Licchavi Lyceum


Licchavi Lyceum

Central Place Theory of Christaller and Losch  is a part of Geography Optional Syllabus of UPSC. Read this article and attempt the Previous Year Geography Optional Mains Questions asked in UPSC CSE Exam available at the end of the this post.  

Christaller's Central Place Theory

Central Place Theory is a spatial theory in urban geography, it explains the cause behind the distribution patterns, size, and a number of cities and towns around the world.

Origin of the Central Place Theory

Walter Christaller studies the structure of settlements in “South Germany” and put forward this theory in 1933. Being an economist, he investigated the relation between cities and the hinterland and in turn developed this empirical model. Moreover, the Central Place Theory was one of the earliest model that led to the genesis of Quantitative Revolution.

So, what was the key findings of Christaller? 

  1. Although there is an even distribution of settlements, one can find a regular pattern in them. 
  2. There is a relationship between the distribution, number and the size of settlements. 

Based on above findings, he propounded a theory known as the “Central Place Theory”. 

So, what is Central Place? 

It is the place that provider goods and services to the rear by regions. For example, the Panchayat Bhawan in the village provides the basic administrative services at the village level so, it is the the central place for the village. 

Shape of the Region around the Central Place

In Christaller Model, the central place is situated in the centre of the regions it serves. But, it is important to note that this centre is not the geometric centre of the region, rather the central place can be located anywhere in the region. 

Logically, the shape of the region is circular because the transport costs increase proportionately with distance from the centre. Something like this: 

Range and Threshold of Central Place
Fig. 1: Range and Threshold of Central Place


But, Christaller did not adopted this shape of the region. Why? 

Well, we will let it know as we proceed further. 

Range: From Circular to Hexagonal

Stage 1: No Competitor Nearby

No Competitors Nearby The entrepreneur, with an aim of profit maximisation, position themselves as far away from competitors as possible, giving the market a “circular shape”, to ensure that at least one threshold value is covered under their market area. As all entrepreneurs act in this way, they are evenly spaced over the plane in a “triangular lattice pattern” so they are equidistant from their six nearest competitors. (See Figure: 1)

Stage 2: Competitor Appears Nearby

If there are many competitors, each with a circular market area and located at an equal distance from his six nearest neighbours, some area will remain unserved by entrepreneurs (see figure: ). In order to serve the unserved customers, suppliers or entrepreneurs come closer together causing the circular areas to overlap. 

Since the customers in this overlap zone will visit the nearest areas will be hexagonal. Higher order centres have bigger hexagonal market areas, and low order centres have smaller hexagons. This results in a mesh of hexagonal market areas where hierarchy of central places is functionally and spatially organised.

Central Place Theory
Fig. 2: Central Place Theory (multiple competitors)

Stage 3: Emergence of Higher Order Central Place

In an attempt to avoid overlap and to match the densest distribution of settlement points, the circular regions were converted into hexagons. Now, a Central Place of Higher Order will provide the goods and services much longer range and this longer range will include small regions having central place of lower order. This overlapping regions will create a mesh of superimposed  Hexagon.

Order of Goods and Services provided by the Central Place

Goods with low thresholds and small market areas are low order goods and will occupy low order centres, whereas, goods with high thresholds termed as high order goods and will occupy high order centres. 

In between the high order and low order centres are the intermediate order centres selling middle order
goods. This denotes that the central places are graded according to the level of goods and services they offer. Therefore, high order centre will cater services of high, middle and low order. The middle order centres may provide functions of middle order and low order. Whereas, low order centres delivers the functions of only low order.

Assumption of Christaller Central Place Theory

  1. There is an isotropic plane (flat surface) on which natural resources are evenly distributed. 
  2. Population is evenly distributed on plane.
  3. All consumers have similar purchasing power and same taste or demand for the goods and services.
  4. There is no excess profit (perfect competition).
  5. There is a single means of transport and transport costs rises proportionately with
  6. distance.
  7. Consumers visit the nearest central place as this minimises the distance travelled.
  8. The entrepreneurs are economic men with aim on profit maximisation. As people will
    prefer to visit the nearest centre, suppliers will locate themselves as far away from
    each other as possible to maximize their market areas.
  9. The central place hierarchy acts as a closed system.

Principles of Central Place Theory

Four major principles underlie Central Place Theory (CPT): Centrality, Complementary areas, Threshold and Range of goods and services.

