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For my story, I intend to include a city/civilization that is entirely 4 foot tall- with plants, greenery, walkways etc. on top of the connected 'houses'. This city is located in the middle of a desert, and derives its economy from trade through it. I was just wondering:

  • Whether it is plausible
  • Why they would have such short buildings
  • How the city would remain in this state indefinitely

I'd also like to keep this civilization's inhabitants as having a relatively normal height, if it's possible!

Edit: to be clear, I'd like to keep them without the ability of digging down. The aim of this is to create a sprawling mess of veryshort buildings, and I'd like to know how to achieve that.

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  • $\begingroup$ @OliFog Does the new requirement of not digging down invalidate my answer, or is a small amount of digging still acceptable? $\endgroup$ – Onyz Mar 14 '18 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ What's the purpose of a house if you can't fit inside? $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 14 '18 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ Solution: a century earlier a huge tax was implemented on all buildings above 4 feet... $\endgroup$ – Shadow1024 Mar 14 '18 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ I voted to reopen it due to there being no comments on what is unclear and the other votes already there - it's a nice question; although it might benefit from a paragraph or two explaining why you don't want the buildings taller than 4 feet and how you expect your people to live in buildings that are shorter than the average human :) $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Mar 14 '18 at 17:17
  • $\begingroup$ "with plants, greenery, walkways etc. on top of the connected 'houses'" - Could you go into a little bit more detail about what you mean here, or draw a picture? Do you envision the walkways being directly above the buildings, or "on top of," as in "very close to, intruding upon," or even above, but not directly above? $\endgroup$ – corvec Mar 14 '18 at 19:31

14 Answers 14

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You ask for a sprawling city with 4 foot tall structures (external), without the ability to dig to increase the internal height.

Whether it is plausible

As some have indicated in comments and other answers, people tend to live inside their homes, and as such they are constructed to fit people, and typically people will try to improve things past basic utility into comfort. In any culture you have a number of contributing factors such as security, tradition, and economics. We need to tweak these factors to produce an environment conducive to the maintain the status quo of tiny buildings.

But before we start in on those factors I'd like to start with two points:

  1. If you only retreat to your personal space to sleep, you do not need a lot of head room.
  2. The primary requirement for any shelter is not for comfort, but for protection from the elements. Small buildings will satisfy this basic need as well as (or in some environments even better than) taller ones.

Today, we have a sprawling city of four foot tall buildings, where the average adult can see very long distance in all directions. Most who live here today do not question it, for it has always been this way, but how did we get here to begin with?

Founding

Stepping back many many generations before any trade routes run through the area. We find a vast and barren wasteland of wind scoured granite fields resulting from a catastrophic natural (or magical if your world allows it) disaster. At the center of the stone fields we find some grand awe inspiring natural landmark formed as a result of the same event.

The first settlers in the area are ascetic monks come to worship at the landmark. They build their shelters with the minimal and poor quality natural resources available locally. Although the tiny hovels they can manage push the limits of their resources material strength (built any taller or any wider, the structures collapse under their own weight) they fit perfectly with the monks' lifestyles of self denial providing only shelter from the sun and wind.

Time passes and the environment begins to recover from the disaster, enabling it to support a larger population. Along with this recovery, the community grows, and as it does it becomes more formalized. Higher quality materials are retrieved to build more durable replacements for the original structures as well as additional ones for new arrivals; however, the mold has been struck for what is expected of the supplicants, and the replacements are no larger than the originals.

Generations Pass

More generations pass and the site draws the attention of others. The now well organized Order of the Landmark grows rich on the gifts brought by pilgrims which travel great distances to visit the now Holy Landmark.

Given the benefit of time and the care (and prosperity) of the Monks of The Order the area immediately surrounding The Landmark has recovered as much as can be expected from the disaster has become quite a pleasant place to live. With the exception of the middle of the day when the sun is highest in the sky, the climate is perfect to support a culture where people live the majority of their lives outdoors.

The riches and the pilgrims attract merchants and other residents to support the local tourist industry but The Order is still in control and issues an edict that "No permanent structure may obstruct the view of the Holy Landmark".

Although not an explicit height restriction, the practical result of the edict limits the height of buildings to below eye level of the average high ranking monk.

Minima Civitatis

As the city is the center of travel for the faithful from all directions, it naturally becomes a major center of commerce as well and The Order further enriches itself on taxes from trade.

