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Central Place

Central Place


Central place theory outlines the logic of systems of central places, focusing particularly upon the numbers, sizes, activities, and spatial distribution of such places and their associated regions.

The notion of “central place” may be explained as follows. A chief function of country villages and towns is to be centers for their rural surroundings as well as mediators between local commerce and the outside world. Larger cities play a similar role with respect to systems of smaller villages and towns, which find in the larger places goods and services that the local country villages and towns are too small to supply. Thus, villages, towns, and cities serve in a structural relationship as central places for tributary regions.

Central place theory is fundamentally concerned with the patterns through which wholesale, retail, service, and administrative functions, plus marketoriented manufacturing, are provided to consuming populations. Thus, it can also be designated as the theory of urban trade and institutions or the theory of location of tertiary production. As such, it complements the theory of agricultural production originally formulated by J. H. von Thönen, and the theory of location of industry, which has its roots in the work of Alfred Weber.

Origins of central place theory. The first formal statement of central place theory was made by the German economic geographer Christaller in his book on central places in southern Germany (1933).

There were, however, several antecedents and cases of independent invention. Some of the ideas were expressed by Léon Lalanne in his analyses of the structure of the French transportation and communication networks (1863). Christaller acknowledged his debt to the German geographer Robert Gradmann (1916). Models of the same kind were proposed by American rural sociologists in their studies of town–country relations and the rural community; notable among these were the contributions of Galpin (1915) and Kolb (1923 et seq.). Platt (1928, p. 83) looked at the “organized life” of an “areal unit of human activity” in his detailed study of a Wisconsin village. After examining the economic connections of the village’s institutions with the surrounding area, he concluded: “It is these local connections which give the village enterprises their status as institutions of the community. Without these connections there would be no unified community” (ibid., p. 92). Lösch, a German location economist working at the same time as Christaller, applied similar concepts to define economic regions; he subsequently attempted to generalize Christaller’s model to entire “economic landscapes” (1938). Ullman (1941) introduced Christaller’s work to American readers, and since then the largest part of both theoretical and empirical central place study has been American. A detailed review, bibliography, and synthesis of central place literature is provided by Berry and Pred (1961).

Some related theories. The central place concept is related to other concepts used in studying the location and organization of cities, industries, and regions.

Location of cities. On the basis of both distribution and function, human settlements on the face of the globe may be classified into two general types: central places and specialized places (Harris & Ullman 1945). Central places tend to have a more or less uniform, dispersed distribution over any area with homogeneous physical and economic characteristics, and are basically centers performing commercial functions. Specialized places tend to have highly localized distributions as individual cities or clusters of cities associated with specific resources or favorable sites: mining towns on the exploited part of a coal field; resort towns en the seacoast or in the mountains; industrial towns in manufacturing belts which have evolved as a result of a complex of natural, historical, and economic factors, including the cumulative advantages of specialization and agglomeration (Harris 1954). Linear arrangements of transport towns along a railroad, highway, river, or seacoast may be considered as special cases of the central place pattern.

Although the typology of central places and specialized places is clear in theory, most large cities actually combine activities of both types (Harris 1943). Thus, even specialized industrial towns in the manufacturing belt of the northeastern United States have some commercial functions; so, too, central place towns serving agricultural areas on the Great Plains may have some specialized activities.

Because of local variability in natural conditions, rural settlement, layout (and other characteristics of transportation networks), and, finally, evolution of urban settlements and of their functions (including political and industrial activities), centers of any given step in the central place hierarchy vary somewhat in size from place to place under actual conditions. As a result, the populations of urban centers, although conforming locally to central place hierarchies, tend in the aggregate to be arrayed in rank–size distributions, as described by Zipf [see Rank–size relations]. The highest-order central place in the hierarchy of a country, or the largest city in the rank–size formulation, tends to develop a whole series of special economic, social, and political characteristics, activities, and qualities of leadership, as recognized by Mark Jefferson in his use of the term “primate city” (1939). The interlocking characteristics of rank–size distributions, central place hierarchies, and primate cities have been reviewed by Berry (1964).

Industrial location. Any industrial process may be regarded as a continuum which begins with localized raw materials and moves through various stages of modification to finished products which are utilized directly by consumers. Corresponding to this continuum are locations of factories near raw materials, in intermediate positions, and near markets. It is the final, consumer- and marketoriented stages of production that tend to be located in central place cities and to have central place characteristics. In a special sense, the points of gathering or assembling any initial raw material also have these characteristics, although the concept of central place is usually applied to the whole bundle of associated activities at the consumer-service end rather than to specialized and localized activities of the early stages of processing or transportation.

Regions and areas. Central places are associated with “regions of organization,” or “nodal” regions, which derive their unity from contact with or movement through the central place. It may be noted that regions can be grouped into two great groups—regions of organization on the one hand, and uniform or homogeneous regions on the other. The latter are characterized by essential similarity of some physical, social, or economic feature.

The hierarchy of central places has its exact counterpart in a hierarchy of corresponding regions of organization. Thus, central places, considered as a system of points, fit into a global system of areal organization: tributary areas are seen as organized around these points, which are connected both with one another and with the tributary areas by lines of human movement.

