Back in 2006, when he was still the junior senator from
Illinois, Barack Obama found himself in Metropolis, a small town in the south
of his state. A photo survives
of Obama in front of the town's giant Superman statue, the then-senator
mimicking the Man of Steel's pose. Never mind the ammunition that picture has
been providing ever since to both the president's friends and his foes. What
the geography-obsessed among us want to know is: What is Metropolis doing on
the banks of the Ohio River?
The town's connection with the Last Son of Krypton is post-hoc  : Metropolis was founded in 1839, almost a century before Superman was
conceived. It was named with something else entirely in mind. As the likely
location where the New Orleans & Ohio Railroad would cross the river on its
way to Chicago, the fledgling town was hoped to become, in quick succession: a
traffic hub, the nucleus of a western District of Columbia, and eventually the
new capital of a westward-expanding nation . As place-names go, Metropolis
is both grand and bland -- generic enough for an as yet nonexistent capital
Western D.C. never came to be , but the idea of moving
the capital to a more central location isn't as harebrained as it might sound.
After all, the Founding Fathers chose the site of eastern D.C. because it was near enough to the geographical center
of the original 13 states. This was partly because North and South begrudged
each other the chance to host the capital, but also because centrality has a
bunch of practical advantages .
As the American Empire took a westward course, so did the
country's geographical center. It moved away from Washington, D.C., zipping
past Metropolis along the way. Until the
admission of Alaska and Hawaii as full-fledged states, the center of the United
States was usually situated
near Lebanon, Kansas. After 1959, it moved to 20 miles north of Belle Fourche,
South Dakota. America's center and capital are now over 1,400 miles apart. To
put that in perspective: Cancun, Mexico is closer to Washington's corridors of
power than Belle Fourche .
At present, nobody  is advocating that the three
branches of the federal government uproot themselves from the banks of the
Potomac to set up shop on the desolate Dakotan flatlands. Politicians from both
parties ritually profess the desire to change the way Washington works; neither
wants to change where the national
government works. But what sounds impossible in the United States has been done elsewhere in the world.
Plenty of other countries have moved their capital,
invariably to a more central location. A practical rationale recurs everywhere:
countries are governed more efficiently from the center. But a central capital
also has symbolic value. Its location subtly reinforces the raison d'état: this country is a
"natural" unit, its political borders are as they should be, and its capital
radiates power evenly across its entire domain .
Even in the era of instant communication, the interplay
between practical and symbolic value of "capital centrality" still holds. It
creates a symbolic center of gravity with practical, bricks-and-mortar
consequences: new roads and airports will point towards the new capital, minimizing the difference in average
distance that national representatives need to travel to their parliament .
By accident of history, some countries are endowed with
such capitals: France's traditional centralism owes much to the relative
centrality of Paris ; in spite of its many border changes, Poland's capital
Warsaw manages to be relatively close to the country's geographic center of
gravity ; and Brussels looks to be slap bang in the geographical heart of
Belgium . Midway between Nepal and Burma, Bangladesh's capital Dhaka is
near the country's geographical center. Windhoek, Namibia's capital, is so close
to that country's midpoint that nobody seems to have bothered calculating where
it actually is. And Minsk is only 22 miles north of Belarus's geographical
midpoint, the museum town of Dudutki. But the kicker has to be Madrid, only 6
miles north of the actual center of Spain, at Cerro de los Angeles .
Less fortunate nations have sometimes chosen to right a
geopolitical wrong by moving their geographically eccentric capital to a more
central location. But as some of the examples below show, such transplants are
in serious danger of rejection by the body politic. For the symbolic charm and
practical advantages of a centrally placed capital are quite often ephemeral,
and perhaps for good reason: settlement occurs not because a location is
central, but where it is deemed advantageous. Still, the urge to recalibrate
national capitals cuts across so many cultures that it may be deemed to
represent a universal human trait -- the never-ending tension between the attraction
of the obvious and the urge to plan something better.
 In 1972, DC
Comics (and, a few months later, the Illinois State Legislature) declared Metropolis, Illinois, to be the "hometown of Superman."
