More City Design Tips

The city of Redwall - for a tutorial on city designI was asked the following question over on the Paizo boards:

Can I ask a question about city design?

I see advice I’ve seen elsewhere — start with the streets.

But — how? How do you know how to design the streets? How many to put within a space, when to do twists and turns, when to leave things straight? I imagine some of it’s random, but there’s also usually some kind of logic to city design–what kind of logic do you apply and when do you decided for good reason, to deviate from it?

I know when I’ve tried to do “streets first”–I end up then realizing I need more space for X building or something and have to start over. Or the street network just doesn’t look “natural.” I’m sure some of that comes with time and practice, but it’d be nice to get some pointers.

Here’s the answer:

You’re absolutely right. I know I said ‘start with the streets’ but that was a little disingenuous. You need to know where the streets are going to and from so you do need to know the locations of major landmarks first. So I think it’s better to say – start with the important tactical terrain. Rivers and hills. You don’t need to pin them down precisely and render them up beautifully, but you do need to know where they are.

Power centers are almost always on top of a hill as they started off small, and needed to be in the best place to stave off attack. Or they’ll be in a bend in a river, so that they’re defended on 2 or 3 sides by water. If a city can be beside the water it will be, and again as the city started small, the power center and the old town will be at the waterside. So you need to know where the rivers/coastline and hills are.

Once you’ve got that, you know where the old town is. All main roads to other cities will lead to the power center, because that’s where they started. They’ll follow the contours of the land and will be constrained by where they cross rivers. Draw these in, and feel free to put in wiggles and kinks – roads don’t necessarily go straight.

Now you start creating the rest of the city. The old town normally has a wall around it – again from the history of being attacked. You need to decide on whether the newer wider city has walls around it too. Walls restrict the passage of major roads – so they’re important.

So now you should have:

  1. Rivers and hills
  2. Power center
  3. Walls on the old town (and newer town)
  4. Major roads from the center to the outside world

At this point, pick some major locations that people are going to need to get to/from. Some ideas:

  • Docks
  • Market
  • Granaries
  • Arcane University
  • Temple district/center of worship
  • Barracks
  • Secondary power center (parliament/royal residence).

It’s also worth pencilling in the different demographics of the quarters of he city now as well such as:

  • Rich merchant/nobles
  • Artisans
  • Slums
  • Warehouses

The major locations will work as focal points for your roads – people need to get there, so large roads will come off them like spokes off a wheel. Again, don’t make them rod straight, allow them to have kinks and doglegs in them – but make sure they go in one clear direction. If there needs to be a road from the barracks to the palace and from the Barracks to the city gates, make sure it’s clear that it does – but still remember that roads also go round places, and are designed to leave roughly rectangular spaces for building houses.

Now you should have a spider’s web of main roads and you need to fill in the big irregular spaces with little roads to define the different districts. This is where the demographic of an area comes in. Slums are unplanned and ungoverned, so roads go where they need to , not where they should. let your pen wander and lay in a messy labyrinth of twisting alleyways.

On the other hand, merchants and nobles live in large houses with land around them on straight tree lined avenues. Place straight(ish) or gently curving roads in these areas, with lots of space for mansions. Grids look good for this too, and quickly give off a sense of ordered planning. Middle class areas are similar, but with smaller areas between roads, or with tenements, and more alleyways. Keep the roads to straight lines and sharp angles here too to retain a contrast with the slums.

Now you should have a reasonably clear city plan – and you’ve defined it by drawing the roads.

I’ve attached the City of Redwall that I created for Jaye Sonia’s world of Rhune. It’s a dwarven city, so even the poorer areas aren’t totally without a sense of order, but hopefully it’s clear from the road layout what the main areas are, even before you check out the legend.

4 thoughts on “More City Design Tips”

  1. Xscreensaver has a module, “Substrate”, that draws random lines and arcs that (because they tend to meet at right angles) look like streets of an increasingly dense old city. One could examine the source code to try to see how it works.

  2. Don’t neglect to think about other communities in the area. There will likely be major roads leading from the power center(s) off toward those communities. Since these routes may be heavily traveled, services will appear along them, soon surrounded by residences, causing the city to send out “pseudopods” of development. The gaps between will backfill over time, with a variety of possible features. Here’s a nice map of Florence that shows the kind of thing you might expect from the effect:

    You see it in modern cities, too. Take a look at the bounds of Gallup, NM in Google Maps to see how it’s strung out along the Interstate, with little arms flung north and south along the intersecting highway.

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