THE USUAL OMISSIONS
The lack of interesting topographies, and natural geographies, can also hurt virtual cities. A featureless landscape is boring, and, besides, dramatic topography makes orientation easier. Topography has also been crucial in historically determining urban shapes, structures, and location, and can thus act as a strong world- building tool, as differences in elevation can be associated with class, ridges can shape defences, and picturesque hills can add charm.
While flat cities do exist, homogeneous ones do not. All urban centres are divided (whether porously or with clearly defined borders) in a multitude of ways according to class, land use or prevalent activity, architecture, proximity to sub-centres or centres, construction age, and even – if applicable – relative position to the walls. Obviously, districts can combine activities: industry can appear in poorer residential zones, exclusive marketplaces in posh areas, and guild halls next to Papal palaces.
One of the crucial elements imaginary cities commonly lack is a hinterland: a wider natural or man-made geography.
Cities, you see, do not exist in a vacuum. They are parts of kingdoms, empires, states, and federations. They exist in particular climates, are connected to other settlements, and influenced by geopolitics. What’s more, their tissue always rests on a functioning infrastructure (glimpses of which make them more believable), and they should include public spaces, street furniture such as benches, dumpsters, or lights, and of course dominant constructions like cathedrals, palaces, or corporate headquarters to express local ideology.
A work in progress
Cities are always dynamic works in progress. Created by complicated histories, they are the battlegrounds of classes and social groups, and the places of countless human interactions, and this dynamism has to be reflected in the built environment. So, mix old and new buildings of varying styles, have your central temple be under construction, and remember that the average life-expectancy of a New York City building is less than 25 years. Think of gentrification, of how lofts changed their function in a couple of decades, or of how radically a square might reinvent itself for a major festival. Have cranes, and images of construction infuse your cities with a sense
of history in the making, and always keep in mind that all settlements have histories; histories that have to be researched, possibly made up, and carefully layered.
Fantasy Wells, Medieval Waters
Providing people with drinking water has defined the locations and infrastructure of cities for millennia, and yet the vast majority of fantasy towns (often inspired by medieval urbanism) seem to ignore this fundamental need. There are no wells or aqueducts (not even springs nor close-by rivers) to be found, even if these are crucial elements for a settlement’s survival, and also important places for gossip, conversation, and trading. If wells feel banal, how about water merchant caravans, magical humidity catchers, geysers surrounded by temples, and tanks, cisterns, and pools to preserve rainwater in?
Naming Gone Bad
Just as the names City 17, Rapture, Oneiropolis, and Raccoon City instantly set a tone and evoke an initial image, naming your city ‘The City’ will probably put people off, or at least fail to intrigue them. Such naming feels rushed, dull, and is sadly overdone; it is though still better (and safer) than using something obviously Latin to describe a Chinese town. Oh, and please don’t overuse the cyberpunk trope of Neo New York, Neo Tokyo and New London. It has been done to death, and civic naming never worked like that. York, for example, did not eventually become New York.