26 Pacific Realm: Urban Geography II – Capital Cities

“The two big cities of Australia are tonally as distinct from each other as Boston is from L.A. or Lyon from Marseilles.”

– Helen Garner, Australian writer


Countries have capital cities.  The cities are selected for a variety of reasons, generally based on the social, economic, and political assets that those cities hold.  Sometimes countries change the locations of the capital cities.  Let’s consider the capital cities of the Pacific Realm, with particular attention to Canberra, the capital of Australia.  Let’s do so by examining geographic concepts relating to capital cities.

For many countries, the capital city is an obvious choice, because that country has a primate city (see Chapter 56).  A primate city dominates its country in all urban ways, including politically.  The predominant development of that city may be predicated partly upon its securing and early historical designation as the capital city.  Or, perhaps the city already possessed so much authority and power that it became the capital city almost automatically.  Some countries have these obvious capital cities – how else could it be?  Certainly, across the world there are examples, such as Bangkok, Thailand.  In the Western World, here is a list of several primate cities.

Country Primate City
Argentina Buenos Aires
Austria Vienna
El Salvador San Salvador
England London
France Paris
Hungary Budapest
Iceland Reykjavik
Latvia Riga
Mexico Mexico City
Nicaragua Managua
Peru Lima

However, in the Pacific Realm, the major countries of Australia and New Zealand lack primate cities, while Papua New Guinea (Port Moresby) and other small islands may have primate cities – Samoa (Apia).

In a few cases, countries have changed their capital cities.  In fact, the initial Congress of the United States held its session in New York City, deciding there to build a new city as the national capital — Washington in a special capital territory – the District of Columbia.  While this new city was being constructed, Philadelphia served a decade as the national capital.  The designated site would be roughly centered among the new states that stretched along the Atlantic sea coast.

Brazil followed a similar course of action.  Originally, Salvador was Portugal’s colonial capital in the New World, beginning in 1549.  The ascendancy of Rio de Janeiro brought economic, demographic, and political power, culminating in acquisition of the colonial capital in 1763.  Rio retained the capital upon Brazilian independence in 1822.  Eventually, Brazil sought to diversity political power and created the planned city of Brasilia, opening as the capital city in 1960.

Other countries such as Myanmar, Nigeria, and Pakistan have moved their capital cities as well.


Aerial photograph of Canberra, the capital city of Australia.
Canberra. Photo by Greg Schechter on Flickr.

For the Pacific Realm, Australia followed this course too.  In Australia, Sydney and Melbourne both grew in population and in social, economic, and political power and distinction.  In 1901, Australia opened the 20th century by declaring itself a commonwealth, a country and no longer a British colony, though it has retained its commonwealth connection with Britain to this day.  At that time, Sydney and Melbourne were rivals for the title of national capital; however, the newly defined commonwealth established a plan to build a new city as the national capital.  A piece of territory was ceded from New South Wales for the construction of this planned city Canberra in the new Australian Capital Territory.  Melbourne served as the temporary capital until 1927 when the legislature first met in Canberra.  The site was chosen to be roughly between Melbourne and Sydney.  Additionally, the decision to be somewhat inland reflected a desire to be secure from any potential future naval attack.  Clearly, there are similarities with the planned city of Washington, DC.

In certain cases, capital cities are moved or are originally sited in so-called forward locations.  These forward capitals are placed away from the dominant national cities, due to economic, strategic, symbolic, and diversifying motivations.  In these cases often the new capital city is located quite a distance inland, away from other major cities, and into otherwise less utilized areas.  Definitely, Brasilia meets this model in Brazil, as do Eastern World capitals of Islamabad in Pakistan and Naypyidaw (Nay Pyi Taw) in Myanmar. For the Pacific Realm, Australia’s Canberra is located along the string of prominent eastern coastal cities.  Canberra was required to be over 100 miles from Sydney, but it doesn’t stand out as a forward capital in the way that perhaps Alice Springs would have.

Planned cities are numerous across the world, but are noteworthy when chosen for design as the national capital.  Washington, DC, and Canberra, ACT, are similar in that regard.

Wellington was name the capital of New Zealand in 1865.  It has an excellent location at the southern tip of the North Island; thus, it is very nearly at the geographic center of the country.


Did You Know?


A capitol is the building(s) where government happens, typically a state legislature operates there.  A capital is the city where the national or state government resides.




Hot Off the Press

After reading this chapter, can you successfully respond to this Final Jeopardy clue from December 1, 2021?

Final Jeopardy


Cited and additional bibliography:

Schechter, Greg. 2009. Canberra. https://tinyurl.com/canberra2009. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

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.

Share This Book