Urban primacy: the case of Hungary in the twentieth century
by Robert Venyige
One of the most important observations on the urban system of a country is that in lot of cases the size of a city is proportionate to its rank in the urban hierarchy. For example the second largest city has a population that is half of the largest city’s population, the third one has a population that is third of that of the largest one, and so on. This is called the rank size rule or Zipf’s law of city size distribution. However, in some cases the urban system does not follow this pattern, for instance the size of largest city is too small or too big. The second case is called urban primacy, when the largest city of a country represents disproportionately high share of the population and it has an extremely high economic importance.
One measure of the superiority of the largest city in a country is the so called primacy ratio. It is the ratio of the population of the largest city to the sum of the population of a bigger set of cities, like the five largest cities. (It is also possible to compare the size of the largest city to the total urban population.) One of the well-known example of urban primacy is the case of the United Kingdom, where London amounts to 70% of the population of the five largest cities. However it appears in countries with very different characteristics, for example France, Peru, Romania; but among the European countries, Hungary has one of the highest primacy ratio; 0.71 in. The capital of Hungary, Budapest indeed has a disproportionate size, its population (1.7 million in 2001) is approximately nine times larger than that of the second largest city, Debrecen.
What are the possible explanations for this unequal urban system?
There are different theories that may help us to understand the existence of this pattern in the case of Hungary. One of the possible explanation is historical; the change in the size of country after the World War I definitely affected its urban structure. The population of the country – that was the part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy at that time – was around 18 million, while after 1920 less than 8 million people lived inside the new borders. If we look at the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, then Budapest was only the second largest city after Vienna in an Empire with more than 52 million citizens. While the urban system of the Monarchy was balanced (without primate city), if we consider only Hungary the urbanization was so concentrated that we can find the same primacy ratio as later on.
Furthermore political processes can also affect the urban system of a country. Autocratic countries tend to have larger primate cities due to the advantages their citizens can enjoy close to the center of the regime. Hungary, during most of its history in the twentieth century did not have democratic political system. The political regimes of the Interwar period and Communist system of 1949-1989 are considered autocracy or limited democracy and non-democratic, respectively. If we look at the primacy ratio of Budapest through the twentieth century we see that it remained fairly stable during this period, reaching its highest value around 1940 and the lowest in 2001. During the interval period the concentration increased, while after 1949 it started to decrease, but it is still high by international comparison. During the Communist regime one cannot attribute the changes in the urban systems to market forces. The state intensely got involved in the formation of the urban system, for instance by forced industrialization, establishing new cities or its partial restriction on labor mobility.
An economic explanation suggests that open countries (in terms of international trade) tend to have smaller primate cities. While Hungary considered open in terms of its exports to GDP ratio, it does not necessary mean that it should have a more even urban population distribution. First, there is a high persistence in the urban structure of a country and it can change only gradually. In historical term, the economy of Hungary was closed under the 40 years of the Communist regime, even if in the last 20 years it has become an open economy. Second, if the primate city has a disproportionately better access to the export market (through for example higher accessibility, airport or highways) then an increase of the importance of trade can even aggravate the uneven structure. Still, as an effect of international trade, one can expect that the cities in the Western part of Hungary, which are closer to its main export partners may grow faster in the future compared to other cities in the country.
However one have to take into account that the definition of city is not straightforward and administrative borders can change, cities can merge or split. It is also misleading if we consider only the administrative boundaries of the city. As suburbanizatio has become more pronounced one should take into account its effect as well. While the population of Budapest itself is around 1.7 million, the size of its agglomeration is 2.4 million. The status of the capital as the primate city in this case is even more obvious (the primacy ratio is around 0.74), because suburbanization and the agglomeration processes are more advanced around the capital.
Source: Hungarian Statistical Office, KSH