In this article, You will read the Concept of Primate city and Rank-size rule for UPSC (Settlement Geography – Geography Optional).

Primate city

  • The concept of Primate City is an empirical inductive model (based on experience and observation) based on studies of 51 countries.
  • It was proposed by Mark Jefferson as a yardstick to analyze the socio-economic conditions and stage of development of a country. The level of development is reflected by the nature of urbanization.
  • A Primate City refers to the largest and most magnified urban settlement which has grown disproportionately with respect to other settlements due to centripetally based on economic opportunities, centralization of political power, industrial growth, the concentration of factors of production, and moreover the agglomeration effect.
  • It is the largest economic magnet that attracts huge migrations and pulls of resources from the surroundings. E.g. London, New York.
  • It is the manifestation of people’s socio-economic aspirations and experience of national sentiments.
  • It signifies centripetal forces and the uniform ethnolinguistic character of a nation.
  • It is the outburst of the strong national sentiment and the developing character of an economy.
  • Jefferson studied 51 countries of Europe and found that 41 of them have primate cities such as London in Britain, Paris in France, Berlin in Germany (London is at least 5 times bigger than the next largest city in Britain i.e. Birmingham).
  • This is however not a norm for all the countries where in many countries there are more than two comparable cities. E.g. 4 mega cities in case of India, Sydney, and Melbourne in Australia, Toronto, and Montreal in Canada.

Process of Primate City development (Evaluation of theory)

  • Jefferson himself did not determine the process of primate city development. It was Linskey who suggested the following characteristics of countries that have primate cities:
    • Large population base
    • Small territorial extent
    • High population pressure (density) and growth rate.
    • Agro based economy
    • Low per capita income
    • Former colonial status.
  • Linskey was perhaps referring to primate cities being an aspect of developing countries.
  • However, not all countries that have primate cities are developing countries and there are many developing countries that have primate cities (e.g. India)
  • In case of India, due to large territorial extent, cultural and economic diversity, it is not possible for a city to reflect and express itself in terms of entire country.
  • Britain, Germany and France despite of being developed countries have primate cities.

Process of development

  • Although not mentioned explicitly the process of development of primate city is better explained by Gunnar-Myrdal in his theory of cumulative causation.
  • According to Myrdal the economic development of a country is general process through 3 stages:
    • 1st stage:
      • In this stage there is uniformity in development but the level of development is poor.
    • 2nd stage:
      • In this stage the geographical space which is central attracts the factors of population like capital, labour, enterprises and begin to grow disproportionately by incapacitating (decreasing other’s capacity) the surrounding and draining out their resources.
      • The process of backwash where one city act like a vacuum pump sucking out all investments and technology at expense of other cities.
    • 3rd stage:
      • In third (last) phase there is development dispersion and diffusion from primate city leading to the development of the whole landscape.
      • Thus, primate city is merely a stage in development.
  • Primate City offers better employment, high wage, improved infrastructure, hope and perception of better life. It is possible by stream of migration, emerging commercial sector, gravity centre for capital and human resources.
  • Mark Jefferson studied 51 countries where he found that
    • In 27 countries the population of largest city is more than twice than the 2nd rating city.
    • In 18 countries the population was more than three times.
  • Thus, from above Mark Jefferson concluded that a primate city is one which has more than twice the population of second ranking city.
  • Thus, the primate city is based on the relationship between R1 and R2 and the ratio of their population.
primate city is based on the relationship between R1 and R2
  • Thus, primate city can be defined as the most populous city of a country which is twice or more larger than second ranking city of a country.

Applicability of theory

  • Primate City is an inductive theory; it does not have universal application as socioeconomic forces are dynamic.
  • Any law in human geography that deals with human behavior can’t be objective and therefore, it will lack universal validity. This is true for the primate city concept also. Its applicability has mixed relevance. E.g. Mexico City is 5 times larger than the second-ranking city Guadalajara. In Uruguay the ratio of population between Montevideo/Paysandú > 7 on the other hand in Canada the ratio of population between Montreal/Toronto > 1.
  • Linskey tried to enumerate the conditions that make the primate city concept operable but there are exceptions.

Case of India

  • India does not have primate cities. In India instead of primacy, multiple primacy is found due to:
    • Large geographical extent
    • Multi-ethnic, multi-lingual country with regional consciousness.
    • Growth of four different megalopoleis at four different quadrants.
    • Distance decay factor.
    • Four different cities have a history of development through colonization.
      • Mumbai/Kolkata=1.1 (No Primacy)
    • Constitutional right to settle anywhere
    • Federal state.
  • In India there is no primacy at the national level, it exists at the state level as a norm.
  • State capitals invariably operate as primate cities, but again there are exceptions. E.g.
    • In Uttar Pradesh despite its low development status, it has Varanasi, Allahabad, Lucknow, and Kanpur which are large and comparable (this may be due to the size of Uttar Pradesh)
    • Tamil Nadu has Madurai, Coimbatore, Chennai, where Chennai is the largest but not disproportionately very large (because Tamil Nadu has the better record in the dispersal of development)
    • Kerala– despite of being a relatively more developed state and also with a small territorial size, it does not have a primate city (Thiruvananthpuram, Kochi, Calicut are all comparable). This may be due to the fact that the entire area is the hilly region with narrow coastal plain with no region having extra advantage or disadvantage over other.
  • Most of the other states have state capitals as their primate city. E.g. Jaipur in Rajasthan, Bangalore in Karnataka, Gandhinagar/ Ahmadabad in Gujarat.