Ironically, numbering only a few thousand residents, the town bears more
resemblance to Clark Kent's hometown of Smallville than to the big city of
Metropolis, where he went to pursue joint careers in journalism and heroism.
 In which case
the name Metropolis would again have been a misnomer: its etymology suggests a
Greek Mother City, like Athens or Sparta, spawning a string of colonies. Had
Metropolis become the nation's capital, the former one, Washington, D.C., would
have been the metropolis.
 A planned Capitol City, across from Metropolis on the
Kentucky side of the Ohio River, never made it off the drawing table.
T]he search for a geographic location, cast in terms of geographic centrality,
rested on the conviction that the capital had to be as near and as easily
accessible through central location to the citizens as possible. The greatest possible centrality would
preserve the electorate's ability to watch over its representatives, improve representation,
and limit corruption." Jason S. Kassel: Constructing a Professional Legislature: The
Physical Development of Congress, 1783-1851.
population center of the United States, by the way, has also shifted
west-southwest since the 1930s.
And it keeps moving. In 2010, it was 2.7 miles northeast of Plato, Missouri. By 2020,
it is projected to be around 10 miles north of Hartville, Missouri.
 Public opinion being the many-splendored thing it is,
probably not nobody. But apart from the Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce -- not
an awfully large crowd.
 This chimes with the theory of the axis mundi, a
central location where heaven and earth supposedly connect. Examples include
sacred mountains (Fuji, Kailash, Ararat), but also capital cities: Cuzco is
Inca for "navel," and Rome's road network radiated from a location called the
Umbilicus. See also .
 This may seem abstract, but it has practical
implications -- in fact, it was the stuff of the so-called expenses scandal in Britain a few
political seasons ago. As some members of Parliament need to travel extremely
far to get to London, they could claim compensation for second residences in
the capital. But since many from the densely populated southeast live within
commuting distance, quite a few of their second homes were not really needed --
opening up all sorts of possible avenues of misuse, like renting out the
government-sponsored second home for personal gain.
 The honor of being France's most central location is disputed by at least 10
villages, in the départements of Allier and Cher.
 Usually placed at Piatek, under 70 miles west of the capital.
 The actual geographical center of Belgium is near the
little town of Walhain, 25 miles southeast of Brussels.
 And not the Puerta del Sol, in the center of the
city, as some sources claim. That would have been a bit too neat, as this is
where the Kilómetro Cero is located,
the zero mile marker for all official road distances in Spain.
J. Stephen Conn/Flickr
Burma: Junta City
These things are a whole lot easier in a dictatorship. In 2002,
the generals then still running Burma, under the appropriately revolting
acronym SLORC , decided to move the capital 200 miles north from Rangoon to
a site they called Naypyidaw . That name was revealed, tellingly, in 2006
on Armed Forces Day: a fact best understood in the context of the hold of
astrologers over Burma's top brass. After
all, it was senior general Than Shwe's personal stargazer who selected the
location for the nation's new capital. The relocation proceeded with the
swiftness, precision, and incontestability of a military operation. With their
option to refuse reduced to near zero, a large influx of Burmese civilians
helped make Naypyidaw one of the
world's fastest growing cities: from zero Naypyidawians a decade ago to over a
million today .
Again, primal geopolitics help explain the move, which
places the Burmese capital closer to the country's center -- and to rebellious
border states like Shan and Kayin, which may be easier to keep in check if the
central government -- and its army headquarters -- are that much closer. The move
may also have been a defensive move by the junta, digging in at a place where
it would be much more difficult to dislodge them, away from bustling Rangoon,
overcrowded with civilians.
Since the (disputed) elections of 2010, Burma's junta has
released the country's most famous dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, to date the most
visible sign of a fragile process of political liberalization. One of the
question marks over Burma's future: if democracy really comes to the South
Asian country, will it continue to be centered in the junta's capital, or moved
back to Rangoon?
 State Law and Order Restoration Council.
 a.k.a. Nay Pyi Taw, Naypyitaw or Nepranytau. All of which means something like "Royal City of the
Sun," and was traditionally used as an add-on for former Burmese capitals.
