I'm having trouble with a city in my fantasy world. My primary difficulty arises from the fact that most of the city-building resources I could find assumed that the city grew organically from a small village or an advantageous location. However, the capitol city in my fantasy was planned as a political and religious center from the time of its inception, and it's very difficult for me to conceive how everything should be placed.

As I said, the city began as a political and religious center, but has grown fairly organically since its first stages. Its geography is fairly simple - it's situated a little ways inland from a protected southern coast, with a river that flows through it to the sea. Two other towns flank it. The three were originally separate, but the capitol has grown outward and the edges have all merged. Most or all of the ports are located in the two adjoining towns, but most trading goes on in the capitol itself.

I have already considered that the most important political and religious landmarks would be in the center of the city, near the river. But as for where to put the rest of it - gates, banks, parks, neighborhoods, shops, workshops, stables, locations unique to my storyworld - I have no idea. Obviously the older city would be built more carefully and organized more neatly than the newer city, but other than that, I have nothing.

As for resources, the most helpful thing I've found is the Cartographer's Guild Guide to Creation and Depiction of Fantasy Cities. I also have a copy of The Pattern Language, but haven't begun to make much use of either, since I would prefer to have more specific resources at hand before I begin.

Can anyone:

  • give me some ideas about where various types of buildings would be placed?
  • recommend some historical cities that are similar to mine?
  • point me toward some resources about city planning?
  • help me understand how the layout of the city would change as it goes from planned to organic development?

If more information is needed, I'm happy to try to provide it.

  • $\begingroup$ Actually, older cities are less organized since they grow out from a few randomly placed hovels into complex living-places. $\endgroup$
    – Jax
    Mar 13, 2015 at 22:23
  • $\begingroup$ Usually even planned cities have sections outside them where organic growth happens. Like the vicus towns outside Roman Forts. The forts were planned, the vicus not so much. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Mar 13, 2015 at 23:45
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Washington, DC and Brasilia are planned cities just like that. $\endgroup$ Mar 14, 2015 at 4:19
  • $\begingroup$ Also, Indianapolis. $\endgroup$
    – Drigan
    Aug 9, 2018 at 15:59

5 Answers 5


A valuable question, with some pretty cool answers so far; but the question's got a lot of missing parts.

You haven't given us a whole lot of information about this. The answers so far make some pretty broad assumptions about your world; I'm guessing that those assumptions are probably reasonably good, but I want to call out some worldbuilding basics anyway.

Note that I am not going to address the aesthetic and purely creative aspects of your imagined world and realm and city. This is only an inquiry into the underlying mechanisms of reasoning.

This may be helpful. Considering the underlying realities can often ignite chains of thought that end up stimulating the creative imagination. Hopefully, this could do that.

However, I don't want to make you overthink the issue. Please ignore all of this if it doesn't help you.

OK. Here's a distillation of what you are telling us:

  • It's a fantasy world.

  • The city was planned as a political and religious center. Unpacking this, we can infer that

    • There's organized religion in your world.

    • Presumably the religious organization has reached a power-sharing accommodation with the political authority.

  • "Its geography is fairly simple - it's situated a little ways inland from a protected southern coast, with a river that flows through it to the sea. Two other towns flank it. The three were originally separate, but the capitol has grown outward and the edges have all merged. Most or all of the ports are located in the two adjoining towns, but most trading goes on in the capitol itself."

I'm not asking that you disclose any parts of your secondary world, but here are some very key questions. If you don't want to answer them for us - which perhaps you shouldn't - then at least perhaps you can ponder them yourself. Hopefully they can push you into thinking more deeply and precisely about the design of your city.

What impact would your fantasy elements have?

This is the big one, I think.

"Fantasy", as a genre, implies systems of magic and/or semi-transcendent nonhuman actors.

Sometimes these fantasy elements are not very consequential in terms of the shape and systems of the world: they are aesthetic elements, or plot drivers, but they don't really affect the generalities of ecology, politics, economics, and culture. They leave the worldbuilder free to proceed from close correspondences with historical precedent.

On the other hand, there are many kinds of circumstances and mechanisms of fantasy that will affect your world in a very significant way. If your concept of fantasy includes elements that will impact they way your world wags, then you will need to account for it.

Some purely invented examples (not, as far as I know, applicable to your world - just questions about how this can work) of how fantasy elements can modify your worldbuilding:

  • Are there populations (Elves, say; or Druids with the ability to make their curses bite; or dryads; or Ents; or whatever...) that make it difficult to clear forests for agriculture, or to build with timber?

  • Is there an age-old polytheistic clash between divinities of the Hunt and divinities of Agriculture? (e.g. Cernunnos vs. Ceres?) This is much more important than it sounds: Hunting-gathering and Agriculture are two very distinct, and mostly incompatible, modes of human ecology. Any fantasy element that sustains and supports the former is going to reduce the population of humans, because food surpluses per acre will be diminished.

