Who created rank size rule?

The Rank-Size Rule: Origins and Development

The rank-size rule is a concept that has received considerable attention in the fields of urban planning and geography. It provides insights into the hierarchical distribution of population and economic activity within cities or regions. The rule suggests that the population or economic size of a city or urban area is inversely proportional to its rank in the hierarchy. In other words, the second-largest city will have half the population or economic size of the largest city, the third-largest city will have one-third the population or economic size, and so on.

So who created the rank size rule? The development and formulation of this rule can be attributed to a British economist named George Zipf. Zipf, born in 1902, was a prominent figure in the field of linguistics and statistical analysis. However, his contributions were not limited to linguistics. In his 1949 book Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort, Zipf introduced the rank-size rule as a means of understanding the distribution of city sizes.
Zipf’s work was based on the observation that the frequency of occurrence of words in a language follows a similar pattern to the distribution of city sizes. This led him to propose a mathematical model, now known as Zipf’s law, which describes the relationship between the rank and frequency of words in a language. Building on this idea, Zipf extended his analysis to urban systems and formulated the rank-size rule as a way to describe the distribution of city sizes.

Empirical evidence for the rank-size rule

Following George Zipf’s initial proposal of the rank-size rule, subsequent studies have provided empirical evidence supporting its validity. Researchers from a variety of disciplines, including urban planning, geography, and economics, have examined city size distributions in different countries and regions to assess the applicability of the rule.
One of the notable studies that further substantiated the rank-size rule was conducted by Mark Jefferson in 1939. Jefferson analyzed the population sizes of cities in several countries, including the United States, Germany, and Brazil. His results showed a consistent pattern of city size distributions, with the largest city being approximately twice the size of the second largest city, three times the size of the third largest city, and so on.

Subsequent studies by researchers such as Brian Berry and Edgar M. Hoover further confirmed the validity of the rank-size rule across a wider range of countries and cities. These studies showed that the rank-size rule held true not only for population size, but also for other socioeconomic variables such as economic output, employment, and infrastructure.

Explanation of the mechanisms behind the rank size rule

The rank-size rule has been the subject of extensive theoretical and empirical investigation to understand the underlying mechanisms that drive the observed city size distributions. Several theories have emerged to explain the factors that contribute to the rank-size distribution pattern.
One of the most prominent theories is the theory of urban agglomeration economies. According to this theory, larger cities benefit from economies of scale and scope that attract more economic activity, investment, and population. As a result, larger cities tend to grow faster than smaller ones, leading to a hierarchical distribution of city sizes.

Another explanation is the theory of preferential attachment, which suggests that the growth of cities is driven by cumulative advantage. In other words, cities that are already large and prosperous are more likely to attract additional resources, investment, and population. This leads to a reinforcing cycle of growth and concentration of economic activity in larger cities, resulting in the observed rank size distribution.

Applications and Implications of the Rank-Size Rule

The rank-size rule has important implications for urban planning, regional development, and policy-making. Understanding the distribution of city sizes can provide insights into the concentration of economic activity, population dynamics, and resource allocation within a region.
For urban planners, the rank-size rule can inform decisions related to infrastructure development, transportation planning, and the provision of public services. By recognizing the hierarchical nature of city size distributions, planners can prioritize investments and allocate resources more effectively, taking into account the needs and demands of larger cities relative to smaller ones.

In addition, the rank-size rule can also guide regional development policies. By identifying the dominant cities within a region, policymakers can focus on promoting economic growth and development in these urban centers while ensuring a balanced and sustainable distribution of resources and opportunities to smaller cities and rural areas.

Challenges and Criticisms of the Rank-Size Rule

While the rank-size rule has been widely observed and accepted as a general pattern, it is not without its challenges and criticisms. Some researchers argue that the rank-size rule may not apply to all countries or regions and that there are exceptions to the observed pattern.
For example, in countries with planned economies or highly centralized government, the rank-size distribution may be skewed due to deliberate policies and interventions. In addition, factors such as historical events, cultural preferences, and geographic constraints can also influence the distribution of city sizes, potentially deviating from the rank-size rule.

Furthermore, the rank-size rule does not provide a comprehensive understanding of the complexity and dynamics of urban systems. It oversimplifies the analysis by focusing solely on city sizes and ranks, ignoring other important factors such as spatial interactions, interdependencies, and network effects within and between cities.

Despite these challenges, the rank-size rule remains a valuable tool for understanding urban hierarchies and patterns in city size distributions. It serves as a starting point for further investigation and can inform policy discussions and decision-making processes in urban planning and regional development.


The rank-size rule, originally formulated by George Zipf, provides a valuable framework for understanding the hierarchical distribution of city size. Empirical evidence and subsequent research have supported the rule’s validity across countries and regions. The rule’s mechanisms can be explained by theories of urban agglomeration economies and preferential attachment, which emphasize the role of scale economies, cumulative advantage, and growth dynamics.

The rank-size rule has practical applications in urban planning and regional development, guiding decision-making processes related to infrastructure, resource allocation, and policy formulation. However, it is important to acknowledge the challenges and limitations of the rule, as it may not apply universally and may oversimplify the complexity of urban systems.

Overall, the rank-size rule remains a valuable tool for understanding urban hierarchies and can contribute to more informed and effective strategies for sustainable urban and regional development.


Who created the rank-size rule?

The rank-size rule was first proposed by economist Zipf in the mid-20th century.

What is the rank-size rule?

The rank-size rule is an empirical relationship observed in urban geography and economics, which states that the population of a city or urban area is inversely proportional to its rank in the hierarchy of cities within a region.

How does the rank-size rule work?

According to the rank-size rule, if the largest city in a country has a population of x, the second largest city will have a population of approximately x/2, the third largest city will have a population of approximately x/3, and so on.

What are the implications of the rank-size rule?

The rank-size rule suggests that a few cities will dominate in terms of population and economic activity within a region, while smaller cities will have significantly fewer inhabitants. This pattern of urban hierarchy has important implications for urban planning, resource allocation, and economic development strategies.

Is the rank-size rule applicable worldwide?

While the rank-size rule was initially derived from the study of city populations in the United States, subsequent research has found that it applies to many countries and regions around the world. However, there are exceptions and variations to the rule depending on factors such as historical development, cultural context, and government policies.