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I am thinking about a part of a world with a lot of small towns on a frontier, like the early colonial era in the Americas, or pioneer days in the American Midwest, and later the Great Plains and the American West, but in space or on other planets or hostile environments on Earth with at least 21st century Earth technology.

Historically, and in this world, these small towns were resource constrained. They did usually built at least one major civic, public, community structure, but could often only afford to build one. And, the first one was almost always a church (that was also used for other purposes). This also wasn't unique to Christianity. The first civic structure of pioneer Jews in Eastern Europe was often a synagogue. The first civic structure of pioneer Greeks and Romans was often a temple.

Suppose the pioneers in a hostile environment are completely non-religious. What kind of ubiquitous first civic space in a small town would they build? What would it be for? What features would it need?

In the alternative, if you think that non-religious colonists wouldn't build a civic structure anytime soon, tell me why you think that this is the case, for example, because the other structures historically really did serve an overwhelmingly and exclusively religious purpose.

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    $\begingroup$ How high-tech are these people? Because people like you describe (poor and at the mercy of the elements) are always religious. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Sep 21 at 0:54
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    $\begingroup$ Those poor high tech people in the US aren't frontier farmers at the mercy of the elements. And when you're poor, in a small town and everyone needs to rely on one another for survival, those superstitions organize. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Sep 21 at 12:11
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    $\begingroup$ As in The Waltons, a small shop / general store. $\endgroup$ – Fattie Sep 22 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie As a business, that wouldn't be a "civic, public, community structure" - but, along those lines, perhaps a market square instead? One week, Ms Smith is selling carrots, the next Mr Jones is selling wool, et cetera... $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Sep 23 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn, "poor high tech people in the US" are, in fact, frequently at the mercy of the elements. It's called being homeless. $\endgroup$ – Theo Brinkman Sep 23 at 21:46

13 Answers 13

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An assembly hall (town hall). The reason those churches get used for other things is that there are reasons other than worship for everybody to gather at times. A church's main hall is only in use for a few hours a week, so gatherings at other times are feasible.

Your need for those gatherings doesn't go away just because your society doesn't have religion. So instead of a church that's also used for meetings, social gatherings, and other things, you'll have an assembly hall that's used for meetings, social gatherings, and other things.

If your society has public education as opposed to home-schooling, then a primary use of that building will be as a school during part of the day. (Perhaps not during planting and harvesting times, though, when every hand might be needed during the day -- just like has been done here on Earth.)

Because your building is being designed as multi-use from the start, you'll probably include flexible seating and movable partitions to support configuration as one large room or a few smaller ones. Space is at a premium on a colony, so you have to plan for your space being used to meet a variety of needs from single large gathering to several concurrent classes/meetings. Consider other common/central needs too, like a communication center for contacting Earth and other settlements or a green space inside a sealed habitat.

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    $\begingroup$ Also, if it's set in near-future, this assembly hall will be communication node with the Earth/other settlements/outside world. Radio tower/satellite antenna and recievers/computer terminals/etc. $\endgroup$ – user28434 Sep 20 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ If the pioneers were in a controlled habitat (e.g. a coupule on an otherwise uninhabitable planet) maybe the example would be more of an agora or a main square, an open space to meet, as there would be no risk of metereological problems and it would be more accessible and cheaper. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Sep 21 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ In most parts of the US this would be called a "town hall". $\endgroup$ – Hot Licks Sep 21 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ Your aside on "planting and harvesting time" ties in nicely to why we have School Summer Holidays - it was originally to allow the children and teachers to help with the harvest! $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Sep 23 at 11:53
  • $\begingroup$ The movable partitions thing is definitely important. Space is at a premium, so allowing the same building to serve many different purposes is an absolute necessity. It's easy to imagine the building set up as one large auditorium or divided into multiple lecture halls, for instance $\endgroup$ – Monty Harder Sep 23 at 21:11
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Every society needs to have multiple functions, so if you can only build one building for general civic use, it needs to accommodate all these functions

You cannot just focus on one purpose for one building, you need to incorporate as multiple functions as possible.

This is because if you group more than a few people together, they need to:

  • Governance: have a space to meet to discuss direction, ideas, problems and resolutions

  • Entertain: gather to watch, dance, play, perform or rehearse cultural entertainment - a necessary ingredient of all societies

  • Eat: need to have a space to celebrate, or communally eat, store supplies

  • Health: need a place to treat, store medicines in a locked cabinet, patients to rest and recover

  • Communicate: need a place to receive or send messages that are not private

  • Authority/Law: need a place to command, give orders, or administer penalties/and/or rewards

  • Storage: where do you put a lecturn, a table, flags, emergency supplies, books, items which are for general use.

