Worldbuild: Cities

In a society, people tend to gather in communities, and over time these communities can expand and grow, developing into cities. Thus, when world-building, cities can prove to be intensely beneficial to your stories. Taking the time to develop them can help you better understand the setting of your story and how your characters may be influenced or shaped by their surroundings.

For example, if your story takes place in a desert, the community may not be a sprawling metropolis, mostly because the environment simply couldn’t sustain it. Think about the amount of water necessary to keep those inhabitants alive. In a desert, water is scarce, and thus a large, sprawling city would be counterproductive and dangerous to survival. You’d quickly run out of resources to continue to expand the city. Even if this city is by an oasis, such rare water sources are not unlimited resources, and if over tapped, that resource will run dry, which would be disastrous for the inhabitants of the city. To avoid this problem, communities in the desert may be smaller towns.

Another consideration to consider is the design of the buildings. Cooling a building may be essential for some deserts. One way to accomplish this is to allow for the flow of air throughout the house. If nights get too cold, these buildings would also have the ability to be shuttered up. The materials for these dwellings should be a light color, as darker colors absorb more light (and thus more heat). As deserts can often be hot (though not all will be, depending on the latitude of your desert), a dark colored structure would make the indoors unbearable during the days. To maximize on cooling, it may be better to have underground structures, where the air can be cooler. There is a reason animals burrow under the desert during the day; this is because the area under the surface can often retain the cool temperatures of the night for much longer than the structure situated on top or above ground. However, there is a limit to how deep you can build your underground structures; don’t have them been miles deep, for the closer you get to the mantle, the more the temperature will rise as that part of the earth’s interior can be substantially warmer than the crust.

That’s just one example of how to build a city that makes sense in its environment. To help you generate ideas, study some of the cities built on earth. Look into how they are built, where they are built, and what problems they face due to their location and the environment in which they live. Not all cities last forever, so look into why cities decline. Sometimes it’s human factors that cause the decline, but also consider environmental factors as well. Make a list of possible ways cities can expand and decline over time, and try to create a timeline for your city. Researching cities on earth can be useful in helping you consider the timeline of your cities, but don’t feel like you have to model your city after Earth cities.

If you are writing science fiction and creating a futuristic city, think about how technology will play into the type of city you want to create. Will technology help compensate for lack of resources in the environment? If so, how would that work and what is the necessary infrastructure to make that technology work within the confines of your city? How many workers or robots would be necessary to maintain that infrastructure? How will the technology of your city play a role in the inhabitant lives? Will they have a city-wide network that inhabitants can tap into?

When examining the history of city design, there is several different styles of design:

  • Traditional designs tend to focus on long straight streets and squares, where there are green spaces or public areas in the middle of the city. A lot of traditional city designs focus on square grids, though some cities utilize a radial form such as Paris.
  • Modernist designs focus more on taller, more elevated buildings being built into city blocks, where the expansion of the city goes toward the sky rather than spreading out over more land.  Modernist designs also focus on large highways cutting through cities. The idea of grouping office buildings together also is part of the more modernist design for cities. In what ways can you examine modernist designs and alter them into something more unique and less earth-like?
  • Green designs integrate natural landscape into the design for cities. This is also known as landscape urbanism. This is a harken back to the pre-industrial cities which were often small with the landscape close by. However, in modern cities, urbanization covers such large areas that natural landscape is often disconnected from those that live in the constructed environment of the modern city. This relationship of the natural and constructed environments becomes more difficult to achieve, especially with the spread and expansive nature of modern cities. Green designs focuses on sculpting the city to fit in with the nature, where nature and constructed environments were integrated in ways that highlight the flow of the landscape. One example is the gardens within Japanese and Chinese cities, where artificial landscapes were constructed within the city. Other examples are coastal cities being conformed to the shape of the coast. Instead of forcing the coast to fit the minds of the designers, the city is molded to fit the coast and is built to handle possible storm surges and rising sea levels. In coastal cities, it’s often not possible to have square grids, as the coast line can often be irregular in its shape, and so the city must be molded to fit that shape.
  • Another design for cities is the Systems design, which focuses on viewing cities like living organisms. This design takes into account the complexity of cities. It highlights how over time they can grow more complex, if more people move to that city, or less complex if the city starts to fail due to various factors. These designs are often simulated in various city building software, and tends to create patterns that resemble more the structure of a brain neuron rather than grid-like patterns or city blocks.

When designing cities, it can be effective to think about what your world is like and the values of your species. For example, my Dragios species is very much focused on biological technologies, so their architecture and city designs are all oriented on the helix nature of DNA, and the buildings are grown through nanotechnology and can evolve into more complex structures. This type of city is very different from earth-like designs and less systematic and grid-like, as it takes more of a helical structure to its layout. This is one of the many ways you can diversify your city designs.

Now that you have the basic layout of your city and the environment in and around it, you have to consider the systems, services, resources, and industries within your city. Where will your people live? What type of housing is available? Where are the markets located and what do they resemble? How is the infrastructure handled such as water, electricity (if it exists), sewage, transportation and so forth? To help you examine this side of city-building, I formulated a list of questions, which I posted to the resources forum at LegendFire:

The above link includes a set of questions for you to answer as you build your city. It also includes some links to further information. I highly recommend exploring it. So readers, how have you constructed your cities? What do you consider?

Categories: Aliens, Elivera, World Building, WritingTags: , , , , , , ,


  1. There is an historical book out about cities and the history of cities. Of course, I can’t remember the name right now. Hee. hee. Good job on this article..


  2. great. Thanks hannahgivens.



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