Trading Places

What drives a country to switch its capital city?

Following December’s devastating earthquake in the city of Bam, Iran’s top security official suggested that the nation’s capital be moved from Tehran—also located on a fault line—to somewhere rather safer. If the idea, previously aired in 1991, makes it out of the starting gate, the new capital would be the latest in a long tradition of capital-city-making—or moving—by national leaders motivated by ego, nationalism, visions of utopia, demand-driven economics, or, very occasionally, plain good sense.

Take Yamoussoukro, a sleepy jungle town in Ivory Coast, West Africa—until a local boy, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, became president. In 1983, Houphouët-Boigny named Yamoussoukro the country’s capital—despite the fact that Abidjan, a bustling coastal metropolis, was a perfectly good commercial and administrative center. To make his point—and to ensure that heaven would have room for another wasteful and arrogant African dictator—Houphouët-Boigny ordered the construction in Yamoussoukro of a replica of Rome’s St. Peter’s (never mind that only about a quarter of the country’s population is Christian). Houphouët-Boigny died in office in 1993, three years after Yamoussoukro’s crowning glory was completed, and his capital remains a relative ghost town, with around 120,000 inhabitants, next to Abidjan’s 4 million.

A sense of utopian destiny, rather than ego, drove the creation of Brasilia, Brazil’s capital. A prophecy by an Italian saint in 1883 promised great bounties if the interior of the country—mostly Amazon jungle—was developed. In 1891, a new constitution called for the move, and a foundation stone was laid in 1922. It wasn’t until 1957 that the new capital project got under way, spearheaded by President Juscelino Kubitschek. Besides being the mother of all government-spending and employment-generating public works, the effort to replace Rio de Janeiro as Brazil’s capital with a city 900 kilometers inland was to be a “utopian experiment in modern urbanism” that could “stimulate leaps in the development process itself, causing the nation to skip undesired stages in its evolution,” wrote James Holston in The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasilia.

Brasilia has indeed abetted the development of the Brazilian heartland, helped unify the country’s massive territory, and provided plenty of jobs and wealth for well-connected contractors. But the massive expense of the effort contributed to enormous budget deficits and escalating inflation—which helped spark a military coup in 1964 and subsequently took Brazil in the opposite direction of the showplace of the modern and progressive that Brasilia was intended to embody. Brasilia fell short of utopia in other ways as well: Rather than being an ideal city to get around by car, the peculiar airplane-shape layout of the city is exceptionally challenging. The city’s planners aimed to create a city that would be free of social class differentiation, but slums sprung up before construction was even finished. Many of the monumental government structures in the capital, designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, are showing their age, and are shadows of their former selves. “Brasilia has become a very different kind of city from the one its founders intended … the whole development seems to have put the very concept of the zoned city into question,” observed Joseph Rykwert in The Seduction of Place: The History and Future of Cities.

Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev also had national unity in mind when he made Aqmola (renamed Astana the following year), a city in the north of the country, the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997. Nazarbayev was concerned about the strong Russian influence in the northern part of the Central Asian republic—which, situated south of Siberia, is four times the size of Texas—and wanted to ensure that the northerners felt bound to the more populous and prosperous south, where the previous capital, Almaty, was located.

Astana’s shiny new office buildings, slick fresh blacktop, and shopping malls, albeit interspersed with the city’s pre-existing Soviet-style slums, have spurred economic growth in northeastern Kazakhstan and helped spread the massive wealth generated by the country’s oil reserves. But Turkish grocery stores and the re-naming of Aqmola—which in Kazakh means either “white tombstone” or “white sacred place,” depending who you talk to—to Astana (“capital city”) can’t change the city’s major drawback: its inhospitable weather. Winters on the wind-swept Siberian steppes are brutally cold, while steamy summers are characterized by swarms of baseball-sized mosquitoes. The move from cosmopolitan and comparatively temperate Almaty has been highly unpopular.

The former Soviet Union was arguably the all-time king of creating cities in barely hospitable parts of the Earth that economics, geography, and plain human decency would suggest should just be left alone. During the Soviet era, cities were developed in the middle of nowhere in order to extract mineral wealth and to ensure that everyone in the country had a job (productive or otherwise). As a result, according to The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold, 23 of the world’s 25 coldest cities with populations over 500,000 are in Russia. The maintenance of the massive Soviet misallocation of people and industrial plant constitutes an enormous tax on the Russian economy today.

Some cities never shake the feel that they shouldn’t exist at all, or at least in their gussied-up form. Yamoussoukro, despite—or perhaps because of—its ridiculous white elephant monument to Christianity, has a hollow and vacant feel to it. Islamabad, which was built in the 1960s to replace Karachi as the home of the apparatus of Pakistani government, is modern, meticulously planned, and rigidly zoned—and as dull as ditchwater. Brasilia, pedestrian-unfriendly and pockmarked with monstrous concrete government buildings in various states of decay, lacks a human touch. And many cities in Siberia have a post-economic-meltdown surreal artificiality about them.

Washington, D.C., created in the early 1790s when President George Washington famously chose a swamp as the future site of the United States’ permanent seat of government was soon reviled as “a mud-hole equal to the Great Serbonian Bog.” It’s not quite so bad now, but—a few vibrant downtown neighborhoods excepted—once the city’s cubicle-dwellers flee to the suburbs, Washington can feel as empty as a bad high-school dance.

Indeed, George hit on another motivation for cities-by-fiat: a shorter commute for the boss. In the days before the Delta Shuttle and the Acela Express, the first American president couldn’t very well pop down from New York or Philadelphia to his homestead at Mount Vernon for the weekend. But the 15 miles from Mount Vernon into present-day downtown Washington is reasonable. Unfortunately, Washington didn’t live to see the construction of his namesake city—or enjoy the short trip to the office.

Thanks to Brian Quigley, Maria Pagura, and Reid Andrews.