One of the biggest Problems my Renaissance city with 2.7 million inhabitants is facing is how two get food from outside the city fast enough to the populous before being spoiled.

The problem is that in the last few decades the city has grown bigger than what the surrounding area can provide and as such the city is in dire need of a long range (200 - 500 km) transportation system that is able to transport enough food every day to provide for 2.2 million people (the other 500 000 are feed by the surrounding area). The city density is 8000 people per $km^2$.


  • Full land transportation (there are no seas or oceans to use as transport route)
  • Fast enough to transport fruits like apples, pears, ... (before being spoiled)
  • Works all year long (independent of seasons)
  • Can transport all kinds of food
  • Requires knowledge from 1699 or before
  • No conservation techniques required


  • Fast enough for meat transportation (before being spoiled)
  • Can be used to transport anything
  • Requires less infrastructure than an aqueduct
  • Cooling
  • Infinite range
  • Fast enough for milk transportation(I highly doubt this is possible but it would be awesome)
  • Achievable with medieval technology

Question: I want to know whether this is possible and if yes how the solution would look like.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Feb 9 '19 at 16:05

This is actually an easy question.

The only way to move bulky or heavy goods over long distances before the advent of motor vehicles was by water. Either by sea, or by river, or by canal, but definitely and certainly in a ship, boat or barge floating on water.

For example, from the 17th century onwards, western Europe engaged in a large-scale effort to build canals. Canals canals canals. They were the transportation arteries of the pre-railroad world. The canal network was powered by horses or mules -- a horse can pull a 25-ton canal barge for hours.

Since this fantasy city is located inland, this means that there must be a river and a well-developed canal network serving it.

For a truly awe-inspiring example consider the 150 miles (240 km) long Canal du Midi, built in southern France from 1666 to 1681, with 65 locks, linking the river Garonne (at 130 meters above sea level) to the Mediterranean, with a maximum elevation of 165 meters a.s.l.

As for the specific items requested by the question:

  • Fresh produce is usually grown near the city. Generally, before motor-driven vehicles, cities were surrounded by a ring of gardens where gardeners grew vegetables which needed to be sold fresh in the city.

  • Fruit is not a big deal in pre-modern or early-modern days. Some fruit, such as apples, keep quite well and can be brought to the city on barges or boats or ships. Other fruit may be grown in the ring of gardens alongside vegetables. But, by and large, they simply ate apples or did without.

  • Meat was broght into the city on the hoof -- the live animals were driven in the city alive. For example, look up the Forum Boarium, the cattle market of ancient Rome.

  • Milk is the easiest. They kept goats and cows in the city. Remember that those are the days before motor-driven vehicles, so the city, by dire necessity, already had to have a very large number of horses. What's a few goats and cows (and, yes, pigs) in a city which already has hundreds of thousands, maybe even a million, horses?

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    $\begingroup$ There's also the Chinese canal system, most of which was constructed in the 4th & 5th centuries, theough parts of it date to the 5th century BCE: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Canal_(China) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Feb 9 '19 at 23:05

Wagons. A lot of wagons.

You seem to specifically exclude any (parctical) kind of motor vehicles and the most viable alternative - waterways. This means we have to stick with beasts of burden and wagons.

A Conestoga wagon is probably the pillar of pre-railroad technology. It could transport up to 5.4 metric tons of cargo with the speed of 24 km per day. This wagon can be easily constructed with pre-1699 technology. You would also need good roads and strong horses.

Of course 24 km per day is too slow for perishables (unless you pack them with ice), so you would need to organize your logistics and food supply accordingly. Perishables like meat and milk would not be produced far away. Milk would be coming from suburban farms, and meat herded in from the countryside to be butchered in the city (or suburbs).

24 km per day is Ok for sturdy fruits or vegetables to be delivered from countryside 100+ km away.

For "optional" conservation technique, I'd like to mention Pasteurization. This is, strictly speaking, a XIX century method, but it would be easily achievable in XVII century as well.

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    $\begingroup$ Those horses pulling the wagon need to eat too; there is a limit (usually estimated at about a week's travel) where the horses eat more food than what they can pull, making the entire exercise useless. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 8 '19 at 22:18
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP upon little research, I started to wonder where "a week's travel" figure came from. As a rule of thumb, working horse eats 2-2.5% of its body weight a day. For a team of 4 1000 kg heavy horses, it comes to 80-100 kg a day. With over 5 tons in a wagon, that should last them over 50 days. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Feb 8 '19 at 23:09
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    $\begingroup$ They also need to return to the point of origin, so those 50 days come down to 25. Then there is the "good roads" part -- those did not exist before the 19th century. For example, the Theodosian Code set the load limit on a wagon to 1500 Roman pounds (about 500 kg). If you are interested in a more in-depth discussion of pre-modern animal-powered transport, you may like Dr. Judith A. Weller's Roman Traction Systems web site. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 9 '19 at 0:04
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Conestoga wagons did not need any special roads - I presume Roman roads should have been perfectly fine for them. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Feb 9 '19 at 0:15
  • $\begingroup$ Wagons may not have needed special roads but the construction of a network of wagon ways would improve the amount of freight that could be moved for a given amount of horses or mules.en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wagonway $\endgroup$
    – Sarriesfan
    Feb 9 '19 at 14:25

iHere is some food for thought.

Or rather food by-products.

The reason that the automobile was so readily accepted in the early 1900's was pollution.

More specifically, the manure problem.