State level primacy in India

  • The study done by professor Qazi Ahmed in 1971
State level primacy in India
6 megalopolis or case of multiple primacy
  • The socio-economic analysis of states hardly reveals any trend. States with greater industrialization, growth of secondary sector have the tendency of greater primacy.
socio-economic analysis of states
socio-economic analysis of states DMKC
growth of secondary sector
  • Such theories are tested by two principles:
    • Desirability
    • Applicability
  • Applicability: Humanistic model represents half truth, thus they are partially applicable, even then desirable because they are yardsticks to measure reality and deviation from it and causes from such deviation.
  • Desirability:
    • Presence of primacy is an example of disparity. Hence, in general planners might be inclined to discourage primacy.
    • However, in certain circumstances primacy may be desirable such as while planning for small territorial region with limited resources and investment.
    • It might result in duplication or wasteful, inefficient investment if development is spread and is evenly distributed.
    • In poor and developing countries initial primacy may be desirable (example of deliberate imbalance based planning).
    • So, in initial stage of development primacy may be used for efficient use of resources and investment, but in long term, development should be spread to discourage disparity.

Rank Size Rule

  • The study of urban hierarchy and urban continuum was first conducted in 1914 by Auerbach, but as a theoretical law, it was presented in 1949 by G.K. Zipf.
  • Both primate city and rank-size rule are discussions on urban hierarchy and both study hierarchy in terms of population size.
  • One difference between the two is that the primate city discusses only the largest city and does not tell how it is related to other cities and towns whereas the rank-size rule does the same.
  • Rank Size Rule is an idealistic inductive model based on a statistical analysis of several countries of their urban center and their size hierarchy.
  • It seeks to understand the population relationship between cities of various ranks and also the urban continuum of a country.
  • It analyses why cities in lower ranks are higher in number than the cities of higher ranks.
  • The number of higher cities is much lower than the cities in the lower order.
  • The largest cities have multiple functions and more diverse economic activities and they have much larger areas, thus their number is less.
  • Rank Size Rule states that the population of the ‘nth’ city is ‘1/nth’ of the 1st rating city of a country.
  • It may be numerically expressed as
Rank Size Rule
  • The above relation is an exponential one. Thus, the population may be sequentially represented as:
sequentially represented
Rank Size Rule curve
Rank Size Rule metropolis
RSR Exponential relation

Implication of rank size rule and what does it depicts?

Implication of rank size rule
  • In settlement system large cities are disproportionately large.
  • Large cities are few in number (large cities are not comparable in size), whereas small towns and villages are numerous and they are of comparable size.
  • In log curve Zipf was suggesting a normative ideal possibility in the straight line relationship. In reality there may be deviation as shown in graph.
  • The straight line of the log function is actually an ideal state.
case 2
  • There are 2 possible deviations.
  • Case 1– In case-1 the deviation in the curve signifies that there is more than one city that is of comparable size (i.e. the possibility of more than one city comparable in size in the levels of upper hierarchy).
  • Case 2– In case-2 deviation in the curve is an example of high primacy i.e. the largest city is much bigger and is a disproportionately large curve, so the Jefferson primate city concept is the special case in rank-size rule.
  • Big cities are very few and have considerable variation in their disproportionate sizes whereas smaller settlements, towns, and villages are numerous and maybe all of the comparable sizes.
  • In Ireland the primacy is shown by the city Belfast, which is proportionally very large than other cities of Ireland, but other cities and towns of Ireland follow rank size rule appreciably.
  • Rank size rule envisages existence of high number of urban centres where landscape is fully developed and city functions are well distributed.
Primate city and Rank-size rule

Rank Size Rule in India

  • Qazi Ahmed has applied Rank Size Rule in India and classified the states in two groups:
    • States where the rule is followed: states with no primacy have Rank Size Rule e.g. Punjab, UP, Haryana, Kerala
    • Where the rule is not followed: At national level India has multiple primacy and hence there is no application of Rank Size Rule.


  • Rank Size Rule has no universal application, but it acts as a yardstick to measure the relationship of urban centre and their functional integration and level of development of a country with the development of transport, communication and industries. It is a useful method to understand the socio-economic aspirations of a nation.

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Sir Are you an upsc aspirant or geography phd? your notes seem to be good enough. looks u have cleared mains


Well done. You will clear this time.


The last diagram case 1 and case 2 given wrong, they have been mistakenly altered.