Burmese is a difficult language to transliterate, in part because the large
differences between formal and colloquial registers. Hence also the competing
names for the former capital Rangoon (Yangon) and for the country itself (Burma
and Myanmar, supposedly merely different spellings of the same word in
 The new capital is laid out in a style that could be
dubbed tropical Stalinism, but with less of an egalitarian reflex. While many labourers
live in slums, the brand new zoo is equipped with a climate-controlled penguin
house. At least in the Soviet Union, the penguins too would have lived in a
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
South Korea: Home
out of Range
The most recent example is South Korea: in September
2012, the first government departments will move to Sejong, 100 miles to the south of Seoul. By year's end, almost
5,000 bureaucrats will have relocated. First proposed as new capital in 2002,
and still under construction on former farmland, Sejong is a lot more central
Developing Sejong as an administrative, technological,
industrial, and educational hub should help redress some of South Korea's internal
economic imbalances . Sejong's centrality has a uniquely South Korean
advantage, telling of the geopolitical stalemate dividing the peninsula: unlike
Seoul, which almost hugs the DMZ  that separates it
from the North, Sejong is well outside the range of North Korea's artillery.
However, it's doubtful whether Sejong ever will be the
undisputed capital of South Korea. Fierce opposition  has led to
backpedalling, leaving its final status in doubt. By 2030, it is projected to
count half a million residents and 36 government agencies; but the presidency,
legislature, and judiciary may stay in Seoul. Sejong may have to content itself
with being South Korea's junior capital.
 Seoul Metropolitan District is in the northwest,
holds half of the country's 50 million inhabitants and generates half of South
 Demilitarized Zone. Which is ironic, considering how
many guns are aimed at each other across it.
 When still mayor of Seoul, South Korea's current
president Lee Myung-bak at one point threatened
to "mobilize the military" to prevent the capital's move to Sejong City.
Kazakhstan: the Town
that (President) Nursultan Built
In 1997, the then recently independent Kazakhstan
relocated its government from the old Soviet capital of Almaty , nestled in
the country's south, to Astana, on the windswept northern steppes. Officially,
the move was made because of Almaty's susceptibility to earthquakes, and
Astana's geographic centrality. But it also didn't hurt that the relocation put
some distance between the Kazakh government and the Chinese border, and
restated the country's claim on its northern regions, geographically and
ethnically closer to Russia.
Though the new capital suffers a harsher climate and while
Almaty (pop. 1.5 million) remains Kazakhstan's cultural and economic center, Astana
it is a fast-growing town of 700,000, housing a collection of brand-new,
grandiose buildings, including the Palace of Peace and Harmony, a giant pyramid
designed by Norman Foster, and the Baiterek, a bizarre tower representing a
white poplar tree crowned with a golden egg laid by Samruk, a mythical bird of happiness. This hypermodern materialization of a
Turkic folk tale is apparently the personal design of Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev
Like the Baiterek, the capital in its entirety is very
much a creation of Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's first (and, so far, only) president
since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A good summary of Nazarbayev's flair
for enlightened autocracy may be gleaned from his reaction to the sycophantic
suggestion in 2008 by Kazakhstan's obsequious parliament to rename the capital Nursultan. Rejecting the accolade, the
president said: "The decision
to change the name will be made by another generation," leaving the door
open for posthumous immortalization . But it remains to be seen whether
there'll be much enthusiasm among ordinary Kazakhs to stay on as extras
inhabiting Nazarbayev's windswept mausoleum of a town after his passing.
 Founded as the Russian Fort Verniy (Loyal) in 1854,
it was renamed in 1921 Alma-Ata (Grandfather of the Apples), after an earlier
Kazakh settlement. But the Soviets got the suffix wrong. In 1993, the name was
modified to the historically correct Almaty (Apple Town). The region is rich in
apple groves, wild and domesticated, and may be the original home of the apple.
 Once the tsarist fortress town of Akmolinsk, then
from 1961 Tselinograd (Virgin Lands City), and after Kazakh independence in 1991
again Aqmola (White Shrine), Astana is a Persian-derived term for capital (or
awesome threshold) that is used for several cities housing
shrines of Islamic saints. It is rumored that the capital's name is
deliberately generic, to facilitate a future name-change to "Nursultan."
