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Where do people build cities?

Discussion in 'Research' started by EccentricGentleman, Jul 26, 2013.

  1. I'm in the process of world building, ensuring out my map and I'm wondering where I should put the cities. So far I've been drawing out randomly shaped rivers and placing the cities along them. I want to know where else someone might place a city, obviously near a valuable resource, and how they would transport water to it. Incidentally, the world I am building is a steampunk world which is Victorian level technology with a bit of a boost.
  2. Telcontar

    Telcontar Staff Moderator

    I don't have time to write a lot on the subject, so here's a kind of rambling break down of some elements:

    Cities are generally found, as you seem to understand, at the confluence of transportation routes. Navigable rivers (rivers big enough to sail a sizable boat along) were/are basically highways so cities were definitely found along them.

    Valuable resource deposits were more likely to support a town dedicated to their extraction than a full-fledged city. There would probably be a city nearby, though, at the nearest place where the transport route for the resource crossed routes for other things like food.

    Basically, almost all population centers start as villages dedicated to farming. When there is enough of that activity in an area they become towns - this can beget more specialized villages nearby (like the ones which exist to cut lumber). When enough towns exist fairly nearby and they all start trading with each other, usually a centermost one - or the one along the best trade routes - will end up growing into a city as it becomes the "meeting place" for all the other towns' goods.
    Jabrosky likes this.
  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    No cities are founded far from water. It's fundamental. So, have your rivers start in the mountains and run to the sea, then site your cities along there. Keep in mind the basics of central place theory and don't put two major cities next to each other. Given a perfectly flat terrain, the biggest cities will be spaced equidistant from each other, with secondary cities in between.

    This gets modified by so many factors, it's nearly useless. Seaport cities flourish. Cities on a major river that are also at an overland crossroads flourish. Some cities get destroyed by war or earthquake. Port towns can have their rivers silt up. So the original, theoretical smooth geometry gets all wrinkled. Oh, and new economic factors can change everything. A good example is what happened to Antwerp, which was once a great city but which was superseded by Amsterdam. Trade routes change.

    As Telcontar said, towns do grow out of villages, but there are other ways cities get made. Some are administrative centers--a king will decide a certain place is a favorite. Some are colonies (the Greeks and Romans did a lot of this, but it happened in eastern Europe as well in the Middle Ages; also in various other border regions, such as Wales). So you can place a few as needed on that basis.

    That's all human. Do your elves build cities? Dwarves? Perhaps their socio-economic dynamics are different. One thing I struggle with is whether all settlement-building peoples are subject to the same historical dynamics or whether they can be somewhat separate. As an example, maybe a big dwarvish city can exist right underneath a big human city. Then again, maybe not. These things keep me awake nights.
    Asterisk likes this.
  4. TheokinsJ

    TheokinsJ Troubadour

    Near a water source (river/stream/natural spring), other than that, so long as the climate permits human inhabitance, there is no other contributing factor as to where it should be built, but rather what it needs to sustain it's population. If the city is not built close to plains/flat farming land then there needs to be a way for food to be transported to/from the city. Also, you have got to realise why a city was built- that can sometimes be all the more important. If a city was originally built as a fort, which then expanded over the centuries into a thriving city, it would presumably be placed in a strategic position, near a bridge/river crossing, a mountain pass etc.
    As Telcontar pointed out, most cities start as smaller settlements that expand. Therefore, valuable resources will lead to villages which will grow into cities. For example; a small village may be built next to a cliff to quarry stone, it will then expand into a city that could export stone-carved statues and goods, or begin to mine iron etc. Basically all a city needs is water, access to food/farmland (or when farmland is not available, some sort of way to transport food to the city) and a need for the city to be there. Hope this helps!
  5. Telcontar

    Telcontar Staff Moderator

    Skip.know brought up an interesting exception - when a national leader basically creates a city out of thin air by deciding there should be one in a particular spot.

    This can happen for a number of reason: Sometimes the king (or whatever) originates from a certain region and wants to bring it greater prosperity. Sometimes the area is defensible, or changes in trades routes make it more advantageous to center the nation there. It's happened with many nations.
  6. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    Good points; politics or war, but mostly water travel and its trade. Especially, look for intersections: where one river merges with another, or with a lake or sea. Or sometimes where water crosses land routes: important bridges, the sea end of a inland trade route. Just ask yourself, what one place would a lord like to put his armies to rob tax protect the traders, and where would other traders cluster to do business with them.

