Central Place Theory

If you come from a small town, you probably know how long it takes to get to the nearest Walmart or Starbucks. Places like that need a certain number of customers to make a profit, and Anytown, USA, population 923, is not going to cut it unless it's along a major highway or near a city.

Central Place Theory Central Place Theory

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    There's a certain distance you are willing to travel for the things you want or need on a weekly or monthly basis, right? We're guessing you'll drive up to an hour. You can travel in several directions to any of several small cities, each with 15,000 people or more. But these small city folk, like you, must travel to the nearest big city for the more uncommon and frankly expensive purchases and services: an IKEA, a rock concert, a surgery.

    You may not know it, but you and the city-dwellers, and the places where you all live, obey economic geographic principles that, when combined with everyone else's actions, are predicted and mapped by central place theory. Keep reading to learn more about Christaller's Central Place Theory, its definition, and more.

    Christaller's Central Place Theory

    Walter Christaller (1893-1969), a German economic geographer, was a leader in quantitative approaches to understanding space that formed an essential part of geography in the 1960s-1980s. While his work was initially published in his home country in 1933, it became hugely influential in the US and UK when an English translation came out in 1966.1

    [W]e see large and small towns ... beside [each] another. Sometimes they agglomerate ... in an improbable and apparently senseless manner. ... [W]hy are there...large and small towns, and why are they distributed so irregularly? We seek answers to these questions. We seek the causes of towns being large or small, because we believe that there is some ordering principle heretofore unrecognized that governs their distribution.1

    Christaller, inspired by the von Thunen Model and other theories that described abstract spaces governed by economic principles, was trying to find a way to explain the size and distribution of urban areas. He asked, what is the relationship between the different sizes of urban locations and the patterns they form on the landscape?

    His region of focus was southern Germany, where a few large market centers such as Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Stuttgart, and Munich were surrounded by smaller cities, with each of these surrounded by smaller places.

    Christaller recognized that this spatial hierarchy of sizes has some essential characteristics:

    1. In a given region, there are smaller numbers of larger places and larger numbers of smaller places.
    2. Certain goods and services are sold in all towns, and these tend to be ones that are cheaper and also necessary to have on a daily basis.
    3. The larger places sell goods and services that are needed less frequently, that people will travel long distances for, and as a result, tend to be more expensive.

    Translation: large places become large and stay large (in population, area, and economic output) because they dominate a region economically and thus limit the growth of nearby places, which in turn limits the growth of places encircling them.

    He called the largest, first-order urban areas "central places" and determined that the second-order settlements around them were arranged regularly and predictably. If you drew lines around the main influence areas of the first-order and second-order central places, they looked like hexagons of two different sizes (see below).

    Why hexagons? You might think market areas are circular, but circles can't be arranged on a plane without overlap or empty space. Hexagons, like those that bees make as honeycombs, are found in nature because they maximize surface area and thus are highly efficient containers.

    Central Place Theory Definition

    Central Place Theory (CPT) starts with a question about why urban places are located where they are and ends with the hexagons we show in detail in the next section.

    Central Place Theory: an urban model that uses economic processes to explain hierarchical patterns of urban size and location across space.

    Several assumptions are vital in understanding how Central Place Theory (CPT) works:

    1. Assume a homogeneous, flat plain with the same physical geography conditions (climate, soil, resources, etc.) across it. In other words, picture somewhere like Kansas or the Texas panhandle, not a mountainous region like Colorado.
    2. As far as the population goes, assume that people everywhere on this plain have the same income and that, acting rationally, they will shop at the nearest market that carries what they need, and also shop at the places with lower prices for the same goods.
    3. Assume that transportation costs per unit of distance are equal across the entire space.

    Central Place Theory Hexagons

    In the hexagons that CPT is famous for, we can see the highest-order central place, a large city (Pittsburgh, Topeka, Omaha, Amarillo, etc.), surrounded by six second-order cities (where the villager dweller goes to Walmart). A line connecting these six outlines the first-order hexagon that encloses what Christaller calls a complementary region of a higher order. Each of these six is also surrounded by six towns, outlining second-order hexagons that encompass complementary regions of a lower order.

    Imagine this pattern repeating endlessly across Christaller's abstract plane/plain. This is the spatial arrangement that results from the assumptions and economic activities we described above.

    Central Place Theory, market hexagon, StudySmarterFig. 1 - This hexagon illustrates the market principle. Arrows point in the direction that economic goods and services are received

    The fundamental hexagonal structure of complementary regions that CPT produces is based on Christaller's principle of market dynamics. We won't do the math here, but suffice it to say that Christaller's empirical data from across southern Germany showed that the value of goods sold in a first-order central place was much higher than that in the second-order places, which in turn was far greater than that in the third-order places. More goods and services = more people = larger city.

    What about the space beyond the hexagons shown? These are complementary regions for the surrounding first-order places.

