Building your world: city locations


    This is probably the most important feature of a fantasy map, or at least to the people who are supposed to live in your world: where are your cities? Your towns? The place your characters live and probably have spent most of their time in? Well, as long as you have a city-dwelling character, of course.

    First thing you need to know about towns and cities is that they are where they are because their location is - or was - the best at providing something that humans need. This something isn't always clear though, partly because cities can be old. Really old. So old that their current location on a map can no longer make sense. For example, look at big river harbours that are relatively far inland; ships used to be a lot smaller and they could sail upriver with ease, so having a harbour there back in the day was fine. Now though, those massive container ships are too big to get near those harbours. Mankind likes its cities though; it will try to find solutions for problems like this instead of just moving to a more suitable place. So, to figure out why a city can be found at that specific spot and not tens of kilometres in any other direction, you need to know what the circumstances were when it was founded.

    My focus will be on geographical reasons why humans settle at certain places. I'm an earth scientist, after all, most of my studies tried to ignore humans, so my apologies if I missed something important. Also sorry for all the Dutch examples, my classes focused on my own country.

    Basic needs

    Humans are simple things, in a way. They need food, water, shelter, and WiFi. Most can (partly) be provided by the landscape, and will therefore determine where mankind's very first houses will go. And I guess most of us are social creatures (pff, I'm not!), which results in a local population large enough for a decent settlement containing multiple buildings. Keep in mind that this section will be about simple, small towns, where nature determines where mankind will live.

    So where is the best place to get food if there are no supermarkets around the corner? I'll tell you: it's the wetlands. This is the most biologically diverse ecosystem on earth, and you can find them on every continent except Antarctica. Wetlands are... well, wet, so there has to be a lot of water around that cannot flow away easily. Wetlands are therefore a common sight at (flat and low-lying) coasts. I'm afraid I haven't written an article about wetlands at the time I'm writing this, but I do have one about coasts here. Now, an other good place to find food is the ocean/sea, though it might require some sailing knowledge. High mountainous areas and deserts are pretty tough to make a living compared to other places.

    Humans really like to be farmers. Therefore, people want to live where the soil is fertile. This favours rivers, where floods bring fertile sediment and deposits it on the surrounding land. In a way, floods are essential to keep the land healthy. So again, that sounds like wetlands (with rivers) are a good place to go.

    But the garden will like it. Right?

    Next up: water. That's an easier question, I suppose. You can get water from rivers, lakes, or some underground source (a ground layer that carries water is called an aquifer). Sometimes you need to make a well to get to that underground source, sometimes water surfaces as a natural spring. Melting snow also results in water, of course, but you can't sustain a city if you have to melt it yourself. Just think of all the fuel you need... But hey, this might be a serious option in a fantasy world where you have magic to do the trick!

    Water links back to food. We humans might be able to make wells and get water from deep underground sources, but plants can't. Let me give a real world example of how this matters even in the Netherlands, a land where water is considered to be plentiful. The Veluwe is a big, ice-pushed ridge in the middle of the Netherlands, a remnant from an ice age (if you want to know more about that, please read my glaciers article). And with big, I mean it's 30 to 100 m above sea level - to us lowland Dutchies, that's a mountain! Anyway, that bulk of sediment affects how far the groundwater is below the surface. Groundwater follows the local topography only this much, you see; it's deeper down on top of the Veluwe ridge than it is on the edges. Therefore, the high parts of the Veluwe are very dry and therefore unfit for agriculture (another reason is that the sand isn't very fertile). So farming was done halfway the slopes of the Veluwe. If you get too low, the land gets too wet and you can only grow grass (great for livestock though) - you can even get flooded. It's still the Netherlands, after all. Because of this, the Veluwe has a low density in towns; they are all at the edges of the ice pushed ridge.

