GaWC Project 20

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European Political Centers in the Age of the National State and Beyond: Capitals and Other International Cities Since 1800

Study in cooperation with the AME (Amsterdam Study Centre for the Metropolitan Environment) (2002-2003)

Researcher: H. van der Wusten

Associate researchers: M. Wagenaar, G. Dijkink, V. Mamadouh


This study is aimed at the cities that played key political roles as centers of government and headquarters of political institutions in Europe since the French Revolution. These are all the places where the territorial dominance of states was organized, where the nodes in the networks of international politics were constructed, where state power and national identity were represented in the built environment. In most cases every state had one such city, the capital. In addition there was over time an increasing number of political interests with headquarters established either in these capital cities or elsewhere: interstate cooperations (IGOs) , transnational articulations of interests (INGOs). Some cities became specialized political centres for these kinds of functions.

This study is limited to Europe in order not to make the task unmanageable from the outset. It is also the case that Europe as the cradle of the state system and the scene of an unprecedented degree of interstate cooperation provides the richest set of polities and interstate political networks that is available at the macro-regional scale during this period. Taking the last two centuries I will be able to look at two periods of globalization that should give rise to interesting comparisons.

This study has several parts:

  • a description of the distribution of these political functions across cities in terms of weight (manpower, money, authority), and interconnectedness, where appropriate
  • locational decisions as to their establishment (is the presence of cultural and productive assets, or an already existant central network position a favourable condition to set up a capital city or to headquarter a UN subsidiary?)
  • intended and produced symbolic significance for national identity, for state power, or for alternative authorities in buildings, monuments and urban planning
  • other consequences for urban life (does a concentration of these political functions spur other functions like high culture and advanced producer services; what consequences does it have for local politics).

It is intended to close with some speculations about developments of political centers elsewhere in the world and Europe’s relative position in global terms.

The study should effectively contribute on three important points:

  1. The development of political centrality over time. By introducing a wider set of political functions than those strictly tied to the national state I hope to gain new insights that become more relevant as time continues and the national state becomes more contested as the sole and ultimate repository of political organization. The current competition about the establishment of new political functions (in the framework of the UN as well as among EU member states) is a further incidence of struggles that have gone on since the first international political organizations were established in the second half of the 19th century. In terms of ‘traditional political centrality’ the evolution of bilateral and multilateral networks as a function of power positions, degree of centralization of individual polities (federal versus unitary arrangements) and political preferences will have to be reconstructed. In addition, the other political functions ( inter- trans- or supra-state) just mentioned will have to be brought into play. This should allow us to assess Geneva’s centrality vis a vis Berne, or the extra political weight The Hague as the Dutch government center derives from becoming the address of a series of institutions concerned with international law.
  2. The symbolic significance of the built environment in which politics operates. Politics necessarily conveys messages and the use of space is just one of the ways to send them. Powerholders, more often than not , carefully stage the places from where they wield that power. Consequently, a lot of effort goes into the planning and execution of these constructions. They leave durable traces, and they are costly. The long time horizons and the wide and varied audience (not only within a country but also international) provoke different interpretations from those intended. These symbolisms are one of the most relevant instruments politicians, administrators and a specialized group of executors (architects, sculptors, painters etc) dispose of in order to frame political centrality and its connotations (e.g. nationalism, or world government, or European unity) for a wider public. There are apparently standard designs, international emulation and national tradition, and changing construction technologies, that give rise to some types of political centres across Europe.
  3. The connections between these political functions and the other parts of the urban milieu in terms of mutual causality. Gottmann thought that cities that at one time had been the capital did not do badly later on. He also thought that political centrality and urban life had an uncertain relation over time (Versailles-Paris). It is a relevant observation in this regard that about half of the cities at first identified as world cities in GaWC are capital cities and when take out North America the percentage is even much higher. It is interesting to see what attributes make cities attractive for the location of advanced producer services, if these are the assets of political centrality per se or if political centrality and world city status under globalization thrive on the same background factors and to identify those. Another relevant question is if the apparent contemporaneous relation between political and economic centrality holds for earlier periods of globalization.

In summary, this study picks up a concern of early political geographers with capital cities, widens the definition and relates it to the current debate on the state system, interprets the impact of political centrality in terms of culture (by framing reality and providing a meaningful aesthetic) and links it to the emerging field of globalization studies focused on cities.


Data-collection on political centrality will build on earlier efforts assisted by Flora’s data handbooks for 1815-1975, and the data used in Nierops 1994 dissertation. An initial inventory of the physical planning of European capital cities has been made. Some background is in Wagenaar & Van der Wusten 1997, and in Van der Wusten 2001. GaWC data will also be used extensively. In later stages it will be decided if summary measures for globalization on a city-by-city basis for earlier periods could be developed.


M. Wagenaar & H. van der Wusten , L’empreinte de l’etat. A la recherche de la specificite des villes-capitales en Europe. In P. Claval & A.-L. Sanguin (eds.) Metropolisation et politique. L’Harmattan Paris 1997, 53-69.

M. Wagenaar, Stedebouw en burgerlijke vrijheid. De contrasterende carrieres van zes Europese hoofdsteden. Thoth Bussum 1998

H. van der Wusten, The cityscapes of European capitals. Special issue GeoJournal 2000, 51,1-2, 129-133.

For results of this project, see GaWC Research Bulletin 91.