What is the Central Place Theory?

By Sharon Omondi on September 25 2017 in Society

Los Angeles, California, is an example of a "regional capital" under the Central Place Theory.
Los Angeles, California, is an example of a "regional capital" under the Central Place Theory.

What is Central Place Theory?

Based on his assessment of the retail and services network in Southern Germany, Walter Christaller invented the Central Place Theory (CPT) in 1933. Christaller was building upon the works of von Thünen and Weber who also built the foundation for location theory. A central place is defined as an area that attracts people from its surrounding who then engage in the exchange of services and goods. The Central Place Theory was used to explain the size, distribution, and number of institutions and urban centers. The Central Place Theory was guided by three principles called the marketing principle, administrative principle, and transport principle. These principles defined the formation of settlements in central places.

What were the three main concepts of the Central Place Theory?

The first major concept was the “threshold.” The threshold defined the minimum population of an area that would determine the viability of a service. If this minimum number of people was missing, then the service would not be provided or if it was already being provided then the service would be shut down.

The second concept of CPT was “range.”The range referred to the distance which a customer would be willing to cover in order to avail or access goods or services. If there was an increase in this distance, the customer chose not to travel to the market place because it would not be profitable for them. The range and threshold are fundamental aspects in the Central Place Theory. They provide the upper and lower limits of goods and services used in the theory.

Besides the threshold and range, there are also hinterlands. Hinterlands referred to large trade areas that interacted with the city in regards to provision of goods and services. The size of the hinterland was defined by the range and threshold.

What are the Assumptions of Central Place Theory?

An assumption refers to a case that is deemed true without proof. Researchers and scholars apply assumptions to theories in order to come up with meaningful conclusions. With reference to the CPT, the assumptions made by Christaller were that;

  • All settlements are equidistant and form a triangular lattice pattern
  • There is perfect competition whereby people seek to maximize profits
  • Consumers earn the same income and have similar shopping behaviors
  • One type of transport is used and that consumers incur an equal cost of transport
  • Consumers prefer visiting the nearest market place because they wish to minimize distance traveled to meet their need.
  • Resources in central area are evenly distributed
  • The population is evenly distributed
  • The settlement areas have flat terrains. Mountainous and hilly areas present difficulties in settlement. Flat areas were easy to settle on.

The Three Types of Central Places

According to Christaller, there were three types of central places: small places, large centers, and larger central places. Similarly, goods and services could be categorized into higher-order and lower-order. Christaller observed that there were many small places surrounding a central place. These small places would be the sources of the lower order goods. Larger centers were few and would provide both low and higher order goods. The larger central places, on the other hand, would be providers of the higher order goods. With this kind of arrangement there was an assurance of adequate goods and services to meet the consumers’ demands.

The Communities in the Central Place

The central places had five sizes of communities namely hamlets, villages, towns, cities and regional capitals. Hamlets were very small, rural communities that were not fit to be classified as villages. An example of a hamlet is Cape Dorset, Canada which has a population of 1,200. On the other hand, the large regions called regional capitals include Los Angeles, California and Paris, France.

What are the Criticisms Against Central Place Theory?

CPT has received criticism due to several reasons. One of them is that the theory is static. It does not put into consideration the temporary settlement of people in these areas. Secondly, the theory is mostly true of agricultural areas. However, it does not hold in industrial and post-industrial regions. This is because these areas exhibit diverse services and distribution of the natural resources.

Has it Been Possible to Operationalize the Central Place Theory?

CPT has received many criticisms for being unrealistic. However, over time scholars have been able to identify and correct his error. This has made it possible to operationalize the CPT. As a matter of fact, most urban centers today have not knowingly complied with the reasoning of the theory. Veneris and Openshaw detected error in the theoretical schemata of the CPT and provided solutions to the problem basing their arguments on K=3, 37-centre CP system.

First, Christaller did not provide boundaries to his system thereby implying an infinite landscape. However, Openshaw and Veneris introduced closure in the form of (1) functional closure, (2) isolated state, and (3) territorial closure. Secondly, they also calculated trips for the 22 cities in Christaller’s model. Thirdly, regarding costs and distances, the two scholars calculated them in tandem with the principles of Christaller. Hence, the CPT model has become operational to existing cities, regions, and countries due to the worthwhile contributions of Openshaw and Veneris.

The Central Place Theory Today

The Central Place Theory seemed impractical due to some of its assumptions. For instance, it is not easy to find a large area with flat and plain land terrain. Furthermore, a perfect market is not realistic because of the many market players with different interests. However, scholars such as Openshaw and Veneris made this theory workable. As such, most urban centers today tend to apply Christaller’s ideals in the retail. Hamlets provide goods and services which are essential for meeting the daily needs of the consumers such as bread, milk, and clothing among others. However, in the case of higher order goods such as computers and cars, the consumers have to travel to larger towns or cities.

Hence, the Central Planning Theory that was invented by Christaller has become important in urban planning today.

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