Citybuilding 101

When I’m not working on Myriad RPG I’m a city planner for a medium-sized (over 50k population) town in the Houston mrtro area.  I have a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning, and before that worked most of my adult life in construction and land development.  New Urbanists and environmentalists, feel free to take a moment to boo and hiss.

Moving on.  So one of the classes that all urban planners (among others) take first semester is a history of human settlements class.  Obviously, this is a basis for the entire program because you can’t understand where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been – especially true for the built environment.  There’s some very interesting (to me) reasons that Boston looks different than Austin; they whys of it don’t cross most people’s minds, but they’re there.

I recently ran across a YouTube discussion from the Nerdarchy guys about city building, and wanted to repost my response covering some of those whys.

1) it begins with water.  Water runs downhill, in predictable channels, and is a necessity.  Water has more to do with how real world settlements develop than anything else.  People (meaning in this case humans or other sentient humanoids with similar biology) need water, and prefer to settle near it.

2) people also need food and shelter, so anyplace that has an abundance of water, food, and building materials is going to be settled first.  If it is strategic and easily defended, it will likely become a large and important place very quickly.  This is how city-states, kingdoms, empires, and nations form: from the seed of one exceptionally good place to settle.

3) consider transportation.  Settlements also tend to grow at important travel hubs (convergences of rivers, at fords, along sheltered bays, below mountain passes, etc).

4) things tend to be located as near as possible to base needs assuming that rapid transit is not available.  Fishmongers will set up near docks.  Leatherworks will set up near the edges of town where the pastures and leather-bearing animals are.  All of these areas will likely be a mix of residential and commercial uses, as without rapid transit people will have to walk to where they work.  Anything not tied to a base need will exist anywhere- bakeries and markets, for example.  Civic buildings will either be centrally located or located in the most defensible spot of the city – and military/LE presence will tend to concentrate in those areas too.

5) this means that the city will require some sort of network to move certain goods from one place to another.  Usually, in a low-tech, low-magic  setting without motorized vehicles or teleportation or something, this will be a spider web of large boulevards that can accommodate carts, wagons, and the like as well as daily foot traffic.  As Venice and Amsterdam demonstrate, canals can serve perfectly well as boulevards.

6) if cities can’t expand out, they will expand up.  If they can expand out, they will invariably create a bullseye effect with the older cities and walls in the middle and the newer expansions and walls outside of that.  Depending on how quickly those areas developed, and how much the central government is involved, they could be orderly and well-planned or haphazard and messy.

7) any great disaster will be evident in the city’s form.  A large fire, an earthquake, a catastrophic storm or flood- all of these will leave a mark on the city’s design and function.  A visitor to the city will be able to see where these things occurred, even if what happened isn’t immediately evident (for example, an area of new construction surrounded by markedly older buildings might mark where a fire ravaged parts of the city and was rebuilt).

8) geopolitical and societal norms will dictate who lives where.  Any demographic who is undesirable will be pushed to the fringes – both in society and physically.   The privileged, in contrast, will live in the areas which are most conveniently located or otherwise desirable.  The poor almost always live in the most undesirable parts of town; in the real world, with a few exceptions such as Rio de Janeiro, poor people live in the lowlands and the well-to-do or politically connected (including organized religions) live in the higher elevations.

Of course, that all assumes that the fantasy world is more or less like the real world.  In a world where water doesn’t flow reliably downhill through paths of least resistance, things may be very different indeed.  Not to mention, how would something like high magic affect the city?  In a city confined to a narrow valley in high-magic world, there might be floating islands of city above that.  Or, a city with a high population of dwarves or gnomes may instead expand down, not up!


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