Thursday, September 02, 2010

Central Place Theory and Its Dark Origin

The development of Central Place Theory is one of the great realizations in modern geography.  The theory's acceptance allowed for better integration of quantitative data and mathematics into geography and allowed the field to regain scientific respect which was lost after World War II.  What few realizes or acknowledge though is that this important theory has its origins in one of mankind's darkest hours.

Central Place Theory deals with cities, their satellites, and other populated places.  Central Place Theory is defined, by James Rubenstein in "The Cultural Landscape: An Introduction to Human Geography," as "a theory that explains the distribution of services, based on the fact that settlements serve as centers of market areas for services; larger settlements are fewer and farther apart than smaller settlements and provide services for a large number of people who are willing to travel farther."

Translating that into everyday speak, the theory can be explained as "rural people go to a town for certain goods that can be sold profitably in a lightly populated area.  For specialized goods that need a high population density to be sold profitably (a car sales man can sell more cars in New York City than Scotland, South Dakota) rural people and town people go to a city.  Thus the city is the central place for the city, towns, and satellite areas like suburbs, exurbs, and farms. 

Central Place Theory states that it would be economically unlikely that two major cities would be located close to each other because they would split profits from the outlying area (think of two trees competing for limited soil neutrants, they could not grow as big as they could if the other tree was not there).  However, it is possible for two cities to be spatial close if travel between two cities is difficult due to high density traffic or poor roads (think how Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland are so close together but a considered world's apart by nearby residents).

A simplified explanation of Central Place Theory

To figure out the fine points and apply Central Place Theory one needs to use mathematics and economics.  The use of these statistical sciences helped open geography up to the quantitative revolution.  Today, while the revolution has ebbed, many geographers like urban planners and GIS user still ground their studies in spatial statistics.

A Dark Origin

Central Place Theory was started by the German geographer Walter Christaller in the 1920s.  Christaller observed the spatial patterning of settlements in southern Germany and published his results in Central Places in Southern Germany.

However, Christaller was not able to apply his theory until a few years later.  He was unique, compared to other planning geographers, in the sense that he was given a blank slate and an uptopian goal: remake occupied Poland for his Nazi masters using Central Place Theory.  You see, Christaller was a member of the Nazi Party who worked for Heinrich Himmler in the SS Planning and Soil Office.  He even made a map showing how a German-settled Poland should look with central places and adjacent places (below).

The Central Place in the Eastern Regions and their Culture and Market Sector map for the SS Reorganization of Poland.  Click to enlarge.  From Visualizing a Map of Walter Christaller, Poland 1941.

Christaller did not see his dream completed due to the Nazi loss of World War II.  However, like many believers in National Socialism he made the small hop from German National Socialism to International Socialism (the Communist Party).  Today, Christaller is well respected in geography with his many admirers not only praising his theory (a valid thing to do) but also honoring him with with award and scholarship titles.  His theory is accepted with a few modification yet his dark past is rarely discussed in any geography class.

5 comments:

Rybu said...

Another component of this is the element of time in transport.

The size of cities at a given time in their history is closely related to the techologies of transport available to them.

Based on economic conditions and quality of life people are willing to dedicate a certain amount of time towards common activies such as going to the market or traveling to work.

Early movement was largely restricted to walking and early cities and civilizations reflect that. Horse drawn vehicles and bicylces represented a significant change in the distance people could travel in the same time.

The car completely changed the make-up of new cities. This has been a challenge to many American Cities who were still in their infancy at the turn of the 20th century.

Cities expanded dramatically because people had freedom of mobility but we have come to learn that there is a high cost associated with that sprawl and extended infrastructure.

Darren said...

I never knew this part of the history. It was taught to me as a way of studying the North European Plain, the German part of it. Of course, as you point out, if Germany had realized its lebensraum inspired dreams, it would ave been German territory.

sgenius said...

What an interesting theory... the origins are scary indeed. But I can see how it applies to modern administration and planned cities as well.

BTW, late congrats on your marriage! :D

Catholicgauze said...

Darren and sgenius,
It's odd/interesting to see how a solid theory came from such a dark place.

Rybu,
Thanks. I tried to explain time in transport as part of the theory but I guess the cat got my tongue.

data diplomacy said...

Some thoughts

I always liked BF Skinners application experience http://www.csiss.org/classics/content/96


I agree with Rybu on the changing political economy of the transport aspect or spatial fix. Scarcity plays another role

Not just the model but what happens inside the model.

Tried using central place theory in risk model for community based landmine/explosive ordnance threat analysis and clearance prioritization in Kosovo, Yemen, Afghanistan etc. Assumed greater population density in a contaminated network would yield greater chance of exposure and injury. meaning more urban areas would have higher injury counts/rates and less populated rural areas where contamination blocked critical resources like water, productive land, residential areas, transport routes, etc. Opposite was found to be true. Urban dwellers could adapt behavior to make use of alternative resources to avoid contamination risk that blocked similar resources. Rural areas, had fewer resources which resulted in people undertaking riskier behavior to make use of a critical resource.