If you can only build one building, all of the above need to be in it. So I would imagine you need a central room/hall as large as you can, with smaller rooms / adjunct spaces off it to perform other above functions.

Basically any function that is not a private house function needs to be accommodated in this building.

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    $\begingroup$ Even if it's totally secular, adding a tall watchtower to this building is a good idea, if the available building materials permit that. $\endgroup$ – Catalyst Sep 21 at 10:49
  • $\begingroup$ I'd add trade to the list. It will get used as a market, as different people's skills/land will be appropriate to producing different goods (while all will grow some food). E.g. I might be better at making tools, you might keep chickens $\endgroup$ – Chris H Sep 23 at 12:48
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Since we are talking about a space environment, the actual first public space will be the radiation "storm shelter".

This will be an enclosure somewhere near the center of the colony structure so the bulk of the colony itself will provide the first layer of shielding, and the inner structure will be heavily armoured with thick metal or regolith walls to absorb radiation. It will also be air tight (in case of a puncture emergency) and have supplies laid in for the survival of the colony members, including food, air, water, a separate power supply, recycling, as well as tools and spacesuits to allow teams to go out and make repairs if required. Larger structures might have several of these shelters built at regular intervals to allow people quick access.

Because of the size of these shelters and the amount of interior space, they could also be used for things like assemblies, meeting halls and so on. Under no circumstances would the colony administration allow them to be used as storage facilities (outside of the required emergency kit) in order to allow the people quick access and the room needed while occupying the shelter.

With today's technology, the space might resemble a gym floor when not occupied, but with the walls lined with storage lockers for the emergency supplies, chairs, tables and hammocks for sleeping and whatever other things might be needed. All the doors will have to be independent air locks, with enough spacing and widely separated to allow large numbers of people to enter without causing a "pile up" at the doors. In a free flying space colony, if the shelter is in the center of the structure, there might have to be nets strung across the structure if it is in the zero gravity center of the colony. If on a world (especially one still undergoing terraforming), then in the center of the dome, or several equally spaced around the perimeter depending on how big the dome actually is.

So based on the premise, a shelter, which can be used for other purposes when not needed for protection.

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  • $\begingroup$ Typically a shelter offers extra protection (if you do not need extra protection then you do not need a shelter, because you can be safe at your own home). With extra protection comes increased costs/engineering requirements, meaning that costs go up and so shelters will usually be small and designed only to hold as many people for just as much time as strictly needed (with security margins). So probably they would not be a comfortable place to conduct business from. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Sep 21 at 18:07
  • $\begingroup$ For example, air raid shelters are pretty useful if you fear an air raid, but certainly none of the examples I have seen seem to be geared towards living/conducting business there comfortably. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Sep 21 at 18:10
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Either a Courthouse/Jail or a School

The determination as to which of these would be built would depend mostly on the characteristics of the population. If they have a lot of children (mostly families, farmers, etc.), then it'd be a school, if this is a mining town (a bunch of bachelors) then a Courthouse/Jail.

It really just depends on what they need most.

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    $\begingroup$ Historically, it would be a general-purpose building: one large room and possibly a few small ones. During the day, it would function as a one-room schoolhouse, during the evening it would be a meeting room or dance hall, perhaps once a week it would be a courtroom, it might get used on Sundays as a church, and so on. $\endgroup$ – Mark Sep 21 at 21:15
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I think the very first thing to get built would be a Well. Even if there is a nearby water source like a river, that same river may dry up in the summer and freeze in the winter making it's use impractical. In addition, rivers flood sometimes, so building too close is not always the greatest idea. A Well, is not what I think the OP is after though.

As Monica says, the first building would by necessity be multi purpose.

I don't think it would be anything as formal as an assembly hall. I think it would be a barn.

The settlers need a place to store things, up to and including livestock. A Barn is ideal for this and is flexible enough for all the other things you need in civic architecture.

First of all, a barn is easy enough to build. It is, basically, a large box. It typically does not have anything much more fussy than a dirt floor. For construction, you dig 8 to 10 holes deep enough to get past the frost line in a rectangle, set a good stone in each. You can build a framework for a wall on the ground and then lift it in place, and sink support posts into the holes at the same time (packing the rest of the hole with gravel and sand to hold the post in place). This kind of technique can get a frame in place very, very fast. Once the frame is in place, getting siding on to the structure is pretty fast, as is getting the roof on. If you want to see what this looks like, look at an Amish Barn raising.

