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Economy

Why Building New Capital Cities Might Not Be Such a Bad Idea, After All

In a recent book, the academic Vadim Rossman argues that it can be a smart move, under certain circumstances.
Brasilia, inaugurated in 1960, is an imposing city designed to be traversed by car.
Brasilia, inaugurated in 1960, is an imposing city designed to be traversed by car.Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

“Egypt needs a new capital like a hole in the head.” These were the words of the Cairo-based urban planner David Sims last year when the Wall Street Journal asked about the Egyptian government’s plan to relocate its capital to a desert locale 28 miles from Cairo. Sims’s reaction to such a move is not uncommon. Analysts often deride relocated capital cities, describing them as failed utopian experiments or misguided vanity projects of authoritarian rulers. It doesn’t help that some of these new cities are awkwardly built from scratch, such as Brasilia—known for its barren, unwalkable streets—or Naypyidaw, Myanmar, reportedly a glaringly lit ghost town.

These analysts make good points. But Vadim Rossman, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, Russia, suggests that a broader and more historical look at capital city relocation reveals sound reasons for the practice—as well as positive outcomes. “I’m not an enthusiast of moving capitals,” he explains. “I’m just against sweeping generalizations about it. I’m interested in what makes an effective planned capital city.”