    An elevation map of the Veluwe, where blue-green is roughly sea level and the darkest reds are 100 m above that. None of the towns are at the centre of the big, orange/yellow blob, but right on the border between green and yellow. Too bad this thing doesn't have a scalebar, but the distance between Voorthuizen and Apeldoorn is roughly 25 km. Source: AHN viewer.

    Based on the requirements for water and food alone, you can make a good guess which parts of the world are the most suitable to live in. You can also see it on a world map; most cities can be found close to seas or rivers. Especially deltas (another topic I still need to write an article about) are popular, where both food and fresh water can be found in large amounts. Does that mean rivers, wetlands and coasts are the only places for humans to go? Of course not. They just end up to be the most densely populated areas.

    This map shows all major cities in the world (with a population exceeding 100,000) - and only those cities. Still, you can make out quite some continents, since a lot of the cities are close to coastlines. This map was made by Reddit user Fingolas. Go here if you want an interactive version.

    People need shelter too. The definition of shelter is 'a place giving temporary protection from bad weather or danger'. Unfortunately, most of the protection aspect goes beyond my earth sciences knowledge, so what I'll say next is just my not-so educated guess. I think mankind is so creative it can make a shelter out of pretty much everything. Wood, stone, clay, plants... If building material can be found everywhere, it will not affect the location of the first settlement in the region. But if building material is rare, how close did people need to stay to such sources? I'm not sure. I guess it will depend on how easy it is to transport building material from one place to another, or whether or not you had to do this on your own. Same goes with fuel, especially in colder regions. Just keep in mind that fuel doesn't always come in the shape of wood. Coal, peat, dried poop and who-knows-what-as-long-as-it-burns can do too.

    Now, I do have something to say about the safety aspect of a shelter. Danger can come from animals, annoying neighbours, etc. and will force you to make your home at a certain spot. Think of fortresses at tactical places to keep the enemy away from you (though in this specific case, the safety aspect can be more important than providing food and water - I will talk more about such situations later).

    I want to focus on natural dangers though, as land can be dangerous as well. To come back to the wetland example: this kind of landscape might provide lots of food and water, but finding shelter is somewhat hard. Everything is wet, after all, and prone to flooding. That means even the slightest change in elevation is important. Look at this map: it shows settlements and old river courses in a delta. Rivers change course quite a lot in deltas, so the land is covered by old riverbeds. Those riverbeds are made of sand, and the rest of the land is made of peat and clay. Peat settles with time (I think settling is the right word), meaning the peat layer becomes thinner which causes the land to subside. The sand of the riverbeds does not do this, meaning they become the high and dry places of the area, even though the difference in height is just a few meters. Additionally, this ground is more suitable for agriculture than the surrounding, lower land (that's used for livestock), so they had two reasons to make settlements here. If there aren't any natural dry places around, you can also make an artificial dwelling mounds.

    The settlements (black dots) may look to be randomly distributed at first glance, but look again; almost all of them are in yellow (higher grounds) or the medium-green area. Medium green indicates natural levees, which are sandier and higher than the surrounding dark green (depressions). The light green areas are floodplains, which, well, flood, so only a few settlements can be found there. After Modderman (1955), De bewoonbaarheid van het rivierkleigebied in de loop der eeuwen, from Van de Ven, 1993. Leefbaar laagland: geschiedenis van de waterbeheersing en landaanwinning in Nederland.

    Terp (dwelling mound) in Ezinge, the Netherlands.

    There are many other dangers in the land, of course, but this post will be incredibly long if I need to mention every type of landscape out there and the dangers they have. Just keep in mind that some of those dangers leave marks in the landscape. Most people will not see that these days, because we live luxurious lives where we no longer need to fear such threats, but that wasn't always the case. People were better at reading landscapes, and tried to avoid dangerous spots.

    So now we have the basics. Are we done?