The relations of central places to their zones of influence have been studied by geographers, sociologists, economists, planners, businessmen, and others, by many methods, in a large number of countries (Harris 1964). Among the overlapping concepts of these several disciplines are those of metropolitan dominance, retail gravitation, neighborhood and community organization, and areal functional organization.

The classic theory—postulates and theorems. Central place theory begins by considering two conditions that affect the variety of goods and services (central functions) which are to be provided to consumers. These are (a) conditions of entry (thresholds), the minimum market sizes (in quantity of sales) necessary to support establishments of each kind, and (b) maximum distances consumers are willing to travel to each kind of establishment (outer ranges of goods). In any area the maximum number of establishments of any kind is equal to demands for the commodity divided by threshold, while the minimum number of establishments (if all consumers are to be served) is equal to demands for the commodity divided by maximum possible size of the market. The last-named quantity is derived from the outer range of goods, as defined above.

Central functions may be arranged along a continuum at one end of which is the activity with the greatest threshold (the highest-order function) and at the other end, that with the lowest threshold (the lowest-order function). The problem is, therefore, to locate the varying numbers of establishments of each variety of central functions as efficiently as possible.

Efficiency, in terms of this model, requires (a) that consumers minimize costs of transportation by visiting the nearest location offering the good demanded; and (b) that there is active competition among businessmen to serve the consuming population. Under these conditions, supplying firms will spread out in a spatial pattern mirroring that of the spatial distribution of population. Each firm supplies the small region surrounding it (its market area) that is closer to it than to any of its competitors. Market size lies somewhere between the minimum size prescribed by thresholds (in volume of sales) and the maximum size prescribed by outer ranges (of areas that can be served). If perfect competition prevails and population is uniformly distributed on an unbounded isotropic plane, firms of each kind will be located in a perfectly uniform tessellation at the apexes of equilateral triangles (i.e., in a trigonal grid) serving hexagonal market areas of just-threshold size.

Generation of central place hierarchies. Assume that an area to be served is divided into the threshold market areas of the highest-order central function. Because consumers travel to the nearest place offering the good, the locations providing the highest-order good will be exactly “central” to their market areas; these locations are therefore central places in terms of the model. The problem then arises as to how lower-order functions will be provided.

Efficiency, of course, will be furthered if firms of different kinds group together in central places, for then aggregate consumer travel to obtain the variety of goods and services demanded will be minimized; each place offering the highest-order good therefore also offers all lower-order goods. But as the continuum of central functions is descended, threshold market sizes diminish. For which central function will a new competitor be able to squeeze in between the highest-order centers and carve out a profitable market area?

The answer is that it will be when the continuum of central functions has been descended to the point where a good is reached having an additional threshold located, as it were, in the interstices between the threshold market areas of the established central places. It is at this point on the continuum that a central place of second order comes into existence that will provide not only the good justifying its emergence but all goods of a lower order as well.

A similar argument can be used to generate third-order places between those of first and second order, fourth between those of the first three orders, and so forth. Highest-order places are the only ones providing those goods for which threshold market areas are too large for businessmen in second-level centers to squeeze a threshold amount of trade between the threshold market areas of the centers of highest order. Second-order places share with those of first order the provision of goods with thresholds large enough to be squeezed between the threshold market areas of the centers of highest order. Third-order centers share with those of the two higher levels provision of goods for which threshold market areas exist between the market areas of the two higher levels of centers, and so on. The highest threshold good at each level (i.e., that which justifies the emergence of that level of center) will be provided for market areas of just-threshold size.

It should be emphasized, however, that each of the lower-order goods supplied that do not justify emergence of lower-order centers in the process of spatial competition will have market areas exceeding threshold. This is because of imperfections in competition between businesses—imperfections introduced by the need to group stores in clusters in central places so as to minimize aggregate consumer travel. But there will not be enough excess demand in the interstices among existing centers to provide a compact, unserved area of threshold size that would make possible the rise of another center.

The net result of locating centers in this way is called a central place hierarchy or an urban hierarchya locational system comprising a steplike arrangement of centers and market areas patterned in a distinctive geometric manner. Higher-order centers do compete with lower-order centers in the provision of lower-order goods, but they are distinguished from the lower-order centers by the performance of a group of central functions for market areas that embrace the areas served by the lower-order centers. This takes place in a “nesting” pattern of dominance, subdominance, and competition; a hierarchy will exist even if population densities are uniformly spread over an isotropic plane. Under such “ideal” conditions, centers will be distributed spatially at the apexes of a regular tessellation of equilateral triangles, each with a surrounding hexagonal trade area. Each higher order of centers will then be spaced at times the spacing of the next lower order; each higher order has three times the market area of each lower order, and so on.

Modifications of classic theory. Many studies testing various aspects of the central place theory have been carried out, particularly in the United States, Germany, Great Britain, and Sweden; but also in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Poland, the Soviet Union, South Africa, Japan, India, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and Brazil (Berry & Pred 1961; Harris 1964).

