Central Place Theory by Walter Christaller : A Theory of Functional Hierarchy

Central place theory was given by Walter Christaller in 1933, CPT in urban geography is one of the most appreciated theories which tries to explain the spatial arrangements and distribution of human settlements and their number based on population and distance from another human settlement. This theory was first given by German geographer Walter Christaller in 1933, on the basis of his study of settlement patterns in southern Germany. This study included the analyzing the relationships between settlements of different sizes and related their economic activities (market) with the population. This article will explain what is central place theory.

Walter Christaller explained why the highest order settlement has very peculiar activities which can only be supported by them and the reason behind those activities taking place only in those particular highest order settlements, he also explained the nature of activities in different order of settlements. Central place theory is of great importance even after decades and forms the basis of various present-day theories used in urban planning.

Christaller made some assumptions to make his theory easy to understand and form the basis for other theories. These assumptions were necessary and hold good to explain the structure of settlements. These also take into account the growth and development of towns, human behavior and fundamentals of economics. Walter Christaller made following assumptions:

An even  (flat) terrain – A hilly and uneven terrain poses difficulty in development thus a flat area which promotes the growth of the town
Evenly distributed population – residents are not concentrated at one particular place and no preference exists for a particular town
Evenly distributed resources – no place has an advantage of resources, all placed will compete under perfect market conditions
Similar purchasing power – along with the population and resources, wealth is also fairly distributed. Because of this people have similar purchasing power
Preference for the nearest market – people will buy products from the nearest market and avoid the long commute. This keeps price constant as per other assumptions
Equal transportation cost (proportional to distance) – the cost incurred in transporting of goods is equal for all and is proportional to the distance
Perfect competition – price is decided on basis of demand and supply. People will buy at the lowest price which market has to offer, no seller has an advantage over another seller.
These assumptions when combined, results in place offering different services. In these places in which people enjoy the perfect market and purchase from the nearest place to save on money and time. Different services locate themselves on the basis of the threshold population. The minimum number of people required to sustain that service/activity. In addition to this, there is no preference for a particular shop. All people have access to equal resources and do not enjoy any advantage over its competitor. The demand for goods consumed & used on daily basis will be used more and vice versa.

Explanation of terms: Central Place definition, low order, high order, sphere of influence

A Central Place is a settlement which provides one or more services for the population living around it.
Simple basic services (e.g. grocery stores) are said to be of low order. Specialized services (e.g. universities) are said to be of high order.
Having a high order service implies there are low order services around it, but not vice versa.
Settlements which provide low order services are said to be low order settlements.
Settlements that provide high order services are said to be high order settlements.
The sphere of influence is the area under the influence of the Central Place.
Two main concepts of Central Place Theory

As per Walter Christaller, Central Place Theory is based on 2 fundamental concepts which are “Threshold” and “Range

Threshold – The minimum population needed to make a service viable at a particular place. If this size is not reached then a particular activity will not start or it will be closed down.

Range – This is the maximum distance a consumer is willing to travel to purchase good or avail a service, beyond this distance consumer will not travel as the distance traveled for good/service will outweigh the benefit.

From these two concepts, the lower and upper limits of goods or services can be found. With the upper and the lower limits, it is possible to see how the central places are arranged in an imaginary area.

Sizes of settlements/communities as per central place theory
Walter Christaller gave a system with 5 sizes of settlements based on population. The smallest unit is Hamlet which is considered a rural community and the largest unit is Regional Capital.  The rank order of central places in ascending order include:

  • Hamlet
  • Village
  • Town
  • City
  • Regional Capital/ Metropolis


Markets and Services tend to be nested hierarchies with smaller towns serving smaller markets. However, transportation and border effects can shift the distribution of towns away from theoretical uniformity.

The arrangement of the Central places/ settlements:
As transport is equally easy in all direction, each central place will have a circular market area as shown in C in the following diagram:

However, the circular shape of the market areas results in either un-served areas or over-served areas. To solve this problem, Christaller suggested the hexagonal shape of the markets as shown in D in the above diagram. Within a given area there will be fewer high order cities and towns in relation to the lower order villages and hamlets. For any given order, theoretically, the settlements will be equidistant from each other. The higher order settlements will be further apart than the lower order ones.

Principles in the arrangement of the central places:
Christaller’s theory gives 3 principles which are the marketing principle, transport principle and administrative principle for orderly arrangements and the formation of hierarchy. Settlements are regularly spaced – equidistant spacing between same order centers, with larger centers farther apart as compared to smaller centers. The market area is hexagonal shaped as it is free from overlapping, most efficient in both number and function.

