|Above the Washington Mall|
In Search of a Capital
Let's start with the United States. A few weeks ago I spent the weekend in New York City. Spend any time in New York, particularly Manhattan, and you must be struck by the vibrancy, the hum, of the place. New York is one of the world's largest cities and a major global center for commerce, finance, the arts, media, fashion, and international affairs (among other things). By multiple measures it ranks as an "alpha" world city, along with places like London, Paris, and Tokyo. But unlike those other three cities and despite its vast size and influence, New York is not the capital of the United States. Indeed New York is not the nexus or focal point of the United States in the way London is for the United Kingdom (and especially England), or Paris is for France, or Tokyo to Japan.
This was certainly true when the United States gained its independence from England. At the time the capital moved constantly, but the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783 convinced the nation's founders that a permanent capital was needed. But where would this permanent capital be located? As a political and geographic compromise, the new city was to be situated on the Potomac River, about the halfway between Maine in the north and Georgia in the south. Uniquely at the time but emulated in several cases later, the new capital would not be part of any state but an independent federal region.
|The L'Enfant Plan for Washington|
Being a new city, Washington was largely planned from scratch by Pierre L'Enfant as a city of wide streets radiating from squares and circles. This plan wasn't always adhered to during the city's first century of existence, but major modernizing and redevelopment efforts in the early twentieth century returned the city to L'Enfant's original vision. I've worked on road projects in Washington and I can attest to how ardently city planners continue to be guided by L'Enfant's plan.
In addition, the city is widely known for its neoclassical architecture exemplified by the White House and Capitol Building, but a visit will reveal that Washington, consistent with a new city, is actually a wide mix of styles from various times and movements. Its look is much less consistent than its older European counterparts like Paris and London. Still, over time Washington has grown into a very distinct place, a similar story can be told about America's northern neighbor.
had fought before).
I haven't been to Ottawa but according to a few people I know who have, it's supposedly lovely. It has grown to be the fourth largest city in the country and by at least one measure is highly livable.
The city has a distinctive layout and cityscape, and it is the only city built in the twentieth century to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city grew swiftly from the beginning and is now the fourth largest in the country (though far smaller than Rio or Sao Paulo), and the largest inland city.
|Winter Palace Square in Saint Petersburg|
Saint Petersburg ended up growing into a major city, Russia's second city. Its historic center is, like Brasilia, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it remains a major cultural center. It's the northern most city of more than one million people. Saint Petersburg is also unique in that historical forces caused its name to be changed several times, from the German-sounding Saint Petersburg to Petrograd during World War I, then to Leningrad in 1924 just before Lenin's death, and finally back to Saint Petersburg with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Leningrad was besieged for nearly 900 days during World War II, one of the longest and most brutal sieges in history.
ruled the Raj from Calcutta, but by the early twentieth century it was felt that a new more central location would be better, so the city of Delhi was chosen. A new capital area, New Delhi, was constructed. The city was inaugurated in 1931, and since India's independence from Great Britain in 1947, it has remained the capital. The Delhi area is a historic center to India and the city has continued to grow and is now the second largest in the country behind Mumbai.
Certainly there are many other capitals with similarly interesting histories. Cities are the focus of civilization and a great concentration of humanity is inherently compelling. What if none of these cities above had ever been created? What if the capital was placed in an already established location? Interesting aspects of history, politics, and geography seem to go a long way to determining where a capital city will be located but the cities that result end up being far more fascinating.