Centuries of tradition enforced by the city's primary resident results in a society where most 'private residences' are limited to smaller sleeping quarters with most day to day activity taking place outdoors. Kitchens and areas where work is done will most likely be completely open air, or built to allow pop-up tent like roofs.

So why not down?

The entire settlement is built pretty much directly on bedrock. Digging into the stone is possible, and it will happen, but for most people it is not economical to do so to gain a little extra head room you don't need anyway.

That said, some digging will be required. Gutters and sewers become necessary to carry away human waste with settlements of any reasonable size to avoid disease.

Perhaps the city is littered with public outhouses (or trenches anyway), but these still need to lead somewhere.

Beyond public utility work like the sewers digging where it does happen will be for the homes of the wealthy, or for shared indoor community space where the benefit of the effort is shared by many.

Center of Trade?

As with the need for sewers, here your restriction against any digging becomes a problem which is likely to prevent it from becoming a center of trade.

Trade means product. Which means storage. More trade means more product and more storage. Which means warehouses. No sensible person is going to want to deal with warehouses with a 3 to 3 &1/2 foot interior. It would be impossible to store or retrieve anything efficiently. Trade is one of those areas where economies of scale really impacts things, and the height restrictions literally prevent any scale here.

If the height restriction stands, then warehouses will have to be one of the exceptions to the no digging rule for the city to become a trade center. Otherwise the warehouses will be built outside the city, along with the offices and businesses that handle the trade as well as the homes of the merchants themselves, and the people that work for them etc, etc. All forming perhaps a sister city to yours, but that city would become the center of trade and reap the direct benefits and riches associated with it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm going to accept this because of all the extra information/utility it gives me. Thanks so much! This 'Order' seems to eventually become more of a dictatorship than a religious circle- how would all this be enforced? Would the monks become militant? $\endgroup$ – Oli Fog Mar 15 '18 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ @OliFog The Order won't have to enforce it directly. It will get done in just the same ways any rules and laws are enforced anywhere. As a community gets big enough to need some sort of government to effectively manage it, the government will compartmentalize to focus on different services such as a police force, public works, etc. This includes approving what can be built where. The Order may or may not be a large part of the government, but in this case the city grew around this religion, the religion will influence the laws. $\endgroup$ – Mr.Mindor Mar 15 '18 at 21:01
  • $\begingroup$ If there is a mountain nearby, the warehouses could be contained inside caverns in the mountain and keep the 'no building over 4 feet' rule. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Grothe Mar 16 '18 at 23:17
  • $\begingroup$ Clever. But I don't think size restriction naturally kills trade. Since horizontal space is cheap in the desert, they might build low longhouses. And caravan trade can not carry large masses: They are not going to deal in wood or coal, rather in religious relics, exotic spices, gold, slaves, silk... So the avarage trader's goods would be quite small in their volume. $\endgroup$ – b.Lorenz Jun 2 '18 at 15:39
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1: Tent city.

http://ridgelineimages.com/musings/karasawa-tent-city/ tent city

These tents are four feet high, if that. The people of your city are from a culture of mobile pastoralists in a harsh climate. For hundreds of years they used small, wind resistant tents like this. When they settled they continued to live as their ancestors had - outside most of the day and then retiring to these small tents to sleep.

I had thought maybe constraints of building materials might be a reason for short buildings. But igloos, sod huts and wigwams all can be bigger. It is these mountain tents that are small.


2: The city was not built for the current inhabitants.

https://sprech4.deviantart.com/art/The-Nameless-City-Part-1-204543739 the nameless city

http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/nc.aspx

Very low and sand-choked were all of the dark apertures near me, but I cleared one with my spade and crawled through it, carrying a torch to reveal whatever mysteries it might hold. When I was inside I saw that the cavern was indeed a temple, and beheld plain signs of the race that had lived and worshipped before the desert was a desert. Primitive altars, pillars, and niches, all curiously low, were not absent; and though I saw no sculptures nor frescoes, there were many singular stones clearly shaped into symbols by artificial means. The lowness of the chiselled chamber was very strange, for I could hardly more than kneel upright; but the area was so great that my torch shewed only part at a time. I shuddered oddly in some of the far corners; for certain altars and stones suggested forgotten rites of terrible, revolting, and inexplicable nature, and made me wonder what manner of men could have made and frequented such a temple. When I had seen all that the place contained, I crawled out again, avid to find what the other temples might yield.

