World Building #4


Do-It-Yourself Political Geography

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Now you have a world. If your adventurers are just going to explore wilderness full of primitive tribes, go to it! On the other hand, if you are going to have civilizations, then you have to have cities, civitas, and cities do not spring up just anywhere, at random. Cities are living entities and require certain basics to stay alive. Some grandiose kings have decided to build new capitals on virgin ground, but most of these have faded back to wasteland when the power of the king to force people to live there waned.

What Makes a City?

First off, cities do not need a high technology. The earliest cities were Middle Stone Age, Late Mesolithic, predating even the development of agriculture. They weren't as big as ag-supported cities, but cities have grown and shrunk independent of agriculture -- a good point to remember.

The reason most cities come into existence is trade (the notable exceptions are Central American cities, below). They first spring up at the crossing of trade routes. Trade routes run along the path of least resistance between two sources of goods. So traders will not hike over the mountains if the plains are an easier path, unless there are extenuating circumstances, like zero water in the plains balanced by a not too-difficult mountain pass. For thousands of years, though, traders have packed water for themselves and their beasts or dug hundred-meter-deep wells rather than climb unnecessarily.

Jericho, the oldest known city, is at the junction of routes trading Baltic amber for African ochre, and the western terminus of the trade in obsidian, carnelian, and lapis lazuli from the Persian highlands. In a stone-age culture, stone is valuable. Equally, in North America, which remained Stone Age until the Europeans brought hard metals, copper from the Great Lakes was traded for shells from the Pacific coast and jade from deep in the Yucatan. Tracing the network of pre-Columbian trade-trails is a fascination for many, professional scholars as well as hobbyists. (However, note that cities didn't quite develop: wait until later for why.)

London sits at the lowest fordable point on the Thames river. Overseas ships could travel up the Thames this far, while traders from either side of the valley could cross here. The same applies to Rome, Paris, and a number of other cities. By the time a culture has boats, which is at least Neolithic agricultural technology, water travel is easier than land travel, especially for massed goods, so cities become very oriented to harbors and rivers, unless they are on the inland caravan trails.

Simply, you don't get a grand, gigantic city in the middle of nowhere, to which no one ever travels. You may have a small city, the remnant of other times, in which the survivors of the culture huddle. However, the average person does not get any joy from squatting in the shadow of past glory. They will only stay as long as they are forced to. The middle class, dependent on trade, decamps the soonest. The commoners trickle away, looking for greener pastures, and the remnants of the upper classes either then migrate for want of a lower class to supply their needs, or take up a different way of life, like banditry. Cities shrunken to villages dot Mesopotamia and China.

Not infrequently the abandonment takes place very quickly, leaving ghost cities like those of the Maya in Central America or the Khymers in Southeast Asia.

Water First

Always, cities need water enough for their populations. Cities have died when wells dried and rivers changed their courses away.

That's another reason the greatest cities used to be on rivers: water. Caravan cities like Samarkand drink from a vast number of wells (see #2 on springs and wells). If going in a straight line across the desert means no water, the caravan trail will curve and jog to go oasis to oasis. Determined merchants or local entrepreneurs will dig wells to fill in gaps. When a very water-logged aquifer is found, a lot of wells can be dug, farms set up as well as caravanserais, and a city begun.

Once a city has developed, it may outgrow its water supplies if and only if the technology figures out viaducts or other means to easily transport huge amounts of water from somewhere nearby. Viaducts are basically a form of artificial river that can cross valleys in a raised channel, going right from one ridge to the opposite one without getting caught in the gravitational trap of the valley.

Feeding the Rabble

Food can be imported and in great quantities. Normally, though, if there is enough water for the population, some area around the city will have irrigated farming. Caravan cities make a business selling caravans fodder for their animals. If they can manage hay-making in nearby mountain valleys, they will. This, as well as a greater likelihood of water, is why caravan cities of Central Asia stick to the south, on the northern rim of the mountain mass that includes the Himalayas.

If a city, as a center of political administration and markets for skilled craftsmen, becomes overpopulated, it may become dependent on imported food. Rome certainly did. In its heyday any interruption of the annual grain fleets from Egypt resulted in sky-rocketing wheat prices and famine in the lower classes. When London in its turn was the largest city in the world, not only was grain shipped up the Thames from Europe but Kentish produce constantly came in on the roads, especially livestock. A road leading to London could be frequently blocked with flocks and herds being driven to the city butchers. Turkeys could be driven in herds, unlike chickens, and for the trek would have their feet dipped in tar to give them a protection like shoes.

Such a city, if fully beseiged, is going to have famine problems sooner than a smaller one whose lord may actually be able to keep supplies ahead for quite a bit of the population. These sort of vast, unwalled megalopoli will not be city-states. They will be capitals of nations, surrounded by lots of friendly territory and with no way for enemies to easily strike at them by sea, either.

Sea-side Property

This didn't used to be too well thought of. If you look at the age of coastal big cities, they are almost all modern, like many in the various European colonies (San Francisco, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Sydney, Melbourne). Traditionally, the big city was up a river estuary with a smaller, dependent port on the sea: Rome and Oporto, Athens and Piraeus; or completely an estuarial port: Quebec, London, Paris.

You can already guess this has to do with fresh water and trade trails, but the main one involves security. If you're right on the coast, you can be hit repeatedly by pirates. Either you build from the beginning great fortifications that can stand them off (Tyre, Havana, Marseilles) or you will be hit by them so often that you will never develop the wealth to be a big city. This is one of the major reasons the attempted Spanish cities around the Caribbean stayed small and poor: the pirates of the Spanish Main. When the area got too poor and too well-patrolled (about 1700), piracy largely shifted to the rich pickings of the Indian Ocean trade, attacking Indian cities and their mercantile fleets.

Sometimes, though, the natural port is so great it can't be resisted as a harborage. In that case, it would be very silly not to give it big walls, a fleet of fast ships to fight off war fleets and pirates, and a great citadel. No city could survive in a middle tech world without them in that sort of locale.

Non-traditional Cities

In the Americas, you will find a non-traditional city form: the ceremonial center.

Trade in North and Central America was very small scale, limited to luxury goods. The trade trails were extensive, so that Pacific abalone shells were swapped for Guatemalan quetzal feathers and Great Lakes copper, but the volume was limited to what a trader could carry. Cities did not grow up on trade routes, any more than the old Irish ever built cities (cities were an idea brought in by Norse settlers, who founded Dublin). Not every culture goes to cities.

Rather, in the Mayan realms of Central America, city sites were selected to be in the middle of virgin lands (this is the trad explanation taught me in college). While the people were clearing brush or jungle for fields, they were also building those temples and pyramids. Because of the slash-and-burn method of farming, and the thin limestone soil, the fields would wear out. To support the population accrued, more and more jungle would have to be cleared, farther and farther out. Farmers can't live very far from their fields, or there isn't time to walk there and back as well as do the work. When the land played out, the cities closed down. The population, farmers, priests, and nobles, moved elsewhere. It may also be that the development of satellite villages near the far fields resulted in a breakdown of the hold of the noble priests on the populace.

This ceremonial center is reflected in North America, in the Mound Builder culture. The building here primarily was in earth, rather than stone, but each of them required that a great many people gather to dig soil and move it in baskets. We suppose that they met again at the mounds for festivals and ceremonies, and did not live too far from them, though without an architecturally distinct nobility. They do seem to have had one, as concepts of noble and common are frequent in tribes along the Mississippi.


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THE ETERNAL CITY: Do-It-Yourself Political Geography

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