STANISLAV FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images
Ivory Coast: A
Capital Fit for a Pope
The colonial powers that sliced up West Africa did so
from the sea. As French, Dutch, English, Danes, and Portuguese competed
fiercely for seafront property, they cut out narrow, deep strips of territory ,
each with a coastal capital. Decades after independence, coastal cities remain
capitals in all but two of the 12 independent states between Cap Blanc  and
the Bight of Benin.
One of those two is Ivory Coast, a former French colony,
the anthem of which still refers to its old colonial capital: l'Abidjanaise. With close to 4 million
inhabitants, the port city of Abidjan remains the country's commercial hub. In
1984, the then Ivorian president, Félix Houphoët-Boigny, moved the capital 140
miles inland, to the relatively modest town of Yamoussoukro. It was the fourth
Ivorian capital in less than a century , but, maintained the president, the
first one chosen by Ivorians rather than the French. Apart from being more
central, and not chosen by the French, Yamoussoukro had one other crucial boon
for Houphoët-Boigny: it was his place of birth .
The founding father and president-for-life  was
determined to bestow a personal legacy on the new capital. He ordered the
construction of the Basilique Notre-Dame
de la Paix de Yamoussoukro. The basilica was clearly inspired by St.
Peter's in the Vatican, and designed to be the largest church building in the
world . Built between 1985 and 1989 at a cost of $300 million, it was
consecrated in 1990 by Pope John Paul II .
While Houphoët-Boigny still flanks Jesus on the
stained-glass windows of the basilica, the world outside has changed
dramatically. The formerly stable Ivory Coast has suffered a deadly civil war
between the north and south, with Yamoussoukro in the frontline. In 2010,
Northern forces took Yamoussoukro, but the city's limited capital function meant
the civil war wasn't over until Alassane Ouatarra's troops captured
his opponent Laurent Gbagbo, holed up in...Abidjan.
 Not unlike the seigneuries,
the system of land distribution employed
in French North America.
 a.k.a. Ras
Nouadhibou, a peninsula peculiarly filleted
in two in 1900 by then colonial powers France and Spain. It is still divided,
now between Mauritania and the Western Sahara. But as neither Morocco nor the rebel
movement Polisario Front control
the Western Saharan half, Mauritania de
facto controls the entire area.
 After Grand-Bassam (1893), Bingerville (1900) and
 Then still known as N'Gokro. It was renamed after
Yamousso, a local queen, and the great-aunt of Félix Houphoët-Boigny.
 Houphoët-Boigny led Ivory Coast to independence in
1960 and remained its president until his death in 1993.
 It was recognized as such in 1989 by that most
catholic of publications, the Guinness Book of Records. In fact, the title
depends on what you count -- and by many counts, St. Peter's is still bigger.
Yamoussoukro's accomodates fewer people, and its dome is slightly smaller, but it
reaches higher thanks to a larger cross on top. With a height of 518 feet and a
diameter of 300 feet, it is the tallest church with the largest church dome in
 But only on condition that he could also lay the
foundation stone of a nearby hospital -- as of September 2012 still under construction.
PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images
Like most West African countries, Nigeria is marked by a
religious territorial divide: an Islamic population concentrated in a northern
band, with Christians prevalent in the coastal south. In 1976, the Nigerian
government therefore decided to move the federal capital from Lagos, the
teeming metropolis on the coast, to a neutral place at the center of the
country. Abuja , designed by Japanese urbanist Kenzo
Tange, was inspired by Brasilia,
the then newly built capital of Brazil (finished in 1960). It is generally
considered Africa's best planned town -- even if only about a quarter of the
original plan has as yet been executed.
Abuja, constructed in the 1980s and inaugurated as
capital in 1991, shares some problems with other planned towns and capitals.
While the center has seen the most development, unplanned shantytowns dominate
the outskirts. The city is rife with spectacular buildings, like the National
Mosque, the Castle of Law, and the Ship House (home to the Ministry of
Defense), but feels somewhat bereft of more "informal" accoutrements of
metropolitan living, like urban density, and a good selection and spread of
cinemas, shops, and other entertainment.
