Cities tend to develop the way living organisms do– they begin their lives as small and simple creatures, they eventually flower into maturity, and some occasionally decay and die out. Cities are located where they are– Paris is on the Seine, Sydney is on the Pacific coast– not because central planners decided that’s where they should be, but because of the choices of individuals. The decision was made from the bottom-up, not from the top-down.
But it doesn’t always happen like this. Sometimes well-meaning bureaucrats, or even megalomaniacal dictators, decide that a city should develop the way they want it to– in exactly the place they want it to. The results are almost universally disappointing.
This problem is especially acute with capital cities, which are often thought to represent countries in important ways. Because of their symbolic nature, government oficials like to locate capitals in just the right place. Their intentions are often pure, but (to paraphrase an old saying) the road to a bad city is paved with good intentions.
Here are the top four worst planned capital cities in the world:
4. Brasilia, Brazil
Brazil’s capital is one of the best examples of a planned city gone awry. In the late 1950s, Brazil’s president ordered the construction of a new city, Brasilia, which would be the new, more centrally-located capital. At first, the city grew wildly, and its rate of growth (over 2%) is still above that of most large cities. But Brasilia is not thought of very highly by its residents, other Brazilians, or tourists.
The city was built more for the automobile than the pedestrian, so getting around can be difficult, confusing, and expensive. On the plus side, Brasilia is known for its impressive modernist architecture– it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. Still, the city is too cold and impersonal to be thought of as anything but a massive disappointment.
3. Astana, Kazakhstan
If there’s one fact about Astana that shows how characterless it really is, it’s this: “Astana” literally means “capital city.” Charming!
Though Astana has existed under different names for almost two centuries, it was only a small mining town until the mid-1950s, when Nikita Khruschev decided it would become an important grain-producer. After replacing Almaty as Kazakhstan’s capital in 1997, Astana has experienced a dramatic transformation, with a population that has doubled to 600,000 residents.
Like Brasilia, Astana boasts some impressive architecture, but is still rather bleak and humorless. Dozens of ambitious construction projects are underway, however, so the city’s future is not without some hope.
2. Belmopan, Belize
What if the government moved the capital city and no one came? That was more or less the situation when Belmopan became Belize’s capital in 1991 after a hurricane destroyed the previous capital, Belize City. Home to only 8,100 residents, mostly government officials, Belmopan is the quintessential government town, lacking virtually any flavor or charm.
My Lonely Planet guidebook describes the city’s tourist appeal thusly: “Travelers arriving in Belize’s capital are faced with that most basic of all existential questions: What am I doing here? Thankfully, the town provides a ready answer: changing buses.”
1. Naypyidaw, Myanmar (Burma)
Naypyidaw became Myanmar’s capital only three years ago, after the ruling military junta apparently decided that Yangon had become too crowded and congested. However, some suspect that the real reason the capital was moved to such a remote locale was to make invasions and rebellion more difficult. One Indian journalist wrote that Naypyidaw was “the ultimate insurance against regime change, a masterpiece of urban planning designed to defeat any putative ‘color revolution’ – not by tanks and water cannons, but by geometry and cartography.”
Last year, the New York Times euphemistically called the new capital a “work in progress,” and noted that the city may be the world’s only capital without cell phone service or international flight connections.