  • Is there conflict between wizards and church? This is a staple theme in fantasy worlds, and it will create a fierce distortion in the politics of the arcane.

  • Are there formidable modes of mind-altering magic in your world? This can wreak havoc on the normal patterns of politics. (To take a trivial yet telling example: if you have practitioners of sexual magic, they could potentially exert enormous influence over the most powerful people. To say nothing of the ability to provide whatever sexual gratification an individual craves most, the blackmail possibilities would be absolutely splendid from an author's point of view.)

    • It can create a new kind, or class, of politically powerful individuals; you will need to work out who they are, and what their relations with other power centers will be.

    • Even if the end result is that the "Usual Suspects (the ordinarily wealthy and powerful in this sort of society) still come out on top, you have to deal with the change to their modes of exerting power.

  • Is your magic "technological"? Do you posit wind-mages who could improve the economics of sailing vessels? Is there magic that will purify sewage? That will lift heavy weights into place more cheaply than gangs of men and animals with cranes and derricks?

    All of these things will change many aspects of your city, because they change building techniques, cultural predispositions, concentrations of economic power, etc.

    And I'm not even going to discuss the possibilities of battle magic, since it's often considered here on Worldbuilding.SE - but you will certainly have to consider it.

Now, having briefly looked at merely the possible impacts of your notions of magic, let's look at some other fundamentals.

What's your climate?

Most older empires flourished in the warmer latitudes. In Medieval times, colder climates rose to parity, or even superseded the older warmlands as centers of cultural power. Answering this question will make a huge difference in your question of cities:

  • Do your city planners need to deal with ice and snow in winter?

  • Is it hot, so you need to build heavy masonry structures that stay cool in the daytime - and with flat roofs for summer nights? Or is it cold, so you need pitched roofs for shedding snow? These different kinds of building techniques will do a lot to drive the nature of the city.

  • Rainfall is very important. How much water flows through the city? How much of it is rain runoff, and how much is directed river flow? Are there canals for drinking water? Canals for sewage?

  • What kind of plants and animals are on hand? Draft animals tend to govern a lot of the expectations about street size and bridge construction.

What's your human ecology?

Every civilization, great or small, pivots on one specific question:

Where does the food surplus come from?

What source of food provides a sufficient surplus? Presumably agriculture? How is it organized? Big slave-worked plantations? Smaller farms intermediated by a network of markets? Trade? (I know "trade" might seem ridiculously unstable, but it worked for Byzantium for centuries... and it works for us in the modern day as well. Ahem.)

Pastoralism - domesticating herd animals instead of plants - seldom seems to scale well to empire-level organizations. Yes, Gengis Khan's empire was the largest the world has ever seen: but it fell apart pretty quickly after he himself died.

You could, of course, make a case for a pastoral civilization without a lot of agriculture; but that would be a lot of heavy lifting, and you didn't hint at anything of the kind in the original question.

What level of technology does your world have?

Technologies of farm and building; technologies of weaponry and ships; do your metalsmiths work with poured bronze, a village blacksmith's forge. or blast furnaces? (Or tame/captive dragons?) Do you have the arch, or are your buildings post and lintel? Can you fire ceramics? Do you have the potter's wheel? What about weaving, spinning, knitting? The wool of which animals, or perhaps fibers from seeds or plants (flax, linen, hemp)?

What about brewing beer, viniculture, distillation of strong drink? Other mind-altering substances?

Leatherworking? Animal care? (Not just veterinary care, but things like farrier work, taking care of tack and harness, and merely handling the animals - I personally have 3 horses and it has taken me years to reach the point of being able to safely handle a 1000-pound animal who could easily kill me by accident.)


For that matter, you never characterized your world sufficiently to tell us that it's preindustrial! Again, it probably is; you would likely have mentioned it if you intended a steampunk or dieselpunk or postindustrial world. Still, that would add a whole new set of possibilities. :-)

And on and on and on...

What are your nation's politics?

Is this an empire (a political organization that obtains the wealth of subject peoples?)

Is it a kingdom?

Is it a city-state - a polis such as those of Classical Greece? Doesn't sound like it, but you never know. :-)

Is it a parliamentary democracy? A republic?

Is it a trading association (such as the Hanseatic League?)

Note that all of these forms of government tend to generate different kinds of civic layout and architecture. As a general rule, when thinking about what roads, bridges and canals get built; what buildings get located where; who inhabits the nice neighborhoods; and who lives in the slums, you will want to begin with the distribution of political power.

That this is a "planned" city does not change that basic calculus. The plans will be governed according to political influence.

What is your religion like?

Unless you plan on basically transplanting an historical model (medieval Islam, Zen/Shinto, 19th-centurey Victorian British Christianity, etc) with its assumptions, you need to think about the impacts of your religion.

