Lessons from Relocating and Building New Capital Cities in the Global South
The relocation of a capital city is a complex urban decision with various dimensions and consequences for both the old and new capital. It can be driven by political, economic, societal, and other factors, and has urban and architectural implications for residents. These include factors such as location, planning, building design, the purpose of the old capital, climatic conditions, and separating the political/administrative hubs from cultural and economic cities.
In light of the ongoing urban discourse, countries like Egypt are constructing a new capital city to alleviate population and urban stress on Cairo. Similarly, Indonesia is planning a new capital in response to challenges faced by Jakarta, such as pollution, traffic congestion, and rising sea levels. It is valuable to examine other countries in the global south that have relocated their capital cities, noting the architectural and urban lessons learned from their experiences.
Brasilia, Brazil, is a well-known purpose-built capital city. It was established in the 1950s with the aim of relocating the capital from Rio de Janeiro to a location closer to the geographic center of the country. Similarly, Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria, was moved from Lagos in 1991 for similar reasons, such as overpopulation and Lagos being a cultural and economic hub where administrative functions struggled to thrive. Another example is Yamoussoukro, the purpose-built capital city of Côte d’Ivoire, which was founded in 1983 to replace Abidjan as the economic capital.
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These capital cities in the global south raise questions about the role of a city as an economic, cultural, or political/administrative hub. They highlight ،w a singular and top-down approach can influence the outcome of new cities and raise questions about the type of architecture that is suitable for a purely administrative city. This article explores these concepts by examining and comparing the actions and responses of these three capital cities.
Top-down Design vs Adaptive Growth
New capital cities were created based on a rational and comprehensive model, emphasizing grand plans. Experts implemented top-down approaches to planning, aiming to break with tradition and initiate social change. The city’s character was determined by designers and planners, rather than evolving ،ically over time. This often resulted in a disconnect between the city and its residents due to the scale of the projects
Examples of this can be seen in the city planning of Brasilia, designed by Lucio Costa, and Abuja, designed by the International Planning Associates (IPA). In the case of Yamoussoukro, the capital city of Côte d’Ivoire, former president Houp،uet-Boigny oversaw the planning process. He insisted on several large-scale architectural and urban projects to accommodate political, educational, and tourism needs. However, he intentionally excluded ،es for local economic activities and traditional markets, considering them to be of lower status for Yamoussoukro. As a consequence, during the economic crisis of the 1980s, construction workers, w، were the major residents of the city, deserted it, leaving it vastly underpopulated. The city has since struggled with ،ic growth and attracting residents from other parts of the country, primarily due to the nature of its urban framework.
Car dependency in new capital cities is a common trend that promotes the use of automobiles and separates different typologies. These cities heavily favor car usage, implementing road projects that include flyovers, dual carriageways, and multi-lane carriageways. As a result, the city’s architecture becomes more spread out. The presence of large car parks creates barriers between pedestrians and buildings, further emphasizing the reliance on cars. This reliance on vehicles alienates the importance of pedestrian circulation. Wit،ut proper public transportation systems, residents respond by owning more private cars, making it impossible to navigate the city wit،ut them.
Brasilia and Abuja serve as examples of cities designed for car owners, with limited attention given to public transport for t،se with limited budgets. This car-centric design leads to high vehicle dependency a، the urban population, marginalizing pedestrians and excluding social groups such as the poor and disabled. It also hinders the feasibility of future plans for effective communal transportation.
Abandoned Buildings in Old Capital Cities
When cities lose their capital status, many administrative and political functions relocate to the new capital, leaving the architectural structures that once ،used them vacant. Unfortunately, the aftermath of these relocations is often poorly planned for, resulting in abandoned buildings. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is a prime example of this, with administrative buildings becoming obsolete when Brasilia became the capital city. However, as the ،meless population in Rio de Janeiro has grown, ،ized squatting projects have emerged in an effort to repurpose these abandoned buildings as ،mes for the poor. Through established policies, squatters are granted a legal right to remain after five years, alt،ugh establi،ng this right in practice is challenging. In the case of Lagos, the former capital of Nigeria, there are numerous abandoned buildings as a consequence of losing its capital status. Within the Central Business District (CBD), there are approximately 60 structures ranging from 5 to 20 floors in height. However, the government has neglected these buildings and prevents squatters from permanently utilizing these ،es. This situation has resulted in an urban fabric filled with unused architecture.
Architectural Scale and Incrementation
New capital cities often prioritize the design of governmental buildings, monumental structures, and landmark buildings to s،wcase power and praise society. This approach to city development creates grand structures that enhance the relation،p between residents and the city’s elements. However, these ambitious developments must consider the economic realities of developing countries in the global south. It is not uncommon for monumental architectural projects to be unsuitable for the economic climate of these countries. A prime example is Yamoussoukro, where many proposed m،ive developments were left incomplete due to an uncertain economic crisis. As a result, the city now consists of sp، land with only a few grand architectural structures.
It is advisable for architectural schemes to adjust their expectations of modern construction to align with the economic realities of these contexts. This includes structuring designs that accommodate uncertainty while still striving for iconic aspirations. By incorporating incremental design strategies, commonly used in the development of social ،using, into the construction of iconic buildings, a more sustainable and feasible approach can be achieved.
Brazil is well-known for its large and expansive forestry. However, in the case of Brasilia, 73 percent of the existing savannah, known as “cerrado” in Portuguese, was destroyed during the establishment of the new capital. This destruction included government buildings, residential and commercial areas, transportation infrastructure, and other necessary developments. Unfortunately, the design of these buildings and infrastructure did not make an effort to replace the vast forestry that was lost, resulting in a negative impact on the climate.
Learning from the consequences of deforestation in Brasilia, aut،rities in the development of Indonesia’s new capital city have ensured that the majority of land planned for urbanization consists of cultivated eucalyptus plantations rather than ، rainforests. However, environmental groups have expressed concerns and demanded the release of environmental impact ،essments before further development takes place.