What Is a Primate City?

Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, City at night.

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The term primate city may sound like something in a zoo but it actually has nothing to do with monkeys. It refers to a city that is greater than two times the next largest city in a ​nation (or contains over one-third of a nation's population). The primate city is usually very expressive of the national culture and often the capital city. The "law of the primate city" was first created by geographer Mark Jefferson in 1939.

Examples: Addis Ababa is the primate city of Ethiopia - its population outshines that of all other cities in the country.

Do Primate Citys Matter?

If you're from a country that doesn't have a primate city it can be hard to understand the significance of them. It is hard to imagine one city being responsible for the cultural, transportation, economic and governmental needs of the rest of the country. In the United States, for example, these roles are usually played by cities like Hollywood, New York, Washinton D.C. and Los Angeles. While independent movies are made in every state the majority of the films that all Americans watch are created in Hollywood and Los Angeles. Those two cities are responsible for part of the cultural entertainment that the rest of the nation watches.

Is New York City a Primate City?

Surprisingly, even with its huge population of over 21 million residents, New York is not a primate city. Los Angeles is the second-largest city in the United States with a population of 16 million. This means that the United States lacks a primate city. This isn't surprising given the geographic size of the country. Even cities within the country are larger in size than that of an average European city. This makes it far less likely for a primate city to occur. 

Just because it isn't a primate city doesn't mean New York isn't important. New York is what is known as a Global City, this means it is financially significant to the rest of the world. In other words, events that affect the city also affect the global financial economy. This is why a natural disaster in one city can cause the stock market of another country to dip. The phrase also refers to cities that do a huge amount of global business. The term global city was coined by the sociologist Saskia Sassen. 

Signs of Inequality

Sometimes primate cities form because of a concentration of higher-paying white-collar jobs in one city. As jobs in manufacturing and agriculture decline, more people are driven towards cities. Unemployment in rural areas can contribute to wealth concentrations in urban areas. This is made worse by the fact that most of the higher-paying jobs are located within cities. The further people get from city centers the harder time they have finding well-paying jobs. This creates a vicious cycle of economically depressed small towns and overpopulated large cities. It is easier for primate cities to form in smaller nations because there are fewer cities for the population to choose from.

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Rosenberg, Matt. "What Is a Primate City?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 30, 2021, thoughtco.com/primate-city-definition-1434834. Rosenberg, Matt. (2021, July 30). What Is a Primate City? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/primate-city-definition-1434834 Rosenberg, Matt. "What Is a Primate City?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/primate-city-definition-1434834 (accessed May 31, 2023).