Starting with its nature: Is this a polytheistic religion (like Egypt's, or early Rome's, or Shinto) or a monotheistic religion (like Medieval Christianity)? The answer to this has a lot to say about the internal distribution of power within the religious community, and presumably therefore the distribution of sacred architecture within the city.

Also, a monotheistic religion will be likelier to ignite crusades. Historically, "official" polytheism would sanction whatever the political leadership declared, but was not in general an activist tradition.

It was the monotheistic belief systems (which, oddly, all sort of got going circa 600 BCE in places as far apart as China, India, Asia Minor, and Judea) that turned out to be set up to stoke religious wars.

This is an aspect of belief systems that will have a lot of impact on your city and its enclosing civilization. The Church Militant (of any sufficiently chauvinistic belief system) is a much beloved worldbuilding device, presumably because the polytheists don't tend to provide the same grand sweep of historical activism.

There is one more question about your religion: Is it existential?

In other words, is this a system of belief that manifests itself as states of human consciousness, or do your god(s) actually exist within your secondary world?

This is an extremely important question.

How old is this city?

You said it was planned. How long ago? How long did the various parts of the plan take to complete? How many of the planned design elements were modified over time before completion? How much was abandoned?

Your city is a snapshot in time, after the original ideas and plans were made. It really matters whether it was initially built 100 years ago, or 500, or 800, or...

Well, that's probably way too long to be a helpful answer. But then again, perhaps it will add a little bit of illumination. :-)

  • $\begingroup$ Possibly a bit long and maybe out of scope for the question as asked, but it's a wonderful starting checklist for city-building. I really wonder if this Stack Exchange could use stronger compilation methods than tags/community wiki... $\endgroup$
    – Emmett R.
    Mar 16, 2015 at 13:57

Most cities will develop organically. It is possible to grow a planned city but it takes resources and planning or a cataclysm to destroy the old chaotic city to be replaced by an orderly city.

  • Gates: there is a great change that the city will be inside walled fortifications. The Gates should be located on large arteries, allowing people to move in/out.
  • Shops: in the inner city, they have a specific place and these activities are controlled by the state. It's not possible to open a shop in a residential district for example.
  • Banks: They would be located close to markets and other similar
  • Workshops: most artisans lived, worked, and sell their goods at the same place.
  • Parks: are a luxury inside the city walls. It depend how important it is for you civilization but the access is usually limited to the
    elite. If it is very important, they could have public parks, but I'm not sure where they would place them.

  • Stables: I have no ideas. Most people probably did not own a horse in the city. Rich people might have their own small stables, inns and large public building (the imperial palace) might also have stables. If there is something like public stables, I would put them near the gates, ideally outside the inner city.

  • Other buildings: Because it is the capital city, there should be a palace/ castle. You should have a lot of temples, churches, monasteries. Not just because it is a large city but also because the city has a lot of wealth and can afford to build gorgeous buildings or because they were built by the emperor. (For example: Chinese emperors built a lot of taoist temples although it was not really popular among the population.) You will also have a lot of government buildings as it is in any capital. It is the center of the bureaucracy and a large empire will have a ton of bureaucrats. Lastly, you could have several families of aristocrats gravitating around the emperor. This was common in China and France with the absolutist monarchy but not likely if the aristocracy is strong. In the latter, they are more likely to stay near their fief.

As for the historical city, I chose Chang'an (Xi'an) in China during the Sui and Tang dynasties. One must keep in mind that Chang'an just like Rome, was the center of a large and wealthy empire. It was possible to build the city that they had become because they were able to concentrate a large amount of wealth and manpower. For example, without the import of food for other parts of the empire, both cities would starve.

The imperial cities in China were based on a relatively simple model. Later capitals including, Luoyang, Kaifeng, Nanjing, Hangzhou and Beijing, all imitated the plans of Chang'an. You can have a look at the plans of the city here:

The outer city was more chaotic because the government did not have as much control but it did not have much impact on the large arteries.

Lastly, if you want help with the city layout, you could go to the cartographer's Guild and open a thread. If you intend to map it. There is a couple of people that could really give you good advice.


Two more examples of planned cities from U.S. history are Washington DC and Salt Lake City.

DC was planned by L'Enfant as a series of hubs with spokes radiating outward, all overlaid on top of a grid system. The biggest hubs were centered on the Capitol and the White House. There was a bit of controversy over the layout and a subsequent city planner made several revisions to L'Enfant's plan.

However, I think that SLC might be more relevant. Salt Lake was planned from its inception as a religious center, a political seat, and a migratory destination. When Brigham Young had the city laid out, the legend goes that he insisted that the streets be laid out wide enough to do a U-turn with a covered wagon and a team of oxen. As a result, even most residential streets in Utah will be two to four times wider than their counterparts in major coastal cities that have grown organically. This has made scaling SLC up into a serious local capital very painless, relatively speaking. Additionally, it was designed to be an extremely regular grid, centered on the religious heart of the city, the Temple grounds, including the Tabernacle, a sort of religious-themed community meeting hall. The original plan for the city also centered around building small, self-sufficient neighborhoods, each with its own chapel, stores, and meeting places, instead of a more modern zone/district plan.