The different layouts predicted by Christaller have K- values which show how much the Sphere of Influence of the central places takes in — the central place itself counts as 1 and each portion of a satellite counts as its portion:

Marketing Principle (K=3)
Transport Principle/ Traffic Principle (K=4)
Administrative Principle (K=7)
The three principles of central place theory are as follows

Marketing Principle (K=3): As per this the market area of a higher order occupies one-third (1/3 part) of the market area of each of the consecutive lower size place(node) which lies on its neighbor. The lower size nodes (6 in numbers and 2nd larger circles) are located at the corner of the largest hexagon around the high-order settlement. Each high-order settlement gets 1/3rd of each satellite settlement (which are 6 in total), thus K = 1 + 6×1/3 = 3.

With K=3 the transport network is not efficient even when the distance traveled is reduced. This is because of the absence of transport links (network) between the larger places (nodes).

Transport Principle (K=4): This provides for most efficient transport network. High order place half of the market area of 6 neighboring lower order places located on the edge of the hexagon formed by high order settlement. There are maximum central places possible. These are located on the main transport routes connecting the higher order center. The transportation principle involves the minimization of the length of roads connecting central places at all hierarchy levels. In this system of nesting, the lower order centers are all located along the roads linking the higher order centers. This alignment of places along a road leads to minimization of road length. However, for each higher order center, there are now four centers of immediate lower order, as opposed to three centers under the marketing principle.

Administrative Principle (K=7): According to K = 7 administrative principle (or political-social principle), settlements are nested according to sevens. The market areas of the smaller settlements are completely enclosed within the market area of the larger settlement. Since tributary areas cannot be split administratively, they must be allocated exclusively to a single higher-order place. Efficient administration is the control principle in this hierarchy.

Hierarchy of Central Places

Christaller suggested that the central places, providing goods and services to the surrounding areas would form a hierarchy. A large number of widely distributed small places would provide lower order goods and services to service regular widespread demand. There would be a smaller number of larger centers providing both lower-order and higher-order goods and services. Successive steps of the hierarchy would consist of larger central places providing even higher-order goods and services.

Complementary Regions
Each town or city exerts its influence over surrounding areas. People come from the surrounding area to the town for goods, services, and jobs. The area over which the town exerts its influence has been termed complementary region. The term market area used in the context of specific goods and services. The larger the town, the larger is its complementary area. The larger the city, the greater the likelihood of very specialized goods and services. This attracts people from all over the world. For example, the largest cities like New York, Paris London, and Rome attract people from across the globe. Their complementary areas are international.

Criticism & limitations of Christaller’s central place theory

Central Place Theory is widely appreciated and used but has its own limitations.These include the assumptions which are unrealistic. The basic assumptions are flawed. It is nearly impossible to have very large flat terrain, perfect market, and absence of preference for shopping places. Today’s economy is a capitalist economy, but government plays an equally important role which has a strong influence on the market and the location of activities. Moreover, the resources are never equally distributed, and some enjoy disproportionate benefits. Same is true for purchasing power. Thus to make it functional as per actual scenario various modifications are required in the basic theory.




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Urban Issues Faced by the people of Delhi:

Major Problems Faced by the people of Delhi:

1. Environmental Problems:

Air Pollution:

The respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) in the Capital’s air is touching 250 micrograms per cubic meter ((μg/m3), four times the prescribed level, while the concentration of nitrogen oxide (NOx) is 50-55 μg/m3 – way above the permissible upper limit of 40μg/m3.

Water Pollution:

A 2008 report by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) on status of water in the country finds that the Total Coliform and Faecal Coliform numbers are highest in river Yamuna with a count of 32X10 7 MPN / 100 ml and 23X10 7 MPN / 100 ml respectively against a bathing quality standard of 500 MPN / 100ml.

Given the indisputable presence in the river of bacteria, viruses and protozoa that cause diseases, the rising morbidity caused by waterborne diseases in Delhi can certainly be blamed on the river getting sicker.

Land Pollution:

NEERI estimates indicate that about 8000 M. Tonnes of Solid waste is being generated each day in Delhi at present. In addition, industrial hazardous and non-hazardous waste, such as fly ash from power plants, is also generated. MCD and NDMC could manage to clear about 5000-5500 M. Tonnes of garbage each day resulting in accumulation of garbage in the city area.

2. Health Related Problems:

 Trucks contribute about 65 per cent of the total particulate matter (PM) concentration in Delhi’s air. The lack of any effective regulation on trucks entering the city after 10 pm has led to the current situation. Despite a Supreme Court directive to keep the trucks out of city limits, the enforcement remains poor. As a result, the pollution level in Delhi today is as bad as it was in the pre-CNG days, exposing residents to serious health problems such as respiratory and pulmonary diseases.

 High Respiratory Symptoms have been noted in 32% children examined in Delhi compared to only 18.2% of rural Children. The Symptoms are higher during winter.