Your city was very robustly built of stone by a long vanished prehuman race. It was found abandoned by the current human occupants, but the buildings were solid and excellently suited for the desert locale. Stones for building came from elsewhere and so the only available stone for any new construction is that of the buildings themselves. The human residents of the city consider it unwise to disassemble these preternaturally robust structures and so they are used as they are, unmodified.

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    $\begingroup$ As for your second option, rather than unwise I'd say it was an aspect of their religion; since they are used to the desert (which "punishes" every waste), they consider every "gift" a sacred thing. So when they discover this city, they perceive it as a gift from the desert, and so they cannot think of disassembling it $\endgroup$ – frarugi87 Mar 15 '18 at 8:24
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Real Example: Makhunik

enter image description here

What you're looking for is the ancient Iranian city of Makhunik.

The city is full of very short buildings for two reasons, both of which are related it it's location / geography.

People settled in a very harsh environment - therefore they had little in the way of building materials. All stone or wood for construction had to be painstaking hauled in from remote locations, which led to a very minimalist style of construction. Approximately one third of the buildings are less than 6 feet tall, with the shortest ceilings at around 4.5 feet.

Additionally, the remote location and harsh climate lead to malnutrition. People living there were very short, some full grown adults were only ~3 feet tall. Of note, this is NOT dwarfism. Modern populations descending from this population are normal height. They city was simply pushing the boundary of sustainable nutrition.

So a desert city of very small buildings actually makes perfect sense, if they are living at the very edge of habitability.

Most of the info for this post is shamelessly stolen from a BBC travel article.

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Build Down.

4-foot tall buildings are really much too short for 'relatively normal height' people, especially if they're planning on accommodating totally normal height or higher traders. Thankfully, you can dig a few feet down into the ground and embed your structures slightly underground.

But why Bother?

You're in a desert. By having the buildings be partially embedded in the sandstone, you can maintain airflow while minimizing contact with the sun. Speaking of airflow, it's a good thing the buildings have such a low profile, since the area is so windy all the time! If the buildings were much taller, they'd be in danger of much more serious erosion from the strong winds in the desert. (See where I'm going with this?)

When they need more room, they can expand down, or to any of the four sides. There are plenty of examples in the real world, even.

What about trade and transport?

If you're okay with having gaps wide enough in the streets for foot traffic + carts, you could have some standard sandstone roads, and cover them with some fabric or tarp of some kind. You could even potentially gather the water run-off from the rain on these tarps as a bit of water supply, though likely you'll need to end up relying on underground wells for the majority of your water.

I hope this helps. :)

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! I'll wait for some other answers first before I accept this one. Also, how would trade with carts/transport work in this city- would roads also be embedded in the ground, or is there another way to put this infrastructure in? $\endgroup$ – Oli Fog Mar 14 '18 at 12:07
  • $\begingroup$ Definitely embedded in the ground, though you'd need some sort of cover that is higher than the rest of the roofs in the city. Tarps would be suitably flexible, I would think, while still keeping the sun at bay. $\endgroup$ – Onyz Mar 14 '18 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ regarding the roads... What is the difference between 6 foot buildings and 4 foot buildings surrounded by roads dug 2 into the ground? $\endgroup$ – Mr.Mindor Mar 14 '18 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Mr.Mindor Practically speaking there really isn't much of a difference, but OP wanted 4ft tall houses and this seems (to me) to be the most practical way of achieving it. $\endgroup$ – Onyz Mar 14 '18 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ Dig steps from the road down the bottom of the door. Or just have low doors to go with the low roof and step down in. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Mar 15 '18 at 14:23
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What about protection from enemies (of a different species) or wild beasts. If you've ever been in a large indoor playground you soon realise that the 3-4 foot high ceiling force an adult to crawl slowly but a child can run.

So the perfect height might be about 4-5 feet. Kids can easily run and adults can still run if they bend over a little. But an 8 foot intruder in the home would have a hard time moving around. This would be especially true if they are built like a giraffe. Narrow body that can fit through a human width door but legs that don't bend well.

Also, having all the buildings 4 feet tall means a 6 foot person can easily see over the roofs of the buildings and know when danger is approaching.

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Fundamentally what you are asking for makes no sense assuming these inhabitants in any way resemble humans.

Homes are built to be comfortable for the inhabitants. Rooms are built to a size that allows you to comfortably move around and store/use what needs to be stored and used.