    Don't forget the fantasy side of it, though, or your own kind of industry. If your steampunk "boost" involves one mine of Unobtainium, of course every trade point down the one river flowing by that mine (or from the main factory for applying the mineral) gets supercharged as half the New Steamships are chugging along that route. Your world might also have railroads, but those are more likely to connect places that were already thriving, though at the same time they become a chance to cross-link places that didn't have water connections.
  7. Many people here have given you some really really good information, But dont forget cities also get built with defence in mind, especially if there is war ravaging the world, For instance think of helms deep in LOTR the two towers. One way in, A secret passage out through the caves through the mountains. so an invading army could only approach from one side. tactical advantage comes into play as well.
  8. CAL9000

    CAL9000 Acolyte

    I wouldn't exactly call Helm's Deep a city. But the idea is spot on. Not all cities need to be on a major thoroughfare or river. They still need a water supply, but any other factors simply make them more or less likely to be somewhere and change the population. The big thing that someone else pointed out that you should be careful of is having a city because of a valuable resource. This is true for towns, but cities tend to have more diverse economies than "Iron Mining City" and such. If your setting has reached any sort of industrial revolution, cities will be where most factories are (although factories also sprang up in towns (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mill_village]Mill Village)).
  9. Asterisk

    Asterisk Troubadour

    Cities also grow around good farm land. (Those communities may be poorer.) If your fantasy world has a system of trade, cities will pop up along the paths of the merchants and traders. There are tons of other factors. Cities are usually built on higher land because of safety from flooding, defence.... The amazing thing about humans is our ability to adapt to surroundings and climates. We can live almost anywhere. So the most prosperous cities will be those with access to water, arable land, defensible terrain, trade. That was a bit of my rambling. Hope it helps!
  10. Chad Lynch

    Chad Lynch Dreamer

    In addition to powerful rulers establishing cities for mostly personal reasons (see Tamerlane, Alexander, Constantine... and I'm sure others that don't immediately spring to mind), there are also cities established or maintained when they might otherwise have faded away for purely religious reasons. Ancient Egypt had a city or two whose soul living residents were priests or people who tended vast crypt complexes. Mecca started off as an important place on a trade route and because it had a source of water in the desert. Given the economic realities of today it should by all rights be nothing more than a dusty village, if not abandoned altogether. Yet it is a large, thriving city based on nothing more than its spiritual significance. The same could probably be said for Jerusalem. Others have faded as their faith/culture faded, like Angkor Wat or any number of Mesoamerican ruins.

    Such a religious city wouldn't need to be sighted on a transportation node like a road, river, or bay, but it would need to be justified by being a sight of religious and/or historical significance. A fine opportunity for the story to influence geography.
  11. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

    Cities can be built for many reasons,
    If you have miles of ocean front property, the city will be built in the best place. A nice beach is pretty, but for trade you need docks for large ships, near a large river will offer a gathering point for river boats to drop off goods, so sea going ships can pick them up.

    Military established city, a military keep in the right place will encourage people to settle there. Provide food and services to help the keep, in exchange the keep offers security to the city. Good roads, food source, and water transportation would make for a perfect city.

    towns: A town is just several families that live near each other while they harest or make their living. Every few hours a town will probably by encountered on a road unless the area is not inhabitable. (to rocky, to muddy(swamp), inhabited by critters that don't allow humanoids to peacefully inhabit) every few hours a town will be established offering food, drink and lodging. Remember there are people on the road that might have money for a nice room and a warm meal, there are also humanoids that watch for people on the road to mug or ambush at night. Safety in town.

    For the most part, large cities are small towns(or several small close towns that join) that attracted more and more people that support the city's attributes, directly or indirectly.

    In desert climate, he who rules the water, rules life. An Oasis in the desert will be a settling place for people. If the water source will support the people with water, it will grow, even more so if it is on a trade route. Small towns would be but a stopping point to water people and livestock and for guidance to the next watering hole. People do not build in the desert without having a reason and a water source.
    Last edited: Aug 7, 2013
    Lohengrin likes this.
  12. Daichungak

    Daichungak Minstrel

    Salt Lake City, Utah was built where it was at the directive of Brigham Young the governor, mayor, general, prophet and king of the mormon pioneers. The location was remote and next to a giant, stinking, salt saturated puddle ensuring they would largely be left alone.
  13. Shockley

    Shockley Maester

    In history, the greatest cities have always been built along major rivers or on the sea. Baghdad, Cairo, Rome, Alexandria, Athens, Rome, London, Paris, Shanghai, Nanjing, Damascus, New York, etc. The odd thing is that most cities, even ones we don't necessarily associate with their rivers, tend to have them - Ulaanbaatar is the capital of Mongolia and thus has an association with yurts, steppes, etc., but also happens to have two rivers flowing through it. Budapest used to be two distinct cities, Buda and Pest, that grew up on opposite banks of the Danube.

    Until the modern era, it is very, very difficult to live without immediate access to water. Did it happen? Yes, but only with great difficulty and hardship. I happen to live very, very inland, in an area that used to have a river but that river is now basically nonexistent - water is a very precious resource here, and it's only the advent of modern technology that lets us survive here.
  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    It also has the Jordan River plus several significant creeks, all of which provide fresh water. Also, the city wasn't built right next to the lake but is a few miles away from it.

