Why are capital cities of countries usually so small compared to other cities?

So why are they? Let me give a couple of examples…

1> Australians (and also some foreigners) know that Melbourne (population approx. 3.7million) and Sydney (population approx. 4million) are by far the biggest cities in Australia, although the capital city is Canberra (population approx. 300,000).

2> I would also guess that Washington DC is not one of the biggest U.S. cities…

Shouldn’t our politicians hold parliament in the higher populated cities, to maybe have a better idea of what impact their goverment is having on the country?

Mats K

well, the US is the center of the earthly universe, so everyone knows Washington DC is the capital of the US.

The decision to put washington DC in that section of Maryland is a long story… remember the capital used to be Philadelphia.

Looking at a map of the US, one would just assume the capital should be somewhere in Texas. Largest state (in the continental US), right in the middle, at the bottom “holding up” the rest of the union, like Atlas.

Anyway, as to your question… capital cities are founded after a nation has already grown to a size worthy of being a nation with a capital. Then the question arises - where should our capital be? Sometimes it is the largest city, such as Mexico City, Mexico; Tokyo, Japan; Moscow, Russia… sometimes it is a smaller city for logistical reasons. Many cities in the US fought over the capital, so it was put in a odd little place, in land maryland set off to be federal property.

Aside from WashDC and Canberra… i’d say most capital cities ARE the largest city.

Also bear in mind that capital cities are sometimes selected as administrative centres, not tourist centres or population centres, and that selecting a capital city can be a political affair within countries. Canberra’s location was selected to avoid political friction between Sydney and Melbourne (since it’s pretty much halfway betweem) - and it’s very small because it’s purely an administrative centre. I’ve stayed there, and at weekends it’s like a ghost town.

Generally, this is not true, imho.

Reykjavik has almost 120 thousand of Iceland’s 270 thousand people for example.

Beijing has at least 20 million people (including illegal immigrants from other parts of China)

London is quite large, forget the number

The Hague is fairly large, so is Amsterdam if you want to count that as the capital

I think I can name a lot more big capitals, but I’ll stop here because I don’t feel like looking up lots of population figures. :smiley:

— G. Raven

Well, as an explanation for Washington, D.C., when it was founded it was set at a 10 X 10 km size… and I think there’s an ordinance that says that no building can be taller than the Capitol Building. Those sorts of limitations would certainly be an obstacle to the development of a NYC-sized metropolis.

Yes, please do count Amsterdam as the capital of The Netherlands. It is, afterall… :wink:

But yes, usually the capital is one of the largest cities. Well, here in Europe that is. But that is where all the ‘normal’ folk live anyway. It’s just you weirdos on other continents that have different rules :wink:

The Hague is the capital for all practical purposes, ya know, and we’re proooouuud :wink:

— G. Raven

Most capital cities pre-date the Industrial Revolution and Capitalist era. Thus, as a general rule, their geographic locations have much to do with traditional trading routes (on rivers with access to the ocean while also far enough up stream so the river was bridgeable or on the coast itself) and (sometimes) defence. In Europe, the Romans often established these administrative centres based on population groups who themselves had grown to importance because of primitive trade and security issues.

Through the centuries and as the nation state emerged, their Institutions – universities, political, legal, religious and commerce centres also evolved organically around the administrative hub. In previous centuries it was important that these Institutions were relatively close to each other (i.e. a gentle giddy up horsy journey) as power and influence have always been intertwined - the powerful (and after the Romans went AWOL, the non-elected leaders (Kings, Queens, etc) all wanted to be within earshot.

This contrasts with some ‘New World’ capital cities where sites for capital cities were selected on a more modern basis – one might see the potential for exponential growth as one aspect not envisioned by the Romans (or others where appropriate) but considered by modern city planners, political frictions between vested interests another (mattk cites an Australian example).

Generally, I don’t agree that capital cities are smaller than other cities but where they are, I suspect it’s because those other cities outgrew the capital as a result of industrial and commercial development in later centuries (proximity to coal and ore fields, where the capital’s growth is constricted by geographical features, etc.) or the location of the capital was selected with more modern considerations in mind.

In those terms, The Netherlands is neither ‘ancient’ or modern so I’m not sure it’s a good example of either of the above.

Given all of that, you’ll understand why Lords is the home of cricket and why The Ashes will be, rightfully, residing here once more by the time the summer is over. G’day.

We chauvanistic, insular Yanks don’t find a capital city not being the largest city in any way strange.

We are conditioned as children to learn our 50 state capitals. And they are almost always NOT the largest city in the state. They were made the capital in bygone times for reasons such a London gave, as well as others.