# Principle of Centrality

The Centrality of a place refers to the degree /extent, to which a town serves it’s surrounding area and can only be measured in terms of goods and services offered.

There are different orders of goods and services. Some goods and services are costly and rarely purchased (like Cars/ TV) and will need large population to sustain them. Whereas, others are every day need items and will require small population for its survival (Like Bread, Tea). 

So, The variety and quantity of goods and services it provides for its population in the region defines the Centrality of the Central Place. 

# Principle of Complementary Area

The Complementary area is the area for which central place is the focal point. This area would be larger for bigger and more important central places and smaller for the less important ones. 

Further, In an isotropic surface, the complementary area is always a circle with the central place at the centre of this circle. 

# Principle of Threshold Population

Threshold population is the minimum number of people required to support any good or service outlet established at central place. It is the minimum population which is required for the sale of good or to sustain any service. 

Some goods and services need large population and others a small population to achieve their threshold values. For example, a minimum varying population is needed to retain a doctor, bank or a post office. Also, a grocery shop needs a relatively small local population to keep up its business while a car which is irregularly purchased needs a larger threshold population.

#Principle of Range of Goods and Services

Range is the maximum distance that a consumer is willing to travel to avail the functions offered at the Central Place. For example: You can travel to a metro city to purchase an i-Phone. Again, To get critical health services, you may travel to Far distances like AIIMS Delhi etc. 

Principles in the arrangements of Central Places

Christaller used three principles to arrange the Central Places and their respective complementary area. The parameters used were: Marketing Principle, Transport Principle and the Transport Principle. 

K=3, Marketing Principle

Under the marketing principle, an urban settlement reveals consumer demand. Each consumer would try to be as close as possible to every level of the hierarchy so as to minimize the amount of travelling for the consumer. Thus, a settlement of every order would be surrounded by six other settlements of the next order. 

The low order centres, position themselves on the boundaries of market areas of middle order centres. People at lower order centre will have a choice between three higher order centres since all three are equidistant. Each higher order centre then receives one third of the customer of six immediately lower order centres which are located on the boundary of its market area. 

It serves a population equivalent to two lower order centres (6*1/3), besides its own population. Therefore, overall it serves a total of three central places (6*1/3=2+1=3). 

For each one of the largest settlements there would be three of the second grades, nine of the third grade, twenty-seven of the fourth grade and so on. Thus, there is only one centre of the highest order and number of centres at every level below it increases by a factor of three (See Figure: 3). 

K=4, Transport Principle

The transport principle states that the distribution of central places is most favorable when as many places of concern or importance lie on one traffic route between two important towns, the route being established as straight and as cheap as possible. 

The more unimportant places may not be taken into cognizance. The central places would thus be lined up on straight traffic routes which radiate out from central point. Central places are so located that lower order centres lie along the straight line paths between higher order centres. 

In the transport principle, a lower order centre is equidistant from two lower order centres (6*1/2) plus, its own (1) making a total of four (See Fig: 3). 

When central places are arranged according to transport principle, the lower order centres are located at the midpoint of each side of the hexagon rather than at the corner. Thus, the transport principle produces a hierarchy
organised in a k=4 arrangement in which a central place is nested according to the rule of four.

This is termed as K=4 network principle. The number of settlement serving as central places at each decreasing in the hierarchy would be 1, 4, 16, 64,256…and so on.

K=7, Administrative Principle

The market areas of each of the higher order centres include the higher market area of each of the six neighbouring lower order centres (Fig.3). This is because law and administration in theory do not experience exponential decay with distance but remain fully enforced up to the boundaries of the administrative units in which they are applied. 

For the administrative principle the numerical progression would be as 1, 7, 49, 343… and so on.

