Western Ambition

Perth’s status as capital holds Western Australia back.  A relatively small, bush state capital will transform regions, disrupt Perth’s singularity and harken Australia’s hidden future.

Beside the Swan
In the study of cities a phenomenon known as urban primacy describes the dominance of one urban sprawl over others. That is, in some territories one city is the largest by substantial degree. This can be more accurately described as sprawl dominance

Greater Perth, Western Australia is 24 times larger than the next two cities in Western Australia combined, making it one of the most dominant cities in the world. Surprisingly, this is not a result of fair competition between cities; it’s the result of a single law: state Parliament is located in Perth.

Researchers noticed that dominant cities are almost always capitals. Upon examination, capital city status was found to be a causal variable in the emergence of sprawl dominance. Specifically, the co-location of commercial and governmental centres corrupts the distribution of state and federal funds allowing the capital a competitive advantage in lobbying forums.

Sprawl dominance is contrasted with territories governed by relatively small cities; these systems exhibit decentralized urbanization and multiple large cities (e.g. Nations: USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Brazil; States/Provinces: California, Texas, Florida, Quebec, Alberta). Research suggests the decentralized form is better on multiple quality-of-life and economic development counts.

From Space: Eastern portions of the American/Canadian urban system demonstrate a decentralized structure (left). The western portion of the Russian urban system is a textbook centralized system (right). Both images are the same scale and are courtesy of NASA.
From Space. Left: USA/Canada, the decentralized form.  Right: Russia, a textbook example of capital dominance – the darkness suggests cities are missing! Both images are the same scale. Image courtesy of NASA.

Australia is a unique case in urbanization. Nationally, it is governed by a relatively small capital city, Canberra, and it boasts one of the most even urban hierarchies in the world – no one city dominates Australia. This reverses in Australian states which (excluding Tasmania) boast some of the most extreme examples of capital dominance in the world.

Greater Perth is 24 times larger than the state’s next 2 cities combined (Geraldton and Kalgoorlie). Is this particularly extreme? As reference, dominance is unmistakable or “strong” at 3.0. 24 is off the charts. An image of southwest Western Australia illustrates Perth’s dominance and subsequent isolation. Note, the image shows only a portion of the massive state, in which there are no other large urban sprawls.


WA Maps - Night Lights and Roadmap
partial Western Australia maps: Southwestern Night Lights and Roadmap. Source: Google Maps for roadmap, Earth at Night 2012 for satellite

Calculating Perth’s dominance
A generous population count was used for Perth (including Rockingham, Mandurah and Bunbury) in an effort to count the population of the urban sprawl (~1.33 million), the functional economic unit. Bunbury may appear out of place however, we should expect Bunbury to integrate with Perth in the tradition of Fremantle, Rockingham and Mandurah.

Not including Bunbury, Perth’s dominance remains enormous, 17 times larger than Bunbury and Kalgoorlie combined. Source data: Largest cities by population in Western Australia

An inequality among cities
Capital city status has the potential to allow one city to stunt others. This is a profound insight suggesting the location of Parliament is very impactful and therefore strategic. To date, this insight has remained hidden in academia, a topic considered “old news” that never translated into policy. Capital dominance remains relatively unknown despite being a global norm.

In Western Australia a popular assumption that environmental inhospitability resigns us to accept Perth’s dominance without questioning it. Why does WA lack additional big cities? “There’s no water” is the assured response.

Indeed, absent of infrastructure, Australia is tough going. Despite being mostly inhospitable, using water to justify Australia’s few cities ignores a series of facts.

In The Origins of Australia’s Capital Cities, Pamela Statham chronicles the founding of Australia’s colonies and questions the eventual dominance of each state capital.  She urges states to question the dominance of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.

Do these cities possess superior natural and economic advantages? According to Statham, that is doubtful given each city was planned in London, site hardly known. Did the founders possess psychic foresight, correctly choosing the only pockets of Australia capable of supporting millions? Statham suggests not and suggests their capital status is the culprit.

Fact: The cities that have prospered in Australia aren’t environmental oases, but heavily engineered settlements that have secured generous government favor. How? Dominant capitals wrest government favor because they are the government.

Regional policy makers in Western Australian are well versed in the neglect they encounter at the state level. Perth casually secures generous funding while regions hustle to gather crumbs. 

The solution: Replant the capital of Western Australia. Give Western Australia a Canberra-style state capital.

West Australian Capital Territory (WACT)
Equality among cities in WA requires a modest, remote capital city, repelling those with “big fish in the big city” dreams and deliberately separating corporate big-wigs from politicians. The world over, relatively small government proves to be the lesser of two evils.

Ideally, Parliament should be relocated to a restrictive, inland location to control the capital’s relative size in the future (suggest Kalgoorlie). It should be noted that moving a capital is not a one-off solution. Capital city status must be monitored in perpetuity, a mandate to be enshrined in policy.

Change is good
Fans of Perth might fear the city’s loss of capital city status. Certainly the creation of WACT would entail a lot of change for Perth; however as the urban system decentralizes, Perth will benefit from its first-mover advantages and the state’s larger economies of scale. Also, a new state capital is not about shaming Perth. Perth as a city is not what’s being solved; it is the state’s passive management of capital city status that is being addressed.

Note to regions: A new capital doesn’t mean securing government funding will be easy.

Big change, big state
Western Australia deserves a capital founded on equality, not Perth’s oppressive singularity. Until the structure is remediated, results won’t vary. WA has enormous unlocked mega-economic potential. Cities are missing!

For more about capital dominance in Australia read Australia: The Blank Slate.