To add another twist to the discussion, I doubt that working in the largest city of their country gives politicians a better idea of what’s going on in the country at large. At best it gives them a better idea of what’s going on in the largest city. Now, I know here in Oslo some people harbor the conceit that Oslo is essentially identical to Norway, but the rest of the country does not agree. The politicians here are sitting as far from Finnmark (Norway’s northernmost county) as they are from Italy. And any politician in a big city is remote from farmers, for instance, who always feel the biggest effects from changes in agricultural policy. Furthermore, members of national legislatures are generally well-paid; they have a lifestyle similar to that of the professional upper-middle class, and a disproportionate number have family wealth behind them. No matter where they lived, they wouldn’t know about what life is like for a large share of their country’s population unless they purposely make themselves aware.

Incidentally, Oslo is Norway’s capital and largest city. It wasn’t the largest city when it became the capital; Bergen was. The winner of the last civil war wanted the capital in Oslo. I suspect many capitals were chosen for similar reasons, and grew to become their countries’ largest cities.

While most cities evolve, Canaberra, Washington and Brazilia were created, artificially as it were, as capitals.

In Washington, D.C.'s case, Locating the city where they did was something of a compromise since it was pretty much in the center of the country when it was created. Not a southern city - thus pleasing the northerners and not a northern city - thus pleasing the southerners and there wasn’t much west, so…

Personally, I think the capital should move every 100 years or so. Maybe that way the politicians will not become quite so entrenched. Move the capital to Lincoln, Nebraska or someplace similar. Maybe that way they would realize there is something past the Beltway. Besides, can you imagine watching ambassadors try to figure out chicken-fried steak?


Wrong, Right, & Bad-Mannered, Kalt

Wrong-- The old U.S. capitol was New York City.
There’s a statue of George Washington on Wall Street to commemorate this fact.

Right-- Most nations’ capitols are the largest city in the nation in question. Small capitol=deliberately created capitol city.

Bad Mannered–Go wash out your mouth with Bryll-Cream. :stuck_out_tongue:

No, actually, Kalt had it right. The US capital was Philadelphia between 1790-1800.

And BTW, please note that the word is spelled capital. Sorry, but that’s a pet peeve of mine.

I concede the spelling error.


Philadelphia was never officially the capital. It was the location for the Continental Congress, & subsequent Congresses, yes.

But a city becomes a capital city only when the government officially declares it to be the seat of government. Philadelphia doesn’t qualify. New York did. By Act of Congress.

Not true, I’m afraid. Geographically, sure, but at the time the population and political power were skewed to the north - Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore were the major cities. Selecting a southern capital along the Potomac was controversial, but agreement was achieved in exchange for the federal government assuming the debts of the individual states, a priority of the northern establishment.

This site gives a more complete story. It also provides a good chronology that should clarify this NY/Philly argument to some degree.

Add Ottawa Canada to the short list of small cities as capitals. But I also believe the small capital thing is an exception to the rule. Living in Ottawa, I met quite a few people who immigrated there from other continents and were surprised to see that the capital is so small. They were expecting a big captial city with plenty of opportunities, no dice.

And IIRC, Ottawa was chosen because it’s right on the border of Ontario and Quebec, so they could put government buildings in both provinces and keep both the English- and French- Canadians happy.

If Philadelphia was not the official capital from August 13, 1790 until 1800, then what was the official capital.

Congress and the rest of the Federal government couldn’t wait to get out of New York in 1790 (with the exception of the New Yorkers in Congress.) The site of Washington D.C. wasn’t announced until January of 1791.

There had to be some place for the Federal government to meet and be considered the capital. They had to send the mail somewhere after all.

Some historians believe that people like Washington and Jefferson were hoping that “The Federal City” would grow the same way as St. Petersburg did in Russia.

However, the Federal government did have the same authority as Peter the Great who could just tell everybody that they had to move or else.

It was also perhaps the only capital chosen in part because of it’s remoteness - the powers that be figured it would be harder for the Americans to take control of if they ever invaded again. But they learned their lesson in 1812 and never did :smiley:

Capital = not one of the historic major cities of the country:
USA Canada Brazil Belize Turkey Pakistan Australia – all by design in order to move the capital away from the previously-established power center (and Ivory Coast and Nigeria are attempting it).

Then there are the multicephalic countries: Bolivia and South Africa, where one of the capitals is a big city, another is a smaller one.

Almost everywhere else the official political capital is also the business/industry/culture capital of the country and one of if not the biggest city (of course, it may be that it became a major trade/population center by virtue of being a capital) or, it used to be it, in a historically significant period (e.g. Jerusalem).

I believe the building in question is the Washington Monument.