56 Europe: Urban Geography I –
The Primate City


Primate mammals include human beings; however, a primate city, though populated by human beings, is named for mammals, but instead the term refers to the word primary meaning singular and dominant.  Thus, a primate city dominates its country in all urban ways.

Four factors should be evaluated to consider whether or not a country is likely to have a primate city.  First, does the country have a large population?  If yes, this decreases the probability that one city dominates the country’s urban population, for a large population provides sufficient numbers of people to populate many large cities.

Second, does the country have a large area?  If yes, then this too decreases the probability that one city dominates the country’s urban population, for a large area provides sufficient territory to develop many large cities.

Third, does the country have a long history of urbanization?  If yes, then again the probability of a primate city decreases, for there has been enough time for many cities to form and grow in size and importance.

  • If a country has none of these three characteristics, then it will not have a primate city.
  • If it has one of these three characteristics, then it might have a primate city.
  • Two of three, probably a primate city.
  • Three of three, guaranteed a primate city.

Let’s consider these factors in regard to Europe.  First, do European countries have large populations? The most populated country in Europe is Germany with about 83 million people is only the 17th largest country in the world.  (Note that we are not counting Russia in Europe.) Despite this rank, we will credit Germany with a large population.

  • UK – 67 million
  • France – 65 million
  • Italy – 60 million
  • Spain – 47 million

These are the top four countries in Europe, by population size.

In contrast, there are many countries in Europe with small populations – Netherlands 17 million, Sweden 10 million, Austria 9 million, Ireland 5 million, Luxembourg 1 million, and so on.

Second, do European countries have large areas?  The largest country in Europe is France. (Again, not counting Russia in Europe, but also counting Ukraine in the Russian Domain. Turkey does not yet belong in Europe.) France’s 212,935 square miles is smaller than that of Texas at 268,596 square miles.  While Texas is a very large state compared to the average American state, it would not count as a large country.  Thus, we can say that no country in Europe is particularly large.

Third, does Europe have a long history of urbanization?  Given that urbanization is associated with industrialization and that Europe is the birthplace of industrialization, we can say that most of Europe indeed has a long history of urbanization. Europe as a whole measures at 74% urban. Belgium leads the way with a 98% urban population.

After assessing these characteristics that cause primate cities to arise, we make another check to determine if the primate city is present. Does the largest city have significant percentage of the country’s urban population? A reasonable threshold would be 15% of the country’s urban dwellers living in just one city and dwarfing any other city.

So, do European countries have single cities with over 15% of the country’s urban population, while being much larger than the second largest city? Let’s take a look at the figures for metropolitan areas.

  • Athens 2.7 million of Greece’s 11 million, tripling Thessaloniki.
  • Belgrade 1.65 million of Serbia’s 7 million, 5x Novi Sad.
  • Budapest 3.3 million of Hungary’s 10 million, dwarfing Debrecen’s 237 thousand.
  • Copenhagen 2 million of Denmark’s 6 million, 6x Aarhus
  • Dublin 1.9 million of Ireland’s 5 million, nearly 5x Cork.
  • Helsinki 1.4 million of Finland’s 6 million, 4x Tampere.
  • London 14 million of England’s 67 million, 12x Birmingham.
  • Oslo 1.7 million of Norway’s 5 million, 4x Bergen.
  • Paris 12 million of France’s 65 million, but dwarfing Lyon 2.2 million.
  • Prague 2.1 million of Czechia’s 11 million, 2+x Brno.
  • Reykjavik 210 thousand of Iceland’s 360 thousand, dwarfing Akureyri’s 19k.
  • Riga 1 million of Latvia’s 2 million, 10x Daugavpils.
  • Sofia 1.6 million of Bulgaria’s 7 million, 3x Plovdiv’s 544 thousand.
  • Stockholm 2.2 million of Sweden’s 10 million, 2x Gothenburg.
  • Tallinn 540 thousand of Estonia’s 1.3 million, 5x Tartu.
  • Vienna 2.6 million of Austria’s 9 million, 9x Graz.
  • Zagreb 1.1 million of Croatia’s 4 million, 3x Split.

This is not an exhaustive list of primate cities in Europe, but clearly this is the pattern. European countries typically have primate cities.  Only Germany counts as having a large population.  None of the countries count as having a large area.  A few of the countries are considered to lack a long history of urbanization.  Thus, most countries will have one of our determining factors, while Germany has two of these three factors.

Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. 2023.
Photo by James C. Garman.

While these are the noted national characteristics; primate cities themselves are typified by other elements. Primate cities are the political capital cities. Primate cities are the cultural foci of their respective countries.  The economic center of the country is the primate city.  The primate city dominates the country’s urban life in all ways.

Ask someone to name a city in France and their first thought will be Paris.  Indeed, Paris clearly is the primate city of France, dominating it as the capital, the cultural core, and the financial center. However, in terms of the magnitude of primacy, Paris is not the leader in Europe.  Budapest’s degree of primacy in Hungary is greater than Paris’ degree of primacy in France.

Notably absent from the list of countries with primate cities are Germany and Poland.

  • Berlin 3.5 million of Germany’s 83 million, 2x Hamburg.

Germany’s population is too great to have a European primate city. To meet the 15% threshold, Berlin would need to have a population of 12.45 million.  Additionally, Berlin does not dwarf Hamburg, the second largest city.

  • Warsaw 1.75 million of Poland’s 38 million, 2+x Krakow.

To meet the 15% threshold, Warsaw would need to have a population of 5.7 million.  It does not dwarf Krakow, the second largest city.

The list of European countries without clear primate cities also includes Romania, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Portugal, to name a few.


Did You Know?

The United States clearly does not have a primate city.  New York is the financial center and the largest city. Washington, DC, is the political capital.  Los Angeles lays claim to the cultural focus. Chicago and Houston have large populations as key cities.  The United States has a large population, a large area, and a long history of urbanization. Thus, it has none of the three characteristics used to generate primate cities.  In fact, the United States follows the Rank-Size Rule. Go to the essay on the Rank-Size Rule in Russia for a parallel to this topic.


Cited and additional bibliography:

Asya Pereltsvaig. 2015. “Primate Cities – Languages Of The World.” Languages Of The World. June 12, 2015. https://www.languagesoftheworld.info/geography/primate-cities.html.

Garman, James C. Photo, 2023. Eiffel Tower.

Kiersz, Andy. 2019. “30 Countries Where Much (or Most!) Of the Population Lives in One City, like Israel, Japan, and Greece.” Business Insider. November 4, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-most-of-population-lives-in-biggest-city-2019-11#4-ulaanbaatar-mongolia-had-a-population-of-1553000-which-was-482-of-the-countrys-population-of-3225000-27.

“Population Reference Bureau – Inform, Empower, Advance.” 2019. Prb.Org. 2019. https://www.prb.org.


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The Western World: Daily Readings on Geography Copyright © 2020 by Joel Quam and Scott Campbell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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