The location of a capital city can reveal clues not only about the political geography of a nation-state but also its prevailing geopolitical culture. In the case of the United Kingdom, the city of London is the most recent of our capital cities, as in the past other English cities and towns such as Winchester and York have been seats of government. Colchester was the heartland of Roman power at one stage. London, as a major port and trading centre, became the sole English capital city in the 12th century. Outside England, Edinburgh became the capital of Scotland in the 15th century, but prior to that Perth was an important site for the royal court. In our more recent devolved era, we have in effect the four capital cities of Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London. All are homes to various parliaments, assemblies and other organs of government.
So capital cities can and do move. Their locations can be surprising at first glance. Some of the American state capitals were established some distance from dominant commercial cities such as Houston or Dallas, Las Vegas, and New York. The respective state capitals of Texas (Austin), Nevada (Carson City) and New York state (Albany) are not ones we might expect. The rationale was straightforward; state officials wanted to ensure that there was some physical separation for the administrative and political centre of government. Carson City, when it became state capital in the 1860s, was at the heart of a mining economy and an important station for the Pony Express. While Las Vegas will be far more familiar to readers, it was comparatively under-developed by settlers until the arrival of the railway at the turn of the 20th century. Gambling came later in the 1930s.
National capitals can and do alter their location because governments of the day decide that their new national priorities demand it. In 1960, the Brazilian government inaugurated a new federal capital, Brasilia. For much of the country’s colonial and post-colonial history, Rio de Janeiro was the capital city. Located in the Brazilian highlands, some 1,000km to the north of the old capital, Brasilia is far closer to the centre of the country, especially the enormous Amazonian region. Under military rule in the 1960s and 1970s, the generals governing Brazil were convinced that Brazil’s interior needed to be developed further and integrated into the country’s infrastructure. The construction of roads, airports and dams was considered essential for Brazil’s national security and the prevailing Cold War contributed to anxieties that the under-developed Amazon and ‘empty’ highland regions would be vulnerable to communist infiltration and possible subversion. Brasilia as a capital city was also an opportunity for Brazil to showcase through architecture and formal planning its claims to modernism.
The decision to move the capital city of Nigeria from the sprawling port city of Lagos to the centre of the country in Abuja was inspired in part by a hope that the country could re-invent itself through a new city. Inaugurated in 1991, the city is now home to more than two million people. The shift to Abuja was made possible by a military regime armed with petrodollars and a determination to create a new Federal Capital Territory, regardless of the cost to local communities. At the time it was suggested that Muslim political leaders wanted to diminish the influence of Lagos and southwest Nigeria, which was dominated by Yoruba Christians. The new capital city was closer to the Muslim dominated north and thus it was an act of internal geopolitical adjustment. Thirty years later, displaced communities are still battling for proper compensation.
All of which brings us to the latest development affecting national capital cities. Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo told his twitter followers in August that Jakarta was ‘sinking’. As a consequence, the new capital would be re-located on Kalimantan Island (also known as Borneo). The president has spoken of establishing the new capital by 2025 and steps are being taken to secure funding and implement such a move. Around 40 per cent of Jakarta is described as sinking below sea level and thus prone to ever greater flood risk. Traffic congestion and pollution are also cited as affecting the liveability of a city that sustains more than ten million people (millions more if you consider the wider metropolitan region).
The ecological and societal impact of Jakarta’s decline and the establishment of a new capital city on Kalimantan will be immense. The Indonesian government has spoken of a ‘forest city’ and a new capital city that will be ecologically sensitive. However, others are worried that a costly relocation will usher in further deforestation, industrial development and societal disruption to local communities. Moving a capital city is never straightforward.
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