Central place theory, developed by the German geographer Walter Christaller as his doctoral dissertation, Central Places in Southern Germany in 1933, was a highly influential set of models widely used to describe and analyze urban hierarchies in the mid 20th century.
Essentially, central place theory is a model of city systems that posits them as retail centers (central places) that distribute goods and services to their surrounding hinterlands. Like many models of spatial analysis, it assumes a featureless isotropic plain in which population density and transport costs are equal in all directions. Each good has a threshold, or minimum market size, as well as a range, or maximum distance consumers will travel to purchase it (Figure 1). The size of a given good's range and threshold vary with transportation costs, or the friction of distance, as well as the willingness of consumers to travel to obtain a given good or service. As the effective price increases with distance from the central place, demand declines accordingly. The model is thus compatible with the neoclassical views of economics that privilege consumer demand in the analysis of social and spatial structures.
Different goods and services have different thresholds: inexpensive, frequently purchased, and everyday necessities have low thresholds (e.g., convenience stores, groceries, eating and drinking establishments, dry cleaners, and other personal services), while costly, infrequently used goods and services, including luxuries, have much larger ones (e.g., jewelry, specialized medical services). The degree of specialization of a good or service is thus directly proportionate to the willingness of consumers to travel to obtain it: Increasingly specialized products attract consumers from progressively longer distances. A hierarchy of goods and services leads to a hierarchy of central places to distribute them. Central place theory thus ranks urban places on the basis of their ability to distribute goods that range from “low-order” to “high-order” ones. The order of a central place is determined by the highest-order goods that it distributes to consumers around it.
The resulting hierarchy of central places—the urban hierarchy—reflects the imperatives of market forces over space, which tend to maximize the number of centers, maximize the number of consumers served, and minimize the aggregate distances that consumers must travel to purchase goods of varying levels of specialization. Large cities distribute both low- and high-order goods, the latter over increasingly large hinterlands. Higher-order centers are more widely spaced, with larger populations, serve large market areas, and are encountered less frequently on the landscape. Thus, metropolitan areas, the highest order, offer the greatest diversity of goods and services and hinterlands that extend over vast distances. Conversely, progressively lower-order centers are nested within the market areas of higher-order centers. Small, rural hamlets, for example, historically formed central places serving low-density agricultural regions. Progressing up the urban hierarchy, one encountered increasingly larger but infrequent places with a mounting diversity of goods and services.
In the classical central place model, which has several variations, consumers minimize their transport costs to the closest city that offers the goods they desire, and producers maximize profits. On an isotropic plain, market areas form circles around each center. However, as consumers located between competing centers opt for the closest one, overlapping market areas are divided by lines (Figure 2). Assuming no spatial variations in transport costs or population, a hexagonal series of market areas should emerge, with lower-order ones nested within the hinterlands of higher-order ones (Figure 3). Hexagonal market areas became the defining feature of central place theory and were justified on grounds that they “packed” space—that is, they served all clients without overlapping market areas, more efficiently than any other shape. The model was thus decisively static in nature and offered a fixed, frozen geometrical portrait of cities.
Central place theory became extremely popular in geography in the 1950s and 1960s as part of the emerging positivist school of thought, which emphasized modeling. It formed the dominant paradigm within urban geography for almost a generation. For example, urban geographers, notably Brian Berry, sought out hexagonal systems of market areas in the Midwest, which most closely resembled an isotropic plain. The model was also used in urban planning ventures in Israel and the Netherlands. Positivist theoreticians built increasingly more complex—and unrealistic—central place models that attempted to incorporate uncertainty, entropy, and evolution over time.
Ultimately, central place theory was abandoned as human geography shifted decisively into political economy and social theory in the late 20th century. It was widely criticized for its overly simplistic assumptions; the absurdly unrealistic reduction of cities to shopping centers; the neglect of social relations in favor of individual consumer choice and the resulting silence concerning class, gender, consciousness, and power; the absence of any account of production and the spatial division of labor; and its ahistorical portrayal of urban networks. Today, the once dominant model of urban geography remains little more than a historical curiosity.
Berry, Brian, Christaller, Walter, Location Theory, Positivism, Regional Science, Spatial Analysis, Urban Hierarchy
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