In a relatively short period you have a structure that can be used by the fledgling community as shelter for themselves and by the livestock in case of storms or predators.

From there, the people will be able to begin their own private residences and build at a slower place. In time, the central barn might remain a barn, or it might be modified to become an assembly hall or something else that is more grand. Depends on the people. You have the walls already. If you want to put in flooring, you could sink additional footers throughout, use pier and beam construction, and lay on some wood flooring.

This general technique is viable to ANY tech level past the early Iron Age. As long as you have tools that can cut wood, you can do this. Using modern tools, the limiting factor becomes supply chain. Do you have to bring in Lumber, or do you have to go harvest the wood? Can you bring in concrete trucks? What about prefab steel buildings? I'm imagining a bunch of settlers with 4x4's and modern tools.

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Sports field.

Sporting events are great entertainment and a fine way to bring a community together. Having sporting contests with other local small towns is also an opportunity to mix with people from other small towns which is especially good if your town has no cute people in it.

Ample raised seating for spectators makes the field suitable for open air shows, plays, demonstrations, lectures, debates or similar activities.

If environment is too hostile for open air field, then an enclosed field like a basketball court / hockey rink.

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Depending on the age of your settlement it is possible they would use a re-purposed building.

The Old Dormitory

Immediately after landing everyone needs somewhere to sleep. Can't sleep in the ship, it's already left/we were in cold sleep/it's being dismantled. So first things first we run up a big barracks type dormitory. It's got bunk rooms, a kitchen and a big dinning area so everyone can eat together. Really builds the community spirit when setting up the homesteads.

After we've moved out, the building is still there. And it's an important place, emotionally to the first settlers and historically to those who come afterwards. So successful was this pattern at first landing that all the towns that came later followed the same pattern. A big group moves out to a new area, dormitory goes up, the rest of the town follows behind.

You can customise the Dorm however you like. Need lots of little spaces in your civic centre? Then do rooms for 4/6 family size. Want just a few huge rooms? Dining room + Male and Female Bunk rooms. Or even Singletons/Couples bunk rooms. Or anything in between.

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A General Store

In most towns, this was built privately by whoever had the capital to build the building and then was the first to set up the store (which takes a fair bit of money to stock). A town served by a railroad is the standard here.

In a town without a place of worship, they would still, as Monica points out, need a place to assemble, but it's hard to justify a large building for that sole purpose. Churches in the American frontier were built by the community but also with funds from the church group they were affiliated with (they also provided the clergyperson, though the church would be self-supporting in time).

While the first building in a new town was often a hotel or inn, this would be built privately. It was not built by the community.

A general store owned by the community would be a place to sell and trade goods that is indoors. Like a market hall or a bazaar. It could also double as a meeting place. It might also contain a school (something generally built separate from a church). The large central room would not house the school though. Why? Because a place large enough to fit everyone in town would be a beast to heat in the winter if not filled with people. 300 bodies with a small fire is enough. But with 10 bodies, forget it. (Scale however you like.)

This building would also be the Post Office, which is one of the most important buildings in a town and one that every town has. Depending on the volume, it might be open 6 days a week (it could deliver letters locally or simply receive them from the train, coach, or rider) or just for a few hours now and then (if mail came by boat twice a year).

Both a Post Office and a School can have rooms off the main building, so they're easier to heat. And so they can be locked, as mail and school supplies are subject to theft or accidental damage.

Actual meeting places in towns varied a fair bit. It depended on weather, desire, and plain old available space.

From Why the West Was Wild, by Wayne Swanson:

The hub of any town was the general store. Not only did it sell everything from groceries to saddles and candy to plows, but it also provided a meeting place. People gathered around the store's potbellied stove to exchange the latest gossip.

Saturday was always the biggest day in town. Country folk flocked in to buy groceries and sell produce. In the evening, everyone gathered in a school or barn for the social event of the week, the dance.

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In the early usa, as colonists spread across the land, typically the first thing built was a brothel that served alcohol.... then a church to give the women something else to do.