    Nope! All settlements should provide the basic needs, but with time, mankind is looking at other needs as well, and perhaps towns specialises in it. What do I mean with these other needs though? Well, anything that would make one's life more pleasant, but aren't necessary to survive. For example: you can chop up trees with a sharp stone, but an iron axe is far more suitable. What if you can't find iron ore close to your settlement? You need to look for it somewhere else, and perhaps settle there when the need for iron ore is big. That new settlement might not be the best place when it comes to providing food or water, but maybe the inhabitants of the old town will give their products to you for iron ore - and now we have trade. This little example showed that trade gives life to towns that otherwise wouldn't be there, as long as the demand for this secondary need (I've no idea if this is the correct term, but it sounds good) is big enough. Why bother setting up a mining town at an otherwise bad location if hardly anyone is interested in iron ore?

    ... Are we done now?

    No, because I have another question for you: why did the human cross the road?

    Humans need to travel (for various reasons, but trade stimulates this a lot), making roads densely 'populated'. You get human hotspots where those roads meet, like at crossings but also at natural bottlenecks, like that one shallow place in a river you can wade through. Before you know it, people start to live next to it and try to get your money by opening inns and such. They might even make a bridge! Keep the order of this development in mind; I've often seen the statement that towns should go where trade routes are a lot - which is true, but why are those trade routes there? There must be at least two already existing towns that want to trade with each other. As the towns grow, the routes become larger too - or is it the other way around? The two depend on each other: two small towns develop traffic to each other, which forces them to make better routes, which attracts more traffic, which makes both towns flourish and grow, which makes them start doing trades with other places, which attracts more traffic, which creates better routes and creates towns along the way, which might profit so much from this trade that they become major towns of their own.

    What's also important to remember that a route doesn't have to be a road; waterways will do even better, as long as the river is suitable for boats. This gives another reason why rivers are so popular for big cities. Perhaps your world has other ways of transport, like dragons, teleportation, or broomsticks, which all sound a lot quicker and more effective than simply walking from A to B. How common are these transport modes and how does it affect 'muggle' transportation? If everyone or everything can be teleported, then why bother using roads? They will be far less common and in a pretty poor state, and only a few new towns will develop next to them.

    Technology and knowledge

    If I remember correctly, 80 to 90% or all towns in the lowlands were 'born' in the Middle Ages, meaning that their location is strongly determined by the landscape. As mankind develops itself, nature becomes less of a restriction for founding a town. No water? We have the skills to dig a canal! No food? Let's import it from somewhere else, we know how to do that! A city as big as Las Vegas can survive because we are clever enough to deal with the problems of a city in a desert (is it clever to have such a place in such a location though? Meh...). Not that relatively modern cities just pop up randomly everywhere; there still is a reason behind their location, but it might be less obvious. Even Las Vegas had rather humble beginnings as a resupply point along a trade route, but it could grow into something bigger because the people knew how to pipe water from wells into town.

    Humble indeed...

    Crap, now I have a lot of towns! Can I get rid of some?

    Sure! You could have a war destroying cities, or a huge natural disaster, but there are more subtle ways for cities to die. As time changes, so do the functions of a city. Of course, the basic needs still need to be there, but as trade develops, a city no longer has to provide all of its own food. They can become highly specialised in that secondary need, to the point their existence depends on it. What if that secondary need is no longer needed? Or there is a rivalling town doing the same thing, but better? Or the town is no longer able to provide it? If that place cannot find a way to keep itself important, it will become smaller, or even turn into a ghost town. I guess we can all picture a mining town whose mine is no longer in use. The more dependent the place is on a single form of income, the more vulnerable it is.

    How to use this in your mapmaking:

    I guess that's where this kind of stuff is the most useful for. Also, this is how I do it, and I probably go into far more detail than necessary (I really want things to make sense). So if you have method that works for you, feel free to ignore me.

    - First step is to make a map! I guess there are two approaches: you either start with an empty world map and determine logical places for cities based on that, or you start with an idea for a city and make a world for it to fit in. I usually do the first (unless I really have a good idea for a city) so the order of the following tips is based on that.