As Salt Lake's governance transferred from a democratic theocracy to a secular mayorship, the strict regimenting of land began to break down while the city began to find its own identity. Eventually, a zoning plan was adopted, making the area around the Temple grounds a prosperous commercial district, with a plethora of secular conference centers, hotels, malls, restaurants, and other amenities that support the continuous religious tourism that the city enjoys. This uneasy truce between the temple district and the commercial district seems to hold for other religious centers, even historically. Consider the biblical story of Jesus throwing the money-changers out of the temple grounds.

Most of the industry in SLC is focused around transit routes, such as major highways. In your example, I would also focus industry on the river-front. Even if trade, as in money and contracts changing hands, is conducted in the heart of the capitol, businesses don't want to have to pull the raw materials halfway across the city before they can start processing them, or load them back on someone else's boat. Even if the two adjacent towns originally had more ports, the organic evolution of the capitol city would put a lot of pressure to build workshops and warehouses all along the riverfront, regardless of the official plans.

With regards to the other towns, you would have a lot of ragged, diagonal streets and T intersections where they met. The industrial districts would probably merge seamlessly, as they would all be focused on the river trade. Additionally, they would each have their own, smaller, commercial districts, separate from the capitol. They would probably contain more general stores and modest marketplaces than the heart of the capitol where serious commerce would be going on.


One or more centers of power?

Do you have multiple power groups, say a king and a priesthood? Each might insist on their own palace/cathedral/whatever. Those buildings would be separate but visible from each other's front door -- so if one side builds a higher flag pole, their rivals have to see it every morning.

Select nice locations for those areas first. Hills or river fronts, perhaps. Ornate gardens in the center of the city are a way to show your wealth, too.

Are there mass events for the common people?

Pilgrimages, coronations, and so on. If so, you need some large squares. Rival ones again, like a square in front of the palace and another in front of the cathedral?

Is rebellion an issue?

Wide roads are harder to barricade, and easier to sweep with a cavalry charge. Multiple roads running towards the places of power ensure that their splendor is always visible, too.

Connect the palaces/palace squares with wide ceremonial roads. More wide roads spread out like a star.

Reserve some areas for military barracks. Close to the royal palace, if possible on the most likely threat axis. Perhaps a drill field? Stables?

Keeping up with the Joneses.

Where do the upper classes live? Fashionably close to the centers of power, in areas with nice, paved roads and decent drainage.

Business districts.

Are there warehouses on the riverfront? But not too close to the palaces.

Out of sight, out of mind.

The lower classes will go into the remaining spaces. Slums will be built and re-built with little eye for beauty. Small, crooked alleys. The cops won't like to go there, even with a cavalry squadron as backup.


As with anything in fiction there's a few decent modern examples of this.

Brazillia, Chandigarth and Naypidaw would be good starting points for inspiration, quite interestingly, especially the last, and most recent of these, Naypidaw, since very little differentiates a modern military junta, from a feudal state

There's a few things worth considering - while a modern planned city would have a grid layout, I'd suspect multiple hubs and spokes, centering around the city's temporal and spiritual centers of power makes sense. In a monothestic culture, you might have a seat of spiritual power (or a 'quarter' or at least a street of these in a multireligious culture.) You'd have a palace (for a king or local aristrocracy) probably surrounded by facilities for visiting nobility, or the court. You'd probably have areas for tradesmen (or maybe even streets dedicated to trade). You'd probably have lower density in the 'rich' district, with outlying, poorer districts being more packed.

While it wouldn't be planned, you'd probably have a less reputable area - this might be an older quarter (or one planned for a less popular trade) - traditionally this would be the docks (and having a city straddle a river is picturesque, especially if the river is fed by a spring, and that's right smack in your local defensive fortress ).

Try putting palaces and other important things on top of hills (the romans LOVED that), though plains wouldn't do too badly for large sprawling palaces.

Don't forget, the joys of being a absolute ruler is urban renewal is easy. You can likely reconfigure a city however you wish, as long as you don't piss off too many people at once. If all else fails, fires happen.

  • $\begingroup$ In today's news, I read that Egypt wants to build a new capital. "Developers say the new city - the name of which has not been revealed - would include almost 2,000 schools and colleges and more than 600 health care facilities. They say the project will create more than a million jobs. It is planned to be built over 700 sq km (270 sq miles) and house about five million residents." bbc.com/news/business-31874886 $\endgroup$
    – NERVA
    Mar 14, 2015 at 16:47

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