In spite of its relative success as a planned city,
non-essential visitors (a.k.a. tourists) shun Abuja for its lack of excitement.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. Perhaps Abujans can work to export
that particular quality of their city to the more restive parts of Nigeria:
maybe urban blandness of a certain type could quell the frequent, violent
confrontations along the religious fault line that threaten to cut the country
into a Muslim north and a Christian south.
 Named after a nearby town, which was then renamed Suleja.
Wouldn't it have been easier to name the new capital Suleja?
by Don Bosco?
For most of the first half of the 20th century, a
rectangular area in the inlands of Brazil was marked on maps as Futuro Distrito Federal. Brazil's first
republican constitution, signed in 1891 in what was then the nation's capital,
Rio de Janeiro, mandated a capital city closer to the country's geographical
heart. But an adviser to Brazil's Emperor Pedro I formulated the original idea
in 1827: a city named Brasilia, to be established on a more neutral, more
central location in the vast country occupying half of South America.
Ground was eventually broken in 1956, and the main
building phase for Brasilia completed in 1960, at which time the entire Federal
District counted under 150,000 inhabitants. Today, Brasilia is the country's
fourth-largest city , with well over 2.5 million inhabitants. This, of
course, was not foreseen: the city was laid out for half a million residents.
Brasilia was the world's largest city at the close of the 20th century that did
not exist at its start .
Brasilia's distinctive, modernist look is the creation of
Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer,
who designed the city's layout and many of its major buildings. Depending on
how you feel about it, Brasilia can feel grand or empty, modern or monotonous,
and either refreshingly or naively utopian. Surrounding the planned city are a
string of non-planned satellite cities, absorbing the capital's surplus
As with other planned capitals, Brasilia is also presumed
to have a mystical, transcendent side. One of the city's main churches is
devoted to Don Bosco, the Italian saint who in 1883, during one of his many
visions, saw "[i]n the southern hemisphere, between the parallels of 15
and 20 degrees, around a lake, [...] a great civilization arising. Honey and milk
flow from its center, and gold is hidden underneath the earth" .
Less lyrical was Robert Hughes, the Australian art critic
who visited Brasilia for his 1980 documentary The Shock of the New. His scathing remarks reflect on all planned
cities (and capitals), and bear repeating at length: "Brasilia is a facade, run
up under political pressure. Finished in 1960 and already falling to bits.
Cracking stonework, flaking concrete, rusting metal: a ceremonial slum. So what
Brasilia became in less than 20 years wasn't the city of tomorrow at all. It
was yesterday's science fiction. Nothing dates faster than people's fantasies
about the future. This is what you get when perfectly decent, intelligent and
talented men start thinking in terms of space rather than place...you get miles
of jerry-built platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens. This, one may
fervently hope, is the last experiment of its kind."
 After Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador.
 Chicago holds that distinction for the 19th century.
Nyaypidyaw is the best candidate so far for the 21st century.
 Brasilia lies near the 16th parallel, next to an
artificial lake. Some also read esoteric meanings into layout of Oscar
Niemeyer's city plan, and the shape and form of his buildings. In their view,
Brasilia is a modern-day reinvention of the ancient holy city of Akhetaton in Egypt, which the then future
Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek had visited in the 1930s.
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
Turkey: Ankara, not
The state Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded on the ashes of
the tired old Ottoman Empire in 1923 was to be a few things its predecessor was
not: resolutely secular, and entirely Turkish. Thus Constantinople, the
multi-ethnic metropolis that was also the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate, was
not such a great choice as capital for the new Republic of Turkey. But
Atatürk's choice of Ankara  was not just a symbolic break with the past: it
had a much more practical reason. At the end of World War I, the Allies
occupied Constantinople , so Atatürk set up his headquarters in Ankara, an
ancient town with a conveniently central location in Anatolia. Ankara kept its
central role even after the Turks beat back the Allies, retaking Constantinople
and the Ionian coast.