    - Try to indicate where different climate zones and landscape types are. That's a huge task on its own, so I'll probably make a post about that in the future.

    - Try to figure out the ages of your cities and towns. If you have no idea what a reasonable number is: Wikipedia has this list that might give you some ideas. I use an age of a thousand years for the typical, late medieval European fantasy setting when I don't feel creative enough to think about this thoroughly.

    - To make it more difficult: where those regions mentioned above the same as at the time your cities were founded? It will depend on the age of the cities and the dynamics of your world. Perhaps you want a city that's 10,000 years old, but if you go that far back in time on Earth, you end up at the end of an ice age, and what's now fertile plains used to be cold tundra. Not a good spot for a new city. How do you figure this out though? Well, if your world is like ours, the best thing to do is just pick a existing place that resembles your fantasy setting and start reading the geology/geographical history section of its Wikipedia page. If your world is not like ours... Well, then you have to figure out what exactly is different, and read the Wikipedia pages that are still relevant. Perhaps your world has more in common with ours than you think. And if that doesn't turn out to be the case... You're on your own, with your creativity as your guideline.

    Also, some areas are more prone to change than others. Lowland areas can change a lot in only a thousand years, with rivers changing their course and coastlines growing/eroding, while more inland areas stay the same for longer periods of time. You have a good chance those places looked exactly the same back then as they do now.

    - Your oldest cities will start very small, providing only the basic needs. Technology levels are probably low, unless you have a good reason for it otherwise (think of colonising new land), so your civilisation is strongly dependent on nature. Now you know what the land used to look like, what are the best places for these cities? For humans, that will be rivers, wetlands, coastlines, etc. (keep in mind that you have great differences within the same landscape type over a short distance), but perhaps you have a race that likes to live under different circumstances.

    - Take a step forward in time; any secondary needs your people might be interested in by now? Has trade started between cities? How does trade happen? Add those specialised towns! And perhaps destroy a few cities again as time passes by.

    How to use this in your writing:

    Sparingly. The reader doesn't need to know you have a severe case of worldbuilder's disease. However, there are plenty of opportunities where all your hard work can show. To name a few I could think of:

    - Now you have a map with cities, you have travelling times. You no longer need to make something up, only to realise later it doesn't make sense. Yay!

    - If your characters are travelling along a well-used trade route, they have the opportunity to stay at an inn instead of sleeping under the stars - unless they are broke. Travelling will be easier as well because the road will be reasonably well maintained, and they will meet people along the road (and perhaps even travel together).

    - Earth cities were founded at specific places because of a bunch of mostly natural restrictions, but what if magic or something else gives you more and very weird alternative locations for cities? Weird places are interesting, show them to the reader.

    - Are there abandoned cities? It's a great way to sneak the history behind that into your story without sounding boring if your characters visit such a place.

    - The location of a town should be reflected in its looks, depending on how well developed it is. If it provides only local products, then you should see that; use brick buildings for towns in clay areas where no hard rock can be found, for example. When trade becomes larger, more exotic wares will find their way to the town, (though those old houses will probably still be made of brick, unless someone finds it necessary to replace them). There are a lot of other things that show a city's 'personality', like remnants from its history and its current functions, but that might be a topic suitable for a different article.

    - Is the city struggling with its current location? The inland harbours and the oversized ships is an example of this problem. Another problem can be that a cities is drowning in its delta, or that there isn't enough living space. Your characters might see these problems themselves, or hear the locals complain about it.

    I think this covers pretty much what I know of the geographical reasons behind the location of towns. This is only a fraction of what makes a city, though. They are like characters; they have a background, they are good at certain things, bad at other things, and constantly seek ways to survive. They are unique, though it might require a trained eye to see that. Perhaps I'll write something about that in the future.

    #worldbuilding #worldbuilding #cities #towns #location #maps

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