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Part of worldbuilding is deciding on the map of your territory, whatever that looks like. (A vast empire sprawling across continents, or a tiny province nestled in the hills, or a series of star systems?) And part of that process involves deciding where the cities are. As my last post indicates, cities play a vital role in the economy—but they can also play a key role in politics directly. We’ll discuss that aspect in more detail in future posts, but for now, the key point is that cities can be built for several different purposes—and which purpose a given city was built for will explain where it is located geographically.

So this post will inventory those purposes, to set the stage for our future discussions of cities in politics.

(The concepts here are largely taken from Jane Jacobs’ Cities and the Wealth of Nations, as discussed in the previous post; Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1992, which we’ll discuss more in the future; and my hazy memories of Fernand Braudel.)

First, we should define our terms. A city, as I’m using the term, is a large settlement of people, most of whom are not producing food. This distinguishes a city from a village, which might feature a few specialists like a blacksmith or cartwright, but will mostly consist of farmers or ranchers. By contrast, a city depends on the efficient production of food by others, and its transport to the city, often from the surrounding rural areas.

A society’s capacity to support cities will depend on the size of its energy surplus and its ability to efficiently transport and distribute food. Tilly notes that during the Middle Ages, perhaps 10% of the European populace lived in cities because agriculture and especially transportation could not support more. An oxcart of grain could travel perhaps a few hundred kilometers before the oxen had eaten more than they carried. The most efficient transport was over water, either by sea or on the rivers. It was not uncommon for waterfront warehouses to be filled to bursting with grain that could not find a buyer, while a few hundred miles inland villages were starving.

By contrast, today over 80% of the North American population lives in urban regions, and over 56% of the world’s population. We commonly transport food across the globe, and many people have never even seen a farm, much less worked on one.

So why do people live in cities, and why do they get built in the first place? For our purposes, we’ll focus on the following:

  • commercial cities,
  • industrial cities (loosely defined), and
  • administrative/garrison cities.

And of course, once a city exists and starts to grow, it often takes on aspects of the other roles as well.

Commercial Cities

Cities that naturally emerge to facilitate commerce and trade are the most common, the most “natural,” and the most easily sustained. The simplest model for a commercial city would be one that grows up in the middle of a collection of rural villages; all the villagers from the different villages converge in the center to trade with each other, and somebody has the bright idea to build houses there and set up permanent establishments to more efficiently cater to the villagers. It grows over time as more industries set up, and eventually could start trading with other more distant cities as well; eventually its size reaches the limit of what its food supply can support, but its wealth might continue to grow if more valuable industries develop.

The Platonic ideal of a commercial city springs up on its own, as a result of people freely coming to the city and setting up shop. People are attracted by the prospect of working in a trade, or markets for their goods produced back at the farm, or even finding a spouse. If economic prospects in the city dim, it will lose population as people head for greener pastures.

The biggest commercial cities are at the intersection of trade routes and along the coast or rivers (the highways of the old world), especially where a river reaches the sea or several rivers intersect—or even better, if they don’t actually intersect, but pass close enough together that one can transport goods overland from one river to the other, passing through the city in the process. Think of Paris, Lyon, London, Amsterdam, the great Italian cities, and the like.

Conversely, if the trade routes shift, the city might find itself cut off from much of its commerce. For example, when the railroads were laid down across the United States, they largely ran along flat terrain since trains could not climb slopes of more than a few degrees. Communities that had previously lived in hilly regions near small rivers found themselves sucked inexorably into the lowlands as trade patterns shifted, and many towns and cities dried up as a result.

Industrial Cities

By “industrial,” I mean a city whose main purpose is to provide a place for people to live while they work at their jobs. This could include “factory towns” or “company towns,” essentially the dormitories of a major company’s factory workers; mining camps, where a bunch of individuals collect together as they work in the surrounding areas; or even “college towns,” where a college or university is placed in the middle of nowhere and a town grows up around it to support it.

Naturally, the industrial city will be placed convenient to the site of the work, be it a factory, a region rich in raw materials, or the like. It will have to have access to a food supply, but will pay for it with the proceeds of its production, rather than as a hub for trade in general. In some cases, the industrial city itself is a center for food production (making it an edge case for our definition of “city” above), but differs from a large village due to its size and that it mainly produces for export.

Industrial cities are common in supply regions that disproportionately produce materials for export (see previous post). Over time, industrial cities may develop elements of the commercial city as well, which might form the basis of more durable prosperity; but if such development is limited, the industrial city will rise and fall with the fortunes of its industry.

Sometimes, industrial cities will emerge spontaneously, especially of the mining-town variety. Other times, these cities will be built at the initiative of the cornerstone company or industry, which invests heavily in the city as a part of its production base and might even import workers from elsewhere. Sometimes, industrial cities can be built by governments trying to encourage particular industries or patterns of development, and sometimes they are populated by force—with slaves, or serfs, or other captive peoples carried off from their homes.

Administrative/Garrison Cities

These cities have little or no commercial basis, at least not initially; they are typically created and supported by governments, to project government power and authority.

Garrison cities are bases for military units; some might be in the heartland, where they can be easily supplied, but others might be placed on the frontier for defensive or offensive purposes. Often they are walled, or might be actual castles or fortresses. Such garrisons must be provisioned at great expense if they are outside the normal trade routes; sometimes they even grow their own food. A garrison would feature the soldiers themselves, plus their families and whatever camp followers or support specialists would be necessary, such as smiths or doctors. Depending on the garrison, other civilians might live there as well to sell services to the soldiers, hoping to drain the cash of a captive populace of bored young men (or women?) with little else to do.

(Some garrison towns might play host not to state military units, but to strong mercenary units.)

Administrative cities might overlap with garrisons, but are generally placed in the heartland. Their main function is to collect taxes, or otherwise enforce the laws. They act as nerve centers for the bureaucracy, often including the state security services if these are different from the military. While garrisons are placed where military necessity dictates, administrative cities are placed where the people are, the better to control them. People living in an administrative city are usually state functionaries, or those selling services to them. (Think of Washington DC, for example.)

Such cities produce few or no economic goods and rely on tax revenue, and when the state stops supporting them they wither away (unless they have developed a commercial or productive basis in the meanwhile). The exception is when a garrison city, or an administrative city hosting a police force, simply takes food from surrounding regions at swordpoint to support itself once the tax money dries up.

Cities and Power

As we noted above, cities can play multiple roles at once, and many do once they have existed long enough. But the initial location of a city is determined by its starting role; and once it takes root, it influences economic, political, and strategic changes around it. Cities are critical tools for the development of economic and political power, so where you put your cities will condition the conflicts that break out in your stories.


(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)