You need to come up with an over-riding reason why they must build the houses this small (which is likely to seem very contrived considering they can just dig down), you need to make them quadrupreds (in which case a human sized creature would be comfortable in a 4' dwelling, or you need to make them smaller.

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    $\begingroup$ Homes are built to keep people alive first. Comfort second. See my answer for a real-world example of a 'short' town. $\endgroup$ – codeMonkey Mar 14 '18 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ @codeMonkey While an excellent example - you'll note that it also says that some of the buildings were 6' tall and that a lot of the inhabitants were as short as 3' tall. It seems likely (admittedly based on no evidence) that the taller buildings were built for or used by taller occupants. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Mar 15 '18 at 17:44
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They live outdoors

The inhabitants of this city spend nearly all of their time outdoors, only going indoors to sleep (or maybe to take shelter from sandstorms and the like), and maybe have other buildings used just for storage.

The climate of the area is such that the majority of the rain falls at night when the air cools down enough to allow condensation, so they only crawl into bed at night because no one likes to be rained on when they sleep.

This being the case, and due to the lack of tall trees, construction materials are difficult to come by and so they never really saw the need to build taller buildings.

Despite being a desert, the heat is not so uncomfortable that the citizens would need to take shelter from it (and again if so, maybe this is usually limited to certain times of day, during which they may take a siesta).

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They could live in an area where the sand keeps them from building downward and very strong winds that keep them from building up. You kinda need to reduce their height or I wouldn't see a reason for them not trying harder to dig down or find another place to live.

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Whether it is plausible

As mentioned in another answer, some kind of tent structures or igloos could make it work. I'm assuming a city might have roads. So perhaps people ride around in recumbent bikes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recumbent_bicycle

Or maybe they crawl around, you never specified if they have to be bi-pedal. This would also make their anatomy change over time, you think? They are same like human, but more adapt at crawling around. Perhaps they all have a serious hunched back.

Why they would have such short buildings

Perhaps something to do with the atmosphere. I could only suggest an idea to give a reason for why they would have short buildings. Maybe there is some kind of gas in the air that sets just above 4 feet in the atmosphere. Perhaps it's deadly? Or perhaps it causes some kind of erosion/corrosion to buildings? Maybe this is why they build short buildings. How you would work that into your world to line up with everything else, I don't know. Perhaps the basis of another question.

How the city would remain in this state indefinitely

I think that's entirely up to you to decide. Do you think a city like this can survive and function properly for that long? They will have some serious limitations.

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Religion
The population has some religious belief that requires a form of supplication or penance so that they must never be walking straight up when indoors. This belief would be enforced with a law that structures cannot be above a certain height.

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I think it could be reasonable, given certain circumstances. Maybe there are high powered winds that would shear the roof off of any normal sized building, and the ground could be hard stone or some other dense material. I can see it in both a fantasy and a sci-fi setting, with sort of hobbit style society for fantasy and extraterrestrial colony for sci-fi.

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I read recently about an aircraft factory that was camouflaged with under-height buildings, trees, cars, etc. to hide it from air attack. This seems to answer most of your requirements, although people did not live or work the buildings. Everything happened underneath.

Here's an article with a slide show: https://www.seattletimes.com/business/boeing-aerospace/from-the-archives-how-boeing-hid-its-bomber-factory/

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The giants have mechanical push reel mowers, that destroy everything over 4 feet high. and the city is located on a diamond plate eight miles wide, covered with 6 inches of hardpacked topsoil. The trees have shallow root systems and are acacias, ash, beech, birch, cypress, desert willow, elm, eucalyptus, maple, mesquite, mulberry, pepper tree, poplar and sycamores. The giants find a uniform lawn attractive.

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Building materials.

To build a house 5m across you need a beam the same length. In the desert trees of any form are rare. The standard building material is a type of cactus that grows about the size of a single man tent.

To build a house you hollow out the body then pile a mixture of wet clay and straw on top (the spikes help it adhere). After a few months in the desert sun the cactus rots away and the soil compactifies into a self-supporting mudbrick material. Larger structures are made by building these compartments next to each other.

Cultural standards

In the desert it's a given you can see for miles in any direction. Which is good for looking for predators or your missing herd of oryx. The four foot city does not block view and the culture develops to pretend the two things are related.

When I find a very rare six-foot cactus and decide to make an extension on my house, the first piece of gossip my neighbors come out with is not 'is blocks my light' but 'it blocks the view'. There is a stigma attached to taller structures and this keeps them down.

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