 Lung function has reduced in 43.5 per cent schoolchildren, deficit hyperactivity disorder is 4.1 times higher among schoolchildren of Delhi than the rest of India.

3. Socio-Economic Problems:

  1. Urban Sprawl
  2. Overcrowding
  3. Housing
  4. Unemployment
  5. Slums and Squatter Settlements 6. Transport
  6. Sewerage Problems 8. Urban Crimes

Air pollution in Delhi-

Air pollution is a matter of rising concern in the Indian cities. Air pollution in India is estimated to kill 1.5 million people every year. It is the fifth largest killer in India. India has the world’s highest death rate
from chronic respiratory diseases and asthma. A recent report by WHO(World Health Organisation) states that of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 13 of them are in India, with Delhi, its capital making its way
to the top. The city’s poor quality air damages irreversibly the lungs of 2.2 million or 50 percent of all children.
In November 2016, in an event known as the Great smog of Delhi, the air  pollution spiked far beyond acceptable levels. Levels of PM2.5 and PM 10  particulate matter hit 999 micrograms per cubic meter, while the safe  limits for those pollutants are 60 and 100 respectively.

The cause-

In some areas such as Pitampura in north Delhi, PM2.5 levels increased from 60 in 2011 to 119 in 2015, yearly data from the country’s Pollution

Control Board shows. The World Health Organization recommends that PM2.5 is kept below 10 as an annual average. It says exposure to average annual concentrations of PM2.5 of 35 or above is associated with a 15% higher long-term mortality risk.

Burning of stubble in paddy fields to prepare them for the next harvest in the neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh also add to Delhi’s own air pollution woes: emissions from vehicles, industries using coal for power and dust from construction activities and movement of vehicles.
The burning of trash, which can contain plastic, rubber and metal items and gives off toxic emissions, also adds to the city’s acrid air.
Delhi’s polluted air saw an additional growth due to burning of firecrackers and fireworks during Diwali.
Emissions from exhaust pipes of vehicles and chimneys of factories and plants.
The solution-

Methods implemented to check pollution:

  1. Odd even Rule-

Delhi High Court directed the Centre and State governments to come up with comprehensive action plans to put a check on city’s “alarming” pollution rate. Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government has come up with this scheme to bring down the city’s air pollution proportion.
This system was implemented in Beijing in 2008 just before the summer  Olympics. While the rule was initially said to be temporary, it turned out to be  so effective the government made it permanent.

Similar road-rationing rules are imposed in many places around the world like
Paris, Mexico and Bogota to curb road jams and pollution.

2. What can we learn from other cities around the world?

China’s capital Beijing too reels under heavy winter smog as the country

switches to coal-fuelled central heating and releases more pollutants in the air. But a newspaper said China has launched a crackdown on heavy vehicles that failed to meet emission standards.

Beijing also plans to create ventilation corridors by connecting the city’s parks, rivers and lakes, highways with green belts and low building blocks that will allow the air to flow and blow away smog.
Delhi can also learn from cities such as London and Los Angeles that have battled deadly smogs in the past, but have taken measures to combat the situation.

3. What we can do to control air pollution-
1. Use Public Transportation: Use your vehicle a lot less  often. Carpool and ride share when you have the ability to do so and consider using public transportation instead of  driving;  that way, you aren’t contributing to all of the  issues that the air is already dealing with before adding  your car to the mix.
2. Buy Green Electricity: Buy electricity generated from  renewable energies i.e. hydroelectric, wind or solar power.

3. Cigarette smoke: Experts say that one of the most common indoor air pollutants is cigarette smoke. Residual gas and particles from cigarette smoke that settle pose a
lot of health hazards, particularly in rooms with a lot of fabric or carpeting.

4. Household Cleaners: Household cleaning supplies are another common cause of indoor pollution. Harsh chemicals that give off fumes can irritate your nose, mouth and lungs, as well as your skin.

5. A few small steps that can make a huge difference-

6.Encourage your family to walk to the neighbourhood market.
Whenever possible take your bicycle.
7.As far as possible use public forms of transport. Don’t let your father drop you to school, take the school bus.Encourage your family to form a car pool to office and back.
8.Reduce the use of aerosols in the household. Look after the trees in your neighbourhood.
9.Begin a tree-watch group to ensure that they are well tended and cared for.Switch-off all the lights and fans when not required.
10.If possible share your room with others when the air conditioner, cooler or fan is on.

11.Do not burn leaves in your garden, put them in a compost pit.

12.Make sure that the pollution check for your family car is done at regular intervals

13.Cars should, as far as possible, be fitted with catalytic converters.

14.Use only unleaded petrol.



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Rumi Darwaza, Lucknow

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Bara Imambara, Lucknow

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