Retail Center Planning and Central Place Theory


John J. Rodrigue

Geog. 452, S. Eisner
California State University, Northridge
7-10 M, Dec. 1, 1975

      The purpose of this paper is to review the geographical and planning literature for applications of central place theory to the planning of urban retail trade centers.

      Central place theory was formulated by Walter Christaller in 1933. The theory was an attempt to explain the size, nature and spacing of cities as central places supplying goods to the surrounding population. Since this paper is concerned with central place theory and the planning of retail trade centers, som important terms related to this area are covered. The first is threshold which refers to the minimum population required to support a given function. The second is range which is the nmaximum distance a consumer will travel to purchase a good.

      Goods are classed on a relative scale from lower order to higher order goods. Lower order goods are those goods which consumers need frequently and therefore are willing to travel only short distances for them. Higher order goods are needed less frequently so consumers are willing to travel farther for them. These longer trips are usually undertaken for not only purchasing purposes but other activities as well.1

      One result of these consumer preferences is that a system of centers of various sizes will emerge over space. Each center will supply particular types of goods according to its level on the hierarchy.

      Geographers working with central place theory have been mainly concerned with the further development of the theory and empirically testing it. Brian Berry and William Garrison used the concepts of threshold and range to identify and classify centers in Snohomish County, Washington.2 Thomas made some findings on the economic base of small centers and on the relationship between population and functional complexity.3 R.G. Golledge, G. Rushton, and W.A.V. Clark worked with the notion of the spatial behavior of consumers.4

      The layout of centers never conforms exactly to the predictions of the theory. Numerous factors affect the spacing and functions of centers. Johnston in his study of central places in Melbourne found that age, purchasing power, and density affect the spacing of centers and hierarchical arrangements.5 Sufficient densitites will allow, for example, a grocery store, a lower order function, to survive in an isolated location.6

      Economic status of consumers in an area is also important. Consumers of higher economic status tend to be more mobile and, therefore, bypass centers providing only lower order goods.7 The application of central place theory must be tempered by an awareness of such factors when planning shopping center space location.

      Peterson's study was concerned mainly with factors shaping the extent of market areas. One was land use: industrial areas can pro vide little in the way of a consuming population. Poor accessibility can limit the extent of a center's market area. Competition limits the extent of market areas in all directions; the high mobility afforded by the automobile allows overlapping of market areas.8

      Market area studies provide another technique for using central place theory as a retail location planning tool. Peterson put it this way:

"...if city plans and zoning maps control commercial district sizes on the basis of need for such facilities, the geography of retail and service marketing must be understood as a basis for planning analysis."9

      The hierarchy of shopping centers has been widely used in the planning of "new towns". Anthony Goss in his article mentions Wilfred Burns who stated that shopping centers can be best grouped into a three tier system - a town or city center, a district center, and a large number of isolated shops.10

      Problems with the planning of new towns' shopping needs is discussed in Nader's article, "Shopping Potential of Washington New Town - a Critical Reassessment." He stated that a radical reassessment of the retail potential of this new town must be carried out. Such problems again suggest some barriers encountered in the planning of shopping centers.

      In this new town, the hierarchy of business centers is evident. One main shopping center provides mostly durable goods (higher order); district and local shopping centers supply, increasingly, convenience (lower order) goods.11 These centers provided for in the new town plan are not free from outside competition.12 The impacts of surrounding existing centers on the new town centers cannot be ignored.

      Brian Berry, in his article, "A Critique of Contemporary Planning for Business Centers," discusses the planned shopping center, a post war phenomenon. Again a three tier hierarchy is provided - regional, community, and neighborhood centers.13 Observations of hierarchy systems in areas with existing unplanned shopping centers has provided geographers and others interested in retail development a base upon which to build systems of planned shopping centers.

      In Spokane, Washington, a new zoning ordinance permitted businesses to located only in centers appropriate to the business's level of functions. A three level hierarchy was established: first, a local business zone providing services to people within one half mile of the center; second, a community business zone designed to accommodate larger shopping developments serving groups of neighborhoods within one and a half miles from the center; third, central business districts, commercial and industrial zones available for all types of businesses.14

      In conclusion, it seems that geographers are concerned mainly with adding to central place theory or testing it. Based on the planning literature reviewed, it seems that planners are employing ideas from central place theory, but for one reason or another, do not acknowledge it. The piecemeal application of central place theory seems to indicate that the theory is not recognized as an important planning element. This can be summed up in Brian Berry's statement that "The central place concept has yet to be systematically incorporated into planning models."15 It must be recognized that central place theory like most theories has practical limitations, but does provide an organized framework.


      1Brian J. L. Berry, Geography of Market Centers and Retail Distribution (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1966), p. 3.

      2Brian J. L. Berry and William Garrison, "The Functional Bases of the Central Place Hierarchy," Economic Geography, 34 (1958), pp. 145-54.

      3Edwin N. Thomas, "Some Comments on the Functional Bases of Small Iowa Towns," Iowa Business Digest, 1960, pp. 10-16.

      4R.G. Golledge, G. Rushton, and W.A.V. Clark, "Some Spatial Characteristics of Iowea's Dispersed Farm Population and Their Implications For the Grouping of Central Place Functions," Economic Geography, 42 (1966), pp. 261-72.

      5R. J. Johnston, "The Distribution of an Intrametropolitan Central Place Hierarchy," Australian Geographical Studies, 4 (1966), p. 19.

      6Ibid., p. 21.

      7Ibid., p. 23.

      8D. A. Peterson, "Market Areas of Shopping Districts," Journal, American Institute of Planners, 29, p. 301.

      9Ibid., p.297.

      10Anthony Goss, "Neighborhood Units in British New Towns," Town Planning Review, 32, pp. 74-5.

      11G. A. Nader, "The Shopping Potential of Washington New Town: A Critical Reassessment," Journal of the Town Planning Institute, 54, p. 289.

      12Ibid., p. 391.

      13Brian J. L. Berry, "A Critique of Contemporary Planning for Business Centers", Land Economics, 35 (1959), p. 309.

      14Ibid., p. 310.

      15Berry, op. cit., footnote 1, p. 136.


Berry, Brian J. L. Geography of Market Centers and Retail
          Distribution.  Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall Inc., 

_________________ "A Critique of Contemporary Planning for Business
          Centers." Land Economics. 35. (1959), pp. 306-12.

_________________ and Garrison, William.  "The Functional Baes of
          the Central Place Hierarchy." Economic Geography. 34. (1958),
          pp. 145-54.

Golledge, R.G., Rushton, G., and Clark, W.A.V.  "Some Spatial
          Characteristics of Iowa's Dispersed Farm Population and
          Their Implications for the Grouping of Central Place Functions."
          Economic Geography. 42. (1966), pp. 261-72.

Goss, Anthony. "Neighborhood Units in British New Towns." Town Planning
          Review. 32, pp. 66-82. 

Johnston, R. J. "The Distribution of an Intrametropolitan Central
          Place Hierarchy." Australian Geographical Studies. 4. (1966),
          pp. 19-33.

Nader, G. A. "The Shopping Potential of Washington New Town: A Critical 
          Reassessment." Journal of the Town Planning Institute. 
          54, pp. 386-92.

Peterson, D. A. "Market Areas of Shopping Districts." Journal
          American Institute of Planners. 29, pp. 297-301.

Thomas, Edwin N. "Some Comments on the Functional Baes of Small
          Iowa Towns." Iowa Business Digest. 1960, pp. 10-16.

© Estate of John Joseph Rodrigue, 1975
Document maintained by Christine M. Rodrigue
First placed on web: 06/22/01
Last maintained: 06/22/01