Today, Ankara, with its 4
million inhabitants a distant second to Istanbul's 14 million, has not managed
to displace the former capital as the beating heart of the Turkish state. But
through its much smaller size, it bears a much deeper imprint of Atatürk's
attempts to recast Turkey in a modernist, secular light. As in later "new"
capitals, an entirely new section was designed, in Ankara's case by the German
architect Hermann Jenson, who laid out a series of zones, each with different
urban functions, along two boulevards, running north-south and east-west.
Jenson's 1927 design was somewhat reminiscent of Le Corbusier's 1924 guide The City of To-morrow and its Planning. But Ankara would also
become a city of the past, dotted with memorials to the region's Hittite
history, and mausoleums, the grandest of which was Atatürk's own Anit Kabir -- a secular equivalent to
Islam's holy sites, many of which, like the Aya Sofia, were turned into museums
under Atatürk. As a result, Ankara is an old-new city, an attempt at Westernizing
in a part of the eastern world; a secularist beacon in a country now
rediscovering its religious heritage.
 Known until 1930 as Angora, as in certain
long-haired animals: angora rabbit (cf. angora wool), angora cat and angora
goat (cf. mohair).
 The city officially became Istanbul, a Turkish name
that had been in use for centuries. Ironically, it also derives from Greek -- more specifically, from the road signs pointing Eis tin polin ("towards the city").
GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images
Some ideas for the
The examples above list some of the countries that over
the past century or so recalibrated their capitals to a more central position.
But why stop there? What if other states today decided to relocate their
capitals? Here are three countries with invitingly eccentric government seats,
and suggestions on how to make these more central. Maybe they'll inspire you to
grab a hold of the world map and take a stab at this urban variant of Risk: Which capitals would you move?
London has been the capital of Great Britain since Roman
times , for one simple reason: it sits at a bend in the Thames where it's both
fordable and navigable, making it an ideal crossroads for inland trade routes
and naval commerce with the rest of Europe. But its eccentric location,
combined with its enormous growth and economic weight -- London represents roughly
20 percent of total British gross domestic product -- imbalances Britain.
Perhaps Westminster should redress the balance, and move the capital to a more
central city. Leeds, for example, is halfway between London; or what about
Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, which has in recent months already been
named the wi-fi, jogging,
and bargain car
capital of Britain?
 One of the short-lived capitals of Roman Britain was
Colchester, then known as Camelodunum -- possibly the source for the ephemeral
India: Next stop
India should consider giving up New Delhi as its capital:
it was chosen by the British, for one, and it is far too northern. The next
capital should be Nagpur  (pop. 2.5 million): recently voted India's
cleanest and one of its greenest cities, it's the winter capital of Maharashtra
state and thus an economic and political center in its own right. But most of
all, it lies exactly at the geographical center of India -- it even has the
country's Zero Mile Marker.
 Literally "Snake City," after the serpentine bends
of the river on which banks it is built.
cycling is good for you/Flickr
Four out of five Australians live within 30 miles of the
sea, and almost all of those do so in the southeast corner of the
continent-sized country, in or near the big cities Sydney and Melbourne.
Canberra, the federal capital, was built in between the rivals, as a
compromise. So the capital is on neutral ground, but hardly in a central
location -- it sits in Australia's Fertile Crescent, more than 2,300 miles from
the western metropolis of Perth. But now, when mining is replacing agriculture
as Australia's prime industry, perhaps the arid interior should no longer be
left out of the equation. There's a town already at Australia's center, poised
to take up the capital mantle. Alice Springs, population nearly 28,000,
is so near to a few of the proposed geographical centers of Australia that it almost seems like that's why it was
put there. But in fact, it was the presumed location of a permanent watering
hole on the route connecting north and south Australia.
Springs ever be the capital of Australia? It's as likely as the U.S. government
moving house to Metropolis, Illinois. The idea that central government should be
centrally located is absurd -- but only as absurd as the belief that humankind
is really master of its destiny. As long as we remain convinced that political
geography is something we can improve on, no capital city on the edge of its
national territory will remain safe from the shadow of the central planners ...
and their moving vans.