Shortcomings of geometric models. Christaller formulated central place theory largely in geometric terms, working out in detail the implications of uniform tessellations of triangles and hexagons for regular hierarchies of centers (i.e., hierarchies in which there is a uniform multiplicative relationship of phenomena at each successively lower order to the phenomena at the next highest level).

Unfortunately, however, the uniform conditions postulated as leading to regular hierarchies are never found in reality. Population densities, incomes, tastes, and lines of accessibility all vary considerably from place to place. If these variations were continuous over space, it would not be difficult to transform them back to uniformity to see if regular hierarchies actually exist. The problem is that geographic space contains many nongeographic discontinuities; authors talk, for example, about “income fronts” and a variety of “boundary” and “barrier” effects.

Mathematical models. In view of the above, much of the recent effort in central place studies has been directed toward constructing mathematical models rather than geometric ones. The logic of this is that properly formulated mathematical models can be used to facilitate both empirical and applied work in a variety of situations, whereas geometric models cannot. A mathematical statement of the geometric model was provided by Beckmann (1958), and an approach to a more general mathematical formulation is that of Berry and Barnum (1962) [seeGeography, article onstatistical geography].

Empirical confirmation. Empirical workers have shown that most of the implications of central place theory are valid. Higher-order places offer more goods, have more establishments and larger populations and tributary areas, do greater volumes of business, and are fewer in number and more widely spaced than are lower-order places. Low-order places provide only low-order goods to small, low-order tributary areas; such goods are generally necessities requiring frequent purchase with little consumer travel. The converse is true for higher-order places, which, in addition to offering the low-order convenience goods, also offer shopping and specialty goods to larger market areas.

Moreover, higher- and lower-order places have been found to fall into a hierarchy comprising discrete groups of centers with the regular spatial patterns suggested by the theory. Most students suggest that the urban hierarchy has eight levels in advanced Western economies, roughly: the national capital; national metropolitan centers; regional metropolitan centers; regional capitals; small cities (e.g., county seats); towns; villages; and hamlets. A possible ninth level is that of the “world city,” such as New York or London.

Systematic variations. Various kinds of systematic variation of the central place pattern have been recognized, although many of these have yet to be included in a more general theory. For example, as population densities fall, say as one proceeds westward in the United States, there is a thinning of centers, an enlargement of trade areas, and progressive upward shift of functions from lower- to higher-order centers. At the highest densities, within cities, the idea of central places as independent urban areas breaks down; but neighborhood, community, and regional shopping centers form a central place hierarchy. This extension of central place ideas to the case of business centers within cities is relatively recent but has proved useful (Berry 1963).

As income levels change from area to area or through time, there is a systematic change in the importance of higher- and lower-order centers. At higher income levels, more shopping and specialty goods are demanded, and people are willing to travel farther to obtain the goods they desire. Income, scale, and accessibility changes are all responsible for the progressive centralization of functions in the higher-level centers in the United States and the progressive decline of the smaller hamlets and villages.

Similarly, in Western societies in the past, and in the less developed non-Western parts of the world today, the central place hierarchy and attendant marketing system were and are much simpler than they are today in the West. The hierarchy has fewer levels. In the least developed peasant societies there is not enough trade to justify permanent market centers, which are replaced by a cyclical system of periodic markets. The periodicity of cycles varies markedly from one place to another, depending upon local custom. Merchants travel from market to market as they open on the appointed day of the cycle, and catch the limited trade of several small regions. Such periodic markets, the first step in the development of central place hierarchies, trade time for space, since within the maximum local area that potential consumers are willing to travel to any given location there is not enough trade to satisfy the thresholds of permanent markets open at all times (Skinner 1964/1965).

The mathematical formulations developed to date incorporate relatively few of these systematic variations. Thus, central place theory is at an intermediate level of development. At a given point in time in relatively advanced Western societies, it provides a useful analytic tool. In this context it has proved invaluable in marketing analysis, has aided in the location of new retail facilities, has been used in the planning of commercial redevelopment as part of urban renewal programs in older cities (Berry 1963), and is being used in rural redevelopment activities (Saskatchewan 1957). However, the theory is not general enough at present to account for variations among cultures or levels of economic development, nor does it permit very precise prediction of growth and change in central place systems, although first steps in the construction of more dynamic models have been taken (Morrill 1963).

Brian J. L. Berry and Chauncy D. Harris

[Directly related are the entriesEcology, article onhuman ecology; Region; Regional science; Spatial economics. Other relevant material may be found inCity; Rural society; and in the biographies ofThünenandWeber, Alfred.]


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Berry, Brian J. L. 1963 Commercial Structure and Commercial Blight: Retail Patterns and Processes in the City of Chicago. Department of Geography, Research Paper No. 85. Univ. of Chicago.

Berry, Brian J. L. 1964 Cities as Systems Within Systems of Cities. Pages 116–137 in John Friedmann and William Alonso (editors), Regional Development and Planning: A Reader. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press.

Berry, Brian J. L.; and Barnum, H. Gardiner 1962 Aggregate Relations and Elemental Components of Central Place Systems. Journal of Regional Science 4, no. 1:35–68.

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