This part two of series on capital cities, exploring influences on their location and history.
There will be maps.
For the first part click here.
Continuing to break new ground
Continuing a post independence from Britain theme, is the US planned capital of Washington D.C., designated by its namesake George and officially made the capital of the young United States in 1800. Its strategic position on the Potomac river in a trans-state location between Virginia and Maryland reflected, not just a central location in the then 13 newly independent colonies; but a compromise between Southern and Northern colonies, i.e. slave holding and free states.
The embryonic nation had shifted capitals between New York and Philadelphia before settling on this permanent, purpose-built capital for the new nation, enshrined with the new ‘liberal’ ideas of the era. It is a place which, is still seen, as a designed city with a political function, and one that is for the nation. Hence why the District of Columbia is not a state, but a square piece of territory given up by Maryland (Virginia pulled out of donating land later) for political functions of the nation. One can wonder around the neoclassical monuments and landscape to see it is very much an ‘designed’ place which is meant to impress and impose, reflecting the new ideals of American independence and ideas of ‘liberty’ (however you choose to interpret this) of the time. RE: French Revolution (Liberté, égalité, fraternité).
Designed by French born architect and planner, Charles L’Enfant, he designed it with board streets and avenues radiating out of rectangles, allowing for areas of landscaping. It is also said to be designed to be hard to navigate around to make invasion attempts harder. The irony was that this ‘new world’ capital, was based on city designs from the ‘old world’, such as Paris and Amsterdam, much like the roots of liberal political philosophy at the time.
Political influences on capital cities can be ideological, strategic or simply based on the whims of dictatorships. While Abidjan remains the economic capital, Yamoussoukro became the political and administrative capital of Côte d’Ivoire in 1983, as it was President Houphouët-Boigny’s birthplace. The case of Tanzania’s capital Dodoma, and it’s move from the established port city of Dar-es-Salem (where many government offices still remain) is more curious.
While it is not alone in post-colonial African countries in founding a new capital in a central location (and to promote growth elsewhere), its attempts to integrate Tanzanian political ideologies of the time into the city planning is unique. Under President Julius Nyerere, Tanzania adopted an Marxist ideological variation called ‘ujamaa’ (Swahili for ‘brotherhood’), which can be loosely defined as an African socialism. For example, the ‘villagization’ of production, which saw local subsistence farming fall under state collectivization. The focus was on a rural environment and maintaining a close connection to the land.
Thus this new capital in ‘ujamaa heartland’ also deliberately a non-monumental, non-modernist capital city, as opposed to the hierarchical capital cities of Western/colonial powers. Instead of road grid forms, it attempted to follow the natural topography to maintain its ‘rural feel’. Part of the driver away from Dar-es-Salem, was a socialist push away from concentrated wealth in the coastal city, unifying Tanzania under a goal of ujamaa form of development. Again it is an attempt to reverse and revolutionise geographical urban logic. Ironically, it took until 1996 for the capital to move to Dodoma, some 23 years after it was first conceptualized – by then, the Berlin Wall had collapsed and Nyerere and his policy of ujamma had departed from power.
Russia is perhaps most closely associated with Marxist philosophy historically, following the Russian Revolution of 1918. Moscow became the capital city of Russia once again following this revolution, with Lenin motivated to move the seat of power the area of Communism’s largest support base, the ‘urban proletariat’ and the largest urban population. Indeed, the drive to topple the Czar from power was, in part, motivated by the distance, both physically and metaphorically, from his ‘subjects’. Many of these were the starving urban population while, the Czar lived in relative luxury in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. St Petersburg was a port city established by ‘Peter the Great’ in 1703, and later capital of Imperial Russia in 1712. The city was a planned to imitate Western cities, as part of Czar Peter’s ideology and attempts to modernise Russia to look towards Europe, with its architecture reflecting this Western European influence and grandeur, nicknamed Russian Venice.
Colonialists and their motivations have shaped urban geography and capital cities too. Beyond the urbanisation of port cities in West Africa due to colonial focus on extraction from colonies – self-determination has been an influence too. Wellington was designated capital of then British colony of New Zealand, moving from Auckland in 1865. Following a decision made by neutral commissioners from Australia, Wellington was chosen for its central location and good harbour on the shores of the Cook Straits. However, the British had concerns that the more populous South Island with their goldfields, would want to form their own colony.
A more blatant form of British self-preservation came with establishment of a new capital city for British India of New Delhi in 1912. A purpose built capital in village next to the old city of Delhi (and old capital of Mughal Empire), the British moved the capital from the more populous Kolkata, as they felt this central location would be easier to administer India from here. A major factor here however was the rising nationalist and anti-colonial sentiment particularly in Kolkata. Nonetheless, whether it be the central location or agglomeration of political functions here – New Delhi remains India’s capital post-independence.
This part two of series on capital cities, exploring influences on their location and history. For the first part click here. Stay tuned for the final part.