Guest Post: Building Cities by Paul R. Davis
I’m addicted to city builders. I thought about this the other day when I started playing Folk Tale, a fantasy city builder still in alpha stages, and suddenly it was 1am. When I was little we would play SimCity on the SNES. Then Godzilla became a permanent resident and burned that mother down. I’ve played Cities XL, Cities: Skylines, Tropico, and countless other games, from fantasy to science fiction. Building cities, whether it’s in a video game or my own writing, is a bit of an addiction for me.
Cities are living and breathing characters in the story. Just like a character, they should have hurdles, goals, growth, or tragic stagnation. A story can forgo this, have a cookie cutter setting, and still work. However, a living city makes it easier for the reader to live in that book. Here are some tips on how to make sure your city pops.
1. Why people build cities
Europe was cracking down on different religions. Jews, Protestants, Catholics, the list goes on. They were all being persecuted in one country or another. They sailed across the sea. Most died. The few who succeeded created an incredible nation with the goal of numerous freedoms in light of the persecutions they faced.
Gangsters wanted a place to relax. They wanted to build a paradise where they could partake in all sorts of sordid activities, including convincing people to willingly hand over their money. It was an absurd plan of greed and opulence. This is how Las Vegas became the location it is today. Vice and crime are high, the city is dirty, but it’s so easy to get lost in the beautiful structures, bright lights, and well-displayed women.
The reason someone settled your city often determines how the city starts out and the foundation it’s built on. It often shows up in the future. In the case of Las Vegas, despite it being a city of glitz, you can still see the natives who settled before. You can visit sites of the Mormons who were fleeing persecution.
2. Where people build cities
You have the why, but what about the where? Most cities have one thing in common: water. They are built on coasts or waterways. This is crucial for trade, especially in an age before trains and planes. Even today, it’s a hallmark of major cities: New York City, Chicago, LA, St. Louis.
Next would be looking for a resource. Food is the most important resource next to water. Can they grow wheat? What about fishing? Is there an abundance of animals they can domesticate, or did they bring some of their own? They have to solidify their food supply. In games like Tropico, Settlers, and Folk Tale, the first thing you do is set up your food chain. When food is no longer a concern, you can start looking into your amenities such as cigars, soap, or beer.
After that are the resources which will forge the future of the city. They are the economic purpose going forward. If they can harvest an abundance of seafood or crops, this can become their staple. Virginia became known for their tobacco, and their fields were filled with the broad, fragrant leaves.
In Cities XL, I found a property rich in oil. As I wasn’t nearly as worried with water, and I wasn’t at all worried about food, oil was life. I built massive oil fields. Industry was built around them. Meanwhile, commercial and residential properties were far away and the two built in opposite directions. Oil isn’t exactly a clean or quiet industry. Every other need we had was met through trading that oil. Money flowed in as if by magic, and I used it to build up a strong infrastructure. Eventually oil dries up.
Why did your people go to that location? What resources did they come with? Was it rushed or planned out? How will that affect the way they structure the city?
3. Cities have scars
In SimCity, being around eight, we were destructive. You had about half an hour to build your city. Maybe an hour. You built fast and furious. Once your time was up? Someone else was given the controller. Godzilla reigned supreme. Downtown was ripped to shreds. You lost emergency services. To be fair, there was no coming back from it. The scar was simply too deep.
When catastrophic events happen, cities become crippled. Even if they bounce back, there are often signs of the transgression, even generations later. Catastrophes lead to holidays, memorials, parks, and other signs of observance.
It can also lead to new laws. The Cocoanut Grove fire is why there are doors on either side of a revolving door. It also altered many other safety regulations. It left a horrifying scar on both the city and the nation, one deep enough to briefly overshadow World War II.
4. City Cycle: Growth
The city cycle is basically the economic cycle, but for cities. They grow, they stagnate, and then they change and grow, or remain the same and die.
Cities start in growth. Maybe they found gold. Perhaps a railroad is coming through. There are plenty of workers who have money, there are merchants selling them goods at a higher cost, and there are families moving. Everyone requires services, and soon a city is growing around it.
This is usually based on the resource they have in abundance. For my example, I’ll use Tropico. I built up a city based on coffee and tobacco. Both sell well, I eventually built factories to turn them into canned coffee and cigars. The highest paying jobs on the island consisted of farmers and factory workers based in this industry. From there, I am constantly building tenements, schools, clinics, and other infrastructure. My people have a pretty decent life.
Why is your city growing? What could lead to more growth if it’s not?
5. City Cycle: The lie of stagnation
Inflation is about 3%. If a company is growing 3%, they are not actually growing, but riding inflation. If they are growing 0%, someone else is claiming their shares as they are realistically shrinking 3%. More importantly, there is a reason for stagnation, and stagnation is the sign of death.
A real life example would be a city reliant on a factory. This factory creates LANdline phones. In case you were unaware, LANdline phones aren’t big items anymore. At a certain point they started getting replaced with the cellular phone. One morning they woke up and saw growth was flat, and they had to make a decision: move into the future or die.
In Tropico, now and then they give prompts to alter commerce parameters. Suddenly tobacco and coffee products are down 50%. Due to the high pay of those workers, I’m losing money on the production lines, so I significantly decrease their pay. This means they cannot pay their rent, but I can’t afford to make rent free. It also means they can’t afford food, and so they end up dying. As I’m bleeding money and citizens, as well as cultivating a healthy rebellion, I have a decision to make.
The way to come out of stagnation is change. LANdline companies start making cell phones. My dictatorship flips the fields to bananas or destroys them. There is a beach on the other side of the island, so I invest in tourism before my funds are too low. Suddenly I’m a booming vacation spot and I’m back on the growth city cycle.
What resource, if devalued or dried up, could lead to stagnation in your city? How would they deal with it? Would they deal with it?
6. City Cycle: Decline
There is no greater representative of decline than the mining or railroad towns. The city is booming. It’s a stop for trains or it’s a rich mining vein. Then there’s another city the train can go through which has better resources. The vein runs dry. You can see these ghost towns all over the west.
Crime, lack of resources, lack of infrastructure, all of these things can lead to the decline. Staunching the bleeding caused by these effects is what lets a city swing back up into growth. Refusing or ineffectively dealing with the issue is what leads to the fall of cities, such as these ghost towns.
Is your city in a decline? What caused it? Can it return from the decline or is it too late?
7. The living city
Final bit of advice. Cities are always moving. In Tropico, I have at least three foundations for future structures at any given time, waiting to be built, or halfway built. If you visit Austin, you will see cranes everywhere you look as they build up the booming metropolis. If you play a GTA game, as there is no one in the gaming world better at building cities, you will always see construction all over the city, from simple road repairs to half built skyscrapers.
In a declining city you will see the opposite. Buildings are dilapidated. Some are burned down or vandalized, with new tags every time someone drives by. Something is regularly failing and needing repair.
Whether it’s growing and building new structures or declining and ripping them down, the city is always alive, and noting this will make readers more invested.
What construction is occurring within your city? What structures are breaking and need fixing?