    Central Place Theory, Europe transport hexagon, StudySmarterFig. 2 - This hexagon illustrates the transport principle

    The transport hexagon approximates a map of an actual transport network connecting the different places. People use roads that connect them in straight lines, the most economical way, to the places where goods and services are found. Anyone who has traveled in the US can recognize this hierarchy: the quickest routes are often the direct highways between the most significant cities, and highways reduce in size and length as they form shorter segments connecting smaller places.

    Central Place Theory, administrative hexagon, StudySmarterFig. 3 - This hexagon illustrates Christaller's "administrative principle"

    The administrative or political-social principle recognizes that central places also have governmental functions. You may have wondered why the second-order places aren't connected to other first-order places since many people who live in them can quickly go to other first-order places to get what they need. The answer is that a central place is the center of government (in the model) for its complementary region, and all places in this hexagonal region are thus part of its administrative territory.

    Translation: you will have to go to your administrative place anyway (you have no choice) for legal paperwork and other tasks involving the government, so you'll shop and take care of other business while you are there.

    Central Place Theory Strengths and Weaknesses

    Central Place Theory has been applied and misapplied more often than any other geographic model.


    As with many theories, CPT's weaknesses were recognized by its originator but ignored by those who sought to apply it too widely. The conditions that produced roughly hexagonal regions in southern Germany were vastly different than those that produced spatial settlement patterns in other parts of the world.

    One common complaint is that real landscapes don't resemble Christaller's landscape. But this is because he used an abstract space; he was the first to recognize, at the beginning of his work, that the model was based on an abstraction of reality and that conditions on the ground would be different. He even recognized that mail-order businesses would skew his model; imagine what online shopping is doing to it now!

    A more serious charge is the tendency to explain human settlement patterns in terms of economics and secondarily in terms of political factors, with culture a distant third—and culture itself being primarily determined by economic and political factors. It is easy to imagine a scenario of a cultural phenomenon such as ethnic tensions or differences in religion that could outweigh economic factors in determining where people went for the goods and services they needed.

    In AP Human Geography, central place theory is taught along with the gravity model, distance decay, the primate city, and the rank-size rule. You should know how these relate to each other, how they have been applied in real life, and how you might detect them at work in a landscape or on a map.


    First, CPT has been enormously influential in retailing and the tertiary economic sector. Modifications of CPT are commonplace in economic models that tell retailers where to put stores, for example. Thus, based on a far more nuanced and complex CPT than we can present here, its predictive value has been one of its major redeeming features.

    Second, CPT, because it became the standard for explaining spatial patterns of human settlements, inspired many variations, particularly among those who said "it doesn't fit the region I am concerned about" and proceeded to figure out a way to describe the particularities of other processes driving other patterns.

    Central Place Theory Example

    Photos taken by satellites at night provide some of the best visual evidence of hexagonal patterns of urban settlements on the Earth's surface.

    Central Place Theory, Europe satellite photo, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Northwestern Europe: Paris is in the center, and London is in the lower left. Parts of France and England have a hierarchy of central places

    The image in this section illustrates the hierarchy of urban sizes in Europe, particularly in the relatively physically homogeneous part of France in the lower right. CPT appears to best fit the central places in France, such as Rouen, Caen, and Le Mans, with over 100,000 people each, surrounded by second-order satellite towns, with the faintest dots being the third-order towns. Paris is a central place in its own right, the center of a hexagon comprising the entire country of France. In urban geography terms, it is the consummate primate city.

    Central Place Theory - Key takeaways

    • German economic geographer Walter Christaller developed central place theory in 1933 to describe southern Germany's spatial patterns.
    • Central place theory can be used to explain the hierarchy of urban areas.
    • Central place theory is based on economic principles of markets and, when applied to a homogeneous plane, results in a hexagonal structure.
    • Central place theory is often misapplied but has been highly influential in helping retail chains determine where to situate stores.


    1. Christaller, W. 'Central places in southern Germany.' Prentice-Hall. 1966; originally publ. in 1933.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Central Place Theory

    What is central place theory?

    Central place theory is a theory in economic and urban geography that predicts a hexagonal pattern for human settlements in an abstract space governed by economic principles of markets.

    Who made central place theory?

    Walter Christaller, a German geographer, is the originator of central place theory.

    What does central place theory explain?

    Central place theory explains the pattern of urban area locations where fewer larger places dominate many smaller places.

    How is central place theory used today?

    Central place theory is used today to determine the best locations for retail stores and other tertiary sector economic goods and services.

    What are some strengths of central place theory?

    Central place theory is the most influential geographic theory and is useful for describing and explaining why places are located where they are. It has inspired many variations and offshoots that explain human settlement patterns.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which geographic region formed the basis of Christaller's work?

    The geometric form most associated with central place theory is the:

    Central place theory is most closely associated with the relationship between _____ and _____

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