Walter Christaller’s Central Place Theory Explained


Central place theory is a geographical theory. It seeks to explain how humans settle within urban systems. Created by Walter Christaller, the idea is that the size, location, and number of human settlements is based on what he described as a “central place.”

In order for humans to live well within an urban environment, they need to have access to specific services. The first need covers the basics, like food and water. The Central place theory shows that settlements occur around the areas where there is a preferred source of these basic essentials.

Once this need has been satisfied, settlements will look at how the transport of the needs goods and services are distributed. In Christaller’s theory, there would be just one type of transport that was equally easy in all directions. People could then choose where they wanted to live on this transportation network. If they lived too far away, then they would choose instead to settle somewhere else where the central services were easier to obtain.

The Two Central Concepts of Central Place Theory

There are two central concepts that the central place theory relies upon.

1. Threshold. This is the minimum population, income, or other demographic that would need to exist in order for a specific good or service to be offered to a central place.

2. Range. This is a reflection of the maximum distance that consumers would be prepared to travel in order to acquire their goods. It could also be a reflection of the amount of time consumers would be willing to wait for the goods or services to be delivered to them.

This means central places of various sizes will develop over time. Each central place would provide specific goods and then distribute them based on the size, function, and spacing of the settlements that are present.

According to Christaller, this is why larger settlements are fewer in size. There are plenty of small towns around the world, but very few large cities. It is also why large cities have a greater distance between them then the smaller towns and villages.

Yet as a settlement increases in size, its range and the number of functions and services it can provide will also increase. It will also promote a higher degree of specialization in order to differentiate itself from the other central places and settlements.

The Assumptions Made by the Central Place Theory

Christaller was forced to make several assumptions when developing the central place theory and the areas being described. For starters, all surfaces would need to be limitless and the populations would need to be evenly distributed. Then Christaller used these additional assumptions in support of his theory.

  • All central places would have evenly distributed resources.
  • Settlements would occur in an equidistant manner, using a triangular lattice pattern for developmental purposes.
  • Perfect competition would exist and all sellers would be focused on maximizing their profits.
  • No provider would be able to earn an excess profit.
  • Consumers would attempt to minimize the distance they travel and always visit the nearest central place.

Criticisms of the Central Place Theory

The most common criticism of the central place theory is the fact that people do not act in an assumed way. There will be times that consumers will drive to a different central place because they want to go somewhere knew. Not every business is a for-profit business, so there may not be an emphasis on maximizing profits.

And not every location can distribute their resources evenly amongst those that settle around the central place.

It is also a static theory, so any diversified areas are difficult to evaluate in terms of a central place. Natural resources can vary as industrial or post-industrial areas develop. This means the central place theory does a good job of recognizing the lattices of agricultural areas, but can be incorrect when evaluating the urban areas it was initially designed to look at.

Yet there is also a certain truth that can be seen in Christaller’s theory. Large cities are not generally very close to one another. Most people will attempt to acquire resources from their closest provider a majority of the time. Settlements happen where there are preferred resources, such as a job, that is available to those in that household.

We have hierarchies in our lives every day. It would only be natural to include a hierarchy in our decisions to live in certain places. This is what Walter Christaller’s central place theory attempts to describe.