In a city like Milwaukee in 1907, for instance, with a human population of 350,000 and a horse population of 12,500, this meant 133 tons of manure a day, for a daily average of nearly three-quarters of a pound of manure for each resident. Or, as health officials in Rochester, New York, calculated in 1900, the fifteen thousand horses in that city produced enough manure in a year to make a pile 175 feet high covering an acre of ground and breeding sixteen billion flies, each one a potential spreader of germs.

Another problem was dead horse removal .

In 1880 New York City removed fifteen thousand dead horses from its streets, and as late as 1912 Chicago carted away nearly ten thousand horse carcasses.

However, in 1900, New York, a city with over three million people, had absolutely no problems with providing the daily requirements of its inhabitants based entirely on horse and wagon. Huge wagons pulled by eight and even twelve horse teams created bottlenecks in the downtown streets and of course once these teams got up to speed they essentially traveled in a straight line, and were very hard to stop. There were no stop signs or controlled intersections, so when two teams collided at cross intersections, as happened often, there was indeed a great calamity. These cargo wagons could easily haul 12 tons or more.

So I posit that the answer would depend on the tolerance for pollution and the ability to keep the streets clean. Of course, in 1699 they knew very little about hygiene and viruses and such, and were apparently very tolerant of foul smells, death, and decay in the cities.

However, in a city like Rome during the height of the Republic, they had well maintained hard surface roads, good water systems, and spent considerable effort in keeping the city clean. Incidentally, meals in Republican Rome were prepared and eaten communally in neighborhood eateries, not in the individual residence, so food distribution was more centralized. Food did not have to be stored for long periods in the home, as these eateries were replenished daily. There were no food supermarkets. Local bazaars distributed such foods as snacks and between-meal indulgences.

I suggest that your community look at similar options for food distribution and storage.

But certainly, if horses and wagons could provide for the population of New York, your population of 2.7 million would be very similar, using similar technologies.

Incidentally, the speed of a twelve hose team could get to and hold 7 mph, so a hundred mile (160 km) distance could be managed in two days easily, with multiple team changes.

  • $\begingroup$ Your answer is interesting and well-researched. Everything an answer should be...except it doesn't answer the question, until the end. You imply that communal eating will help, but don't say why. Then you address the question directly in the last line. $\endgroup$ Feb 9 '19 at 4:07
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    $\begingroup$ New York in 1900 “had absolutely no problems with providing the daily requirements of its inhabitants based entirely on horse and wagon”? You appear to be claiming that nothing at all was shipped in by freight train, in 1900, which I find implausible. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Feb 9 '19 at 6:56
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf grain is hardly a perishable food product. The question pertains to locally grown perishable food supplies within a 200 km. radius. 'Horses transported most of the food from the piers and through the market. Buyers brought their wagons into the market, bringing filth and congestion with them. By 1900, almost 170,000 horses filled Manhattan’s streets. Over 250 slaughterhouses and meatpacking companies filled the Gansevoort Market neighborhood, adding to the stench and manure.' foodandcity.org/market-system-case-early-new-york $\endgroup$ Feb 9 '19 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Justin Thyme the Second: No, the question is not about locally-grown, it's about how you provide FOOD, not perishables. Grain is a staple food because it is not perishable (among other reasons). You might have locally grown fruits & vegetables, but they would be a small part of the diet and/or luxury items. (See AlexP's answer.) WRT NYC's horses, those were mostly for transporting goods (not just food) within the city itself - as stated in your own link :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Feb 9 '19 at 23:17
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Directly from the question 'how two get food from outside the city fast enough to the populous before being spoiled'. Since there is no issues with grain being 'spoiled' because it was not delivered in a timely fashion, the question is not about grain, nor about any other non-perishable staple. $\endgroup$ Feb 9 '19 at 23:36

There are good answers here and my question is what is meant by "feasible"? There are plenty of solutions - though the problem might not be as big as it would seem to our eyes since potatoes and new world foods had made it around the world by now, things that could be grown in any patch of dirt which is everywhere in the 1600s.
What is meant by feasible would take into account the political climate of your city as much as anything else. If there is a strong central government major public works (roads, canals) would be a good answer. If more of a laissez-faire environment then a hodgepodge of solutions (and problems).

I get the feeling that you are transplanting your concept of a modern city back into a previous era when cities did not look like today. Imagine the royal center of a region surrounded by lands belonging to the lords and dukes going out concentrically from the crown. Each had their villages and fields, local ruts and roads, that as demand grew became amalgamated into what we might call neighborhoods or districts or this growing region.

London as we know it came to exist in 1963 combining many independent areas and consolidating them down to 32 boroughs, each with local councils. New York City arose in 1898-1914 by combining 5 counties, each with towns and villages of its own, now called the Boroughs. They are made up of hundreds of distinct neighborhoods. Local authority is exercised at every level while the Government of the City of New York has final say. There were gardens and livestock spread throughout the area.
Towns that are now major cities everywhere were like this. Many had to overcome physical obstacles such as recurrent flooding (Mexico City or check out San Francisco that was a sandy, swamped, isolated peninsula until 1937 when the bridges and infrastructure were completed).

And Rome. It's population was much greater prior to 4th Century than it was until the 20th Century. Like so many other places, when you start importing things, like food, you import disease as well. Beijing avoided some of this by moving the court during the seasons (as did some other kingdoms) to where food was more plentiful and waste could be spread around. This wasn't just the immediate royals; hundreds of thousands of people would migrate with them.

But mostly I'm saying a) what political climate do you present in your story? b) no old cities are what we mean by a city today.


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