    The lake is pretty nasty, though.
  15. Bruce McKnight

    Bruce McKnight Troubadour

    Water is a necessity, but if you are in a rainy region, you may not need to be on a body of water. Maybe rain barrels on every rooftop keep indoor plumbing working.

    Food is needed, but can take on many forms - maybe it's farmland, maybe it's wild game, maybe it's shellfish or mushrooms or maybe your people herd sheep, goats, or cows and just need enough grazing area or are nomadic. Depending on your tech level, food could be imported. This would allow a civilization to support colonies near luxury resources. There's probably not a lot of deer or wild berries by that diamond mine in the mountains, but if you have an economy and a road system of a certain maturity, you could support your miners until technology catches up and they have Wal Mart and refrigerators.

    In a more traditional fantasy setting, I find it fun to wonder about how elves and dwarves get their food and water. I suppose dwarves have a lot of underground rivers to tap, but what do they eat? If elves are so in love with nature, would they still hunt animals and pick berries? If not, what would they eat?

    Sure, I'm playing stereotypes, but how would you support that?
  16. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    Ages ago, I set out to create a series of realistic mostly dwarf populated underground cities.

    I assumed underground lakes and rivers. I assumed the lakes were an ecosystem of their own, with lots of shellfish and especially blind fish, with a further assumption one fish would feed three dwarves (stew). I assumed giant fungi/mushroom patches filling caverns hundreds of yards wide and as much as several miles long, and assumed it grew very fast. I also assumed edible bugs, worms, and the like.

    But even with all that, my calculations put the largest such city at no more than a couple thousand...unless they had a lot of food coming in from the surface. And even then, I was stretching some things. Bit of an eye opener.
  17. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    Naturalist elves know they have to eat something, so they'd either hunt and kill their animals with utmost respect, or be vegetarians but treat orchards with same care. Nature is a balance of eating and being eaten, and being tied to it means following that cycle, not standing outside it. (Much as I love the anime Monster, I groaned when a nature-loving man swore to a forest bird that nobody would die there any more; tell that to the hawk that's probably waiting to dive on the bird!)

    As for dwarves, if they really did stay down in their mines I don't know how much food they could raise, with mushrooms or even mushroom-bred cattle. But then, Tolkien set up the Lonely Mountain with its longtime ties to Esgaroth below. I wonder how much the Lakemen overcharged the dwarves for food-- they pretty much had them over a barrel. :)
  18. Jastius

    Jastius Dreamer

    The heart of the city is commerce. They exist as market driven economies. Where there is a market or center of exchange or trade in any but a roaming population you will get a supportive infrastructure growing up around it. For example most English towns that grew into cities with great cathedrals were centers of trade for the wool market.

    There have been cities that have been relocated at the whim of an overlord. the one that most readily comes to mind is Tokyo that was the new seat of power from Kyoto, the samurai center of power.

    What I have noticed about great cities of the world, wherever they might be in the world, in the world they are located at the convergence not only of rivers but of hills, possibly from their origins as fortified towns. Also the high ground of the hills save them from flooding. In any river valley there exists a great flood risk. but Rome, London, Paris and New York are all on seven hills.

    The concerns of steampunk society would be the preexistence of the necessities of their culture. That would be an accessible fuel source for their hydraulics based equipment. Natural gas, or methane collection units as an adjunct to a distillation processing plant would provide both a product for distribution and the necessary energy for their equipment. This could be from swamp land where methane might be collected or from a grain producing farmland where the grain is distilled into grain alcohol.
    Again the distillation process would result in two usable products, being the alcohol and the methane generated in the production of the alcohol.
  19. Sanctified

    Sanctified Minstrel

    Or you could be like George RR Martin and plop cities in the middle of desert wasteland, with closed gates and no traffic in or out without approval. Always thought that was odd. Although, to be fair, Qarth, Astapor and co. were port cities.

    Chad has an important point about powerful rulers establishing cities. Which leads to another interesting point, which is that names can change...how many cities are named after Alexander, or variations of Alexander? From the obvious (Alexandria) to the not-so-obvious (Kandahar).

    I always found that fascinating.
  20. Tevaras

    Tevaras Minstrel

    Good evening Sanctified,

    the same city name can also change for political reasons: like Saint Petersburg, err oops, Petrograd, err oops, Leningrad, err oops, Saint Petersburg? This city's name change engendered the joke: Which city were you born in?, Which city were you schooled in?, Which city would you like to work in?, and Which city would you like to die in? The 'politically correct' answer was (in correct order): Saint Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad, and Saint Petersburg :).

    And another: Volgograd to Stalingrad to Volgograd. There was/is even some attempt to call it Stalingrad again a few days in the year: Stalingrad returns to haunt Russia | World news | theguardian.com

    Cartographers rejoice - for you shall be forever employed - particularly if your specialty is the Balkans ...

    Have a good weekend :).

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