltic Sea and the home of many foreign consulates, international corporations, banks, and other large businesses.


Interestingly, both Moscow and Saint Petersburg left their mark on the Russian language. The two cities are situated in the Central dialectal zone (shown in yellow on the map on the left), yet the local dialects are subtly different. For example, different words are used for ‘curb’ (M: bordjur, StP: porebrik), ‘ladle’ (M: polovnik, StP: povarëška), different types of bread, and so on. Dialectal differences are also apparent in pronunciation. In Moscow the words buločnaja ‘bakery’, jaičnica ‘fried eggs’, čto ‘that’, konečno ‘of course’ are pronounced with [šn] or [št], whereas in Saint Petersburg they are enunciated with [čn] or [čt]. Words spelled with or žž such as eu ‘I drive’, poe ‘later’, drožži ‘yeast’, and vožži ‘reins’ are pronounced in Moscow with the soft [ž’ž’] and in Saint Petersburg with the hard [žž]. Likewise, the r-sound in words pervyj ‘first’, četverg ‘Thursday’, and verx ‘upside’ are pronounced as soft in Moscow and hard in Saint Petersburg. Standard literary norm includes the Moscow pronunciation of [čn] and [čt] in čto and konečno, yet Saint Petersburg “hard” pronunciations [žž] in poe/drožži, and [r] in četverg and similar words. In recent years, however, Saint Petersburg pronunciation has spread, due in large part to the popularity of Vladimir Putin, a native of “the northern capital”. (Curiously, Google Translate gives of hodge-podge of pronunciation choices: the Saint Petersburg hard [r] in četverg, the Moscow soft [ž’ž’] in drožži, the Saint Petersburg [čn]/[čt] in buločnaja and jaičnica, and the Moscow [šn]/[št] in čto and konečno.)

Due to such considerations, Moscow and Saint Petersburg can be considered Russia’s twin primate cities. As discussed in my earlier post, the urban centers in many countries do not follow the “natural” rank-order population distribution described by Zipf’s Law, which states: “a country’s largest city is approximately twice as large as the second-largest city, three times as big as the third city, four times as large as the fourth, and so on” (Hill & Gaddy, 2003, The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold, p. 19). Typical violations of the Zipf’s Law are encountered in regard to primate cities, as discussed earlier in the post. In Russia, in contrast, the two largest cities follow the Zipf’s Law, but the cities from the third-largest (Novosibirsk, population 1.4 million) down do not fit the pattern, as they are “too small”. Altogether, ten cities in Russia are crowded into the population range extending between 1 and 1.5 million people: Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Omsk, Kazan, Chelyabinsk, Rostov-on-Don, Ufa, and Volgograd. Urban areas between 1.5 and 4 million people, predicted by Zipf’s Law, are conspicuously absent. This deviation from the norm derives from the fact that most of Russia’s urban areas did not naturally grow from villages to towns to cities. Instead many were created or at least enhanced artificially, Frankenstein-style, in the Soviet period, when planners dictated development based on natural resource exploitation or industrial production needs. Many of these cities were built by Gulag prisoners or other forcibly resettled groups. Moreover, strict registration laws controlled the population of these cities; in the so-called propiska system, citizens had to register their place of residence with the local police. (In many cities, including Moscow, such regulations are still enforced). My earlier post discussed the consequences of such urban structure for Siberia and Russia as a whole. My next post will focus on European Russia, particularly the area between Saint Petersburg and Moscow.



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