New Capital Cities; a good idea?

Every nation needs a capital city. They act as focal points for business, culture, government and international relations, becoming symbols of their nation and famous all around the world. They evolve and change with the time in which they currently exist; endlessly adaptable and dependable. Well, most of them are.

During the American Revolution, Philadelphia in the state of Pennsylvania was the capital of the colony, and this situation persisted for a few decades after independence was achieved. However, as every geographer knows, Washington D.C. is the capital of the United States, so why was the capital city changed? In the early years the US experienced much turmoil in deciding how this new country should be run; and one of the primary issues was whether a Federal (such as in the US now) or Parliamentary (such as in the UK) governing system should be employed. During this, the state of Virginia complained about the location of the capital. This movement grew in momentum and it was decided that the location of the Capital city would be changed. Over the next few years the Americans moved their Capital from city to city, with a swarm of complaints being created by competing states when a new location was settled on. So it was decided in 1790 after the Civil War that a new city would be created on land that was not part of any existing state that would be under the direct control of Congress. The States of Maryland and Virginia both ceded land to the Federal Government to form the shape of a diamond around the Potomac River and create the District of Colombia. Construction started the same year, and Washington D.C. officially became the Capital city in 1801.

Washington D.C. can be considered a successful capital; a centre of Government and international relations, a huge boost to the US economy through the businesses that reside their and through tourism, and a name known throughout the world. Ottowa is another successful ‘new’ capital; but this model of creating a new capital away from the established centres of nations doesn’t always work. This is true in the USA on a minor scale; if you ask someone to name a US city, more often than not they will name New York first; which is the centre of the US economy; however, Washington D.C. will normally be in the top five. The city is only the 25th most populous area in the USA, and the 7th largest metropolitan area by population. But look at other countries who have tried to create a new capital and the results have not been quite as successful. Canberra was built as the new capital of Australia in 1913, but it is outshone internationally by Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. The Capital of Brazil? Not Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo but Brasilia, founded in 1960 (and is now the largest city in the world that did not exist in 1900). Islamabad is the ‘new’ capital of Pakistan, and Nigeria moved their capital from Lagos to the newly constructed Abuja in 1991.

These newly constructed, purpose built capital cities have not always been a success; outshone by neighbouring cities they have failed to become the centres of their nations’ economies and have not reached the same levels of international fame as pre-existing cities. Brasilia has become isolated in the geographical centre of Brazil, people and businesses refusing to move to its concrete streets, leaving it somewhat devoid of culture and activity in comparison to Rio and Sao Paulo. Abuja lives in the shadow of the ever growing Lagos, people not wanting to take a chance in the new city; immigrants choosing to head to where everyone else has already gone. These cities were not necessarily a bad idea; they were created usually as a sign of a fresh start after conflict, independence or political changes of heart; however they have just not lived up to what their creator hoped they would be.

Recently, according to the UN, South Sudan became the world’s 194th nation after a referendum in the nation resulted in its split from the rest of Sudan. People crowded the streets of Juba celebrating this, and the government announced plans that included a new capital to celebrate this new nation. Juba is claimed as not being suitable for becoming the capital of this landlocked nation; its dusty and ramshackle buildings not being suitable for the future influx of embassies and businesses ready to exploit new-found oil. The city is unable to expand due to neighbouring tribal lands, and there are no suitable buildings to house the new government. Some people in the country and abroad say that they can cope with substantial redevelopment, but to others it seems that South Sudan does have a good case for needing a new city.

However, South Sudan does not only have to contend with international precedent along with internal disagreements and tribal disputes on this issue, but money. Over 90% of South Sudan’s people live below the poverty line, and the nation which is the size of France has only 60km of paved roads. The project would cost over $10billion, money that many say could be better spent elsewhere. The government remains defiant, but they are also looking into much cheaper and less risky plans to redevelop Juba, and not move to the area that has been highlighted as a potential location, Ramciel, a sparsely populated area 200km north of the current capital. Will this new city be a success like Washington D.C., or will it fade into obscurity as people and business fail to adopt it? Only in a few decades time will we be able to tell.

Contributed by Chris Cockerill

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