Principles of Central Place Theory
Fig. 3: Principles of Central Place Theory

Criticism of Central Place Theory

  1. The Central place theory is majorly criticized for its oversimplification of the real world by making a number of assumptions.
  2. Large areas of flat land are rare (assumption of CPT).
  3. The positioning of settlements is generally random and not evenly spaced contrary to even spacing of settlements suggested by Christaller.
  4. The hexagonal pattern is suited for theoretical development but in the real world many other complicated factors are at work.
  5. The concept of perfect competition is untrue in reality with some firms making more money than others.
  6. Central places are grouped into order (second, third, and fourth) but these do not match with the theoretical expectations as there is a definite and clear ranking of centres within each other.
  7. As per the theory it is expected that two third order centres will have equal sized area of influence. Central place theory suggests that each centre’s sphere of influence for its activities at any specific level will be equal in size to every other centre’s sphere of influence. But in reality this has rarely been the case.
  8. Every higher order centre also functions as a lower order centre in the CPT, but often lower centres have some activities which some higher centres have in Central place theory.
  9. Consumer travel behavior cannot be projected. Affluence, changes in taste, and preferences and greater mobility enabling people to travel farther to do their shopping and obtain required services have altered demand patterns for services and goods.
  10. Technological change has also brought about changes in the ways provision of goods and services are organized and located. Examples supermarkets, mall culture, online shopping.
  11. The government intervention (setting up of economic or residential base), planning and policy making (decentralization) and legislation (environmental, housing laws etc.) affect future growth of various settlements outside the town.
  12. Christaller envisaged each Centre with a particular function whereas they have many which also changes over time.
  13. Central place theory may not have a universal validity. It also cannot be pressed to explain a settlement pattern in any region. The purpose of the Central Place Theory is to identify a few salient features, found in certain types of settlement patterns and tools available when seeking to describe and understand a particular pattern found in the real world.

Application of Central Place Theory

  1. It provides a rationale for selective location and efficient space and functions. 
  2. In terms of functional and behavioural dimensions it has drawn attention to country and inter-town interdependence. 
  3. It encourages order in the spacing and inter-relatedness of settlements where settlements are seen in wider contexts. 
  4. The central place theory seeks to analyze the functional and hierarchical orderliness in the settlement landscape. 
  5. Settlements vary in size, function and number but the centralistic function is sought in the location economies, social and administrative structure and their visible and not so visible forms and is evident in location of the structures like church, community hall or university.
  6. The central place theory helps us to identify more clearly the role of settlements as places of trade exchange and the extent to which this has influenced the nature of emerging settlement pattern in region. 
  7. The Central place theory has been used as a guideline for relocation policy and this was incorporated as an integral part of regional planning in Germany, in north east polders, location of settlements, population size, linkages, hierarchy and allocation of market and service functions were determined by central place principle.

Applicability of Central Place Theory in India

CPT is a normative in character and so limited in empirical applicability. No real world settlement system can be expected to conform to all the propositions of the Central Place. 

India’s hierarchy system is represented from the point of view of administration and demography. India has six level hierarchies of settlements at administrative level. At the top of the hierarchy is the national capital followed by state capitals, district headquarters, tehsil towns, block development centres and gram panchayat centres. The national and the state capitals are in reality important metropolitan cities, headquarters of district and even tehsils are recognized urban places. 

At a block level, block headquarters are large villages but not recognized as urban places. Gram panchayats as per their definition are rural in nature, though provides wide variety of service to hamlets, they can be said to be central places of lowest order.

So. What is the ratio? 

The administrative hierarchy of settlements in India differs considerably from the central place system under the administrative principle as pointed by Christaller. Theoretically, there is a ratio of 1:7 between the number of settlements of higher and lower orders. 

In India, ratio of districts to state is almost 1:19, where gram panchayat per community development block may reach up to 40 in number. Also, the number of tehsil per district is slightly over six and this corresponds to administrative principle quite closely.

Again, from the theoretical point, the spacing between settlements of lower and higher order should increase by a factor of 2:6 in most cases.  in India this ratio is much greater. 

Here again, the spacing of tehsil and district level centres confirms to the theory. However, an administrative hierarchy of places doe exists, though the number and spacing of different hierarchical levels of places is far from ideal.

Another perspective to the study is census of population, where system of hierarchy of places is commonly recognized. These range from million cities to revenue villages having less than 500 populations, which in India are recognized as hamlets. 

The population size of the settlement bears some relation, even if roughly, to the centrality of the place. The settlements in India show a close similarity to the theoretical central places systems based on the marketing principal. 

In this system the ratio of spacing of higher order centres to the immediate lower centres is 1:1.72. The actual ratio of spacing varies from 1.41 to 1.83 except with two exceptions of villages and medium towns. The major exceptions relate to million cities, which are in fact primate cities. Therefore, it may not be correct to convincingly state
that the central place systems apply to the Indian conditions in totality. Also, on the other hand it cannot be rejected completely as well.