Review: Geography of Market Centers and Retail Distribution by Brian Berry (1967) Assessment 8 out of 10

Why review a book published over 50 years ago? It was on my bookshelf dating back to my undergraduate days. I reread it as part of a study of Jersey Parishes, which I suggest are places without being central places, so I felt I should know what a central place is.

 It remains a very worthwhile read, a leading text in the then New Geography of locational analysis and models. Whilst the Book includes some mathematics, it is better than much modern academic geography for including maps, as all proper geography books should do.

 Following Christaller’s 1930’s work on Southern Germany, central places are described as centres within surrounding market areas, the willingness of customers to go falling off with distance as transport costs increase, “distance decay”. Hinterlands around central places form circles, which are packed into hexagons, where competing centres meet at the travel point of indecision for customers, so no part of an area is uncovered. There is a threshold before goods and services are provided, leading to a hierarchy in urban settlements.  Christaller suggested three hierarchies. In the market model K=3, each lower level settlement is located at the midpoint between 3 centres at the next level up, in the transport model K=4 and in the administration model K=7, with progressively larger numbers of low level centres in the three hierarchies.

In Losch’s adoption of the Christaller model the different nets are rotated around a metropolis resulting in greater complexity closer to the real world.

The hierarchies can be disturbed by specialized functions. Berry refers to mining and a state mental institution. If you deduct its numbers from the population, the town of Glenwood, Iowa, would have “almost exactly the population which might be predicted from its retail and service offerings.”

The models have been described as static. Such a criticism cannot be levied at Berry. Above all the Book is a work of historical geography, which should always have been at geography’s heart, how spatial patterns change and changed over time.

 The Book is historical geography at multiple levels. The data used relies on fieldwork from the US MidWest from the 1930s and 1960s. Berry explains how settlement in Iowa expanded and then contracted with the impact of railways and motor vehicles.  You are reminded of a time of distance retailing by catalogue before on-line shopping, which clearly has produced its own pattern of nodes and flows.

Christaller assumed his hierarchy emerged top down on a flat plain, Losch his bottom up. Berry suggests an alternative geography may be appropriate (built up?) from a rhomboid lattice. He doesn’t say so, but this may be right. States admitted in turn to the Union were more or less rectangular, their artificial shape taken for granted. Geometric order was imposed in the landscape by the townships of the US land survey, a pattern experienced when driving along country roads, making repeated right-angled turns. A similar pattern may have emerged in parts of what became England, where from prehistory co-axial or rectilinear field patterns were established

Retailing and population in Chicago is described. Social geography formed concentrically around the urban core. Unplanned centres moved out with suburban railways.  A hollowed out ethnically concentrated deprived area appeared beyond the Central Business District. The pattern of market centres became more complex with hierarchical business centres, highway ribbons, arterial commercialised areas and specialized nodes eg car dealerships and medical functions congregating together. Berry describes planned shopping centres with significant provision for car parking before they appeared in UK and France. He describes a phase shift in hierarchies from rural to urban with an intermediate hierarchy appearing in the “dispersed city”.

Berry discusses “economic” activity in the pre-modern world self-sufficiency, exchange and redistribution, for instances through seigneurial dues and tithes. In pre-Communist China the hierarchy of trade centres was also the space in which marriages were arranged. Economic output did not meet the threshold for permanent retailing. Markets therefore were held at different places on different days of the week, and so together able to reach the threshold for supply to be provided.  There were tinkers. Similarly remote areas of developed economies are served by mobile shops.

A great work, still worth reading after 50 years.

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