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  • $\begingroup$ This has ended up in the "low-quality" queue due to it's length. Could you expand on this? $\endgroup$ – Philip Rowlands Sep 21 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ This continues to present day. When the Alaskan pipeline was built, the first buildings were crew shelters, but as soon as those were in, the drugs and the pimps started showing up. IIRC, at the end of the day the e.g., Mexican construction workers all hung in their own shelter to smoke weed. The Italian welders all did coke in another. And when they got bored with that, they went into the 'brothel'. - "It was like a gold rush. We had people from almost country and from every walk of life. Plus along with that you had gamblers, and crooks, and uh: ladies of the evening." $\endgroup$ – Mazura Sep 21 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ – American Experience, Alaska Pipeline $\endgroup$ – Mazura Sep 21 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ That being said, your second half of the sentence no longer holds true: of the 70,000 workers actually employed to work on the line, 8,000 were women. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Sep 21 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ Mazura, I concur. However, women drink alcohol too and you are assuming that in future women won't visit brothels too for the same reasons men do.... but I agree 'churches' are on the way out. $\endgroup$ – David H Parry Sep 26 at 18:38
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Colonialism is built upon a solid foundation of military force.

There's a reason why so many of those frontier towns have or had names that start with 'Fort'.

At the very least you're going to want a parade square, which is convenient for all sorts of things.

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  • $\begingroup$ The Mars colony probably won't have much call for military force at first. $\endgroup$ – Anton Sherwood Sep 25 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ In Canada lots of places had 'Fort' in their name. Legacy from when most of Canada was owned by the Hudson Bay company. While some forts did have palisades most were used more for crowd control and theft reduction as actual defense. Later there were 'Forts' with no walls. Just sort of a brand saying "furs traded here" The suffix 'House' (E.g. Rocky Mountain House, Cumberland House 100 Mile House) was also used in this way. $\endgroup$ – Sherwood Botsford Sep 26 at 19:01
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Take your inspiration from buildings made for various purposes. In your search I would consider:

  • Churches
  • Monasteries
  • Community arenas
  • Day schools
  • Boarding schools
  • Frat houses
  • University dorms
  • Hotels
  • Ski Resorts
  • Fishing Resorts
  • Soviet cold ware era apartment houses.
  • Israeli Kibbutzes.

Each one has a different impact on how people live together.

Also, a northern diary farm until recently would have huge barns. A modern one is around 100 x 160 feet. This is for the dairy operation run by a single family with a few hired hands.

My grandfather's hop kiln was 200 feet x 90 feet, 3 floors high, with the bottom floor the hop bailing room, and storage for bales, and the top two floors being hollow floor drying rooms for the hops. (Hollow floor: 2x4's on edge 1" apart covered in burlap. Heated air was pushed through the floor to dry the hops.) Now, he had 8 full time hands, and seasonally would hire 30-150 migrant workers. Later, as hop picking became much less labour intensive. When I worked for my uncle the whole harvest may have 30 people. Still some migrants. There was a kiln like this on every hop farm -- typically 40 to 200 acres. Size would vary according to the farm.

Every Canadian settlement also had a grain elevator. Sometimes privately owned, more commonly owned by a co-operative. Farmers would buy a share in the co-op, sell their grain to the co-op, who in turn would broker the sale to the rail company or later the Canadian Wheat Board. Grain elevators are huge

This illustrates a different form of communal invovlement -- where it's not owned by the community, or an individual, but rather by a subset.

The point of these two examples show that large buildings were not necessarily communal buildings.

A good exercise to figure out how this works, is to imagine the problems using the wrong building. E.g. Using a hotel as a boarding school, using a kibbutz as a fishing resort (assume you built it on a lake.)

If you look at western Canada today, there are many community halls dotted around the landscape, many not even connected to a village. Sometimes the community hall is the last remnant of a village. Most of these come down to a large room, often with a stage at one end, an industrial (restaurant) style kitchen, minor amounts of storage for tables and chairs (often under the stage) and bathrooms.

A community hall would work well as an assembly area, a place for dances, big meetings, communal meals. It would be awful as an administration centre (no offices) as a school (no classrooms)

A church, as built by some of the larger evangelical congregations would fill a lot of functions: The main worship centre as a meeting hall; many have classrooms, meeting rooms, a moderate office suite.

Resorts/Hotels attack the accomodation problem, usually without individual cooking facilities.

Boarding schools often have 'bathroom/showers down the hall' and would have privacy issues for family groups. But read up on Kibbutz.

Russian apartments often had a single room per family, with communal washing and cooking facilities.

Much would depend on cultural norms. I know from experience that architecture has a huge impact on social conventions. (I've worked in 3 boarding schools)


Do an outline of your story, then flag elements of the story that take place at the community centre. Abstract these, then design your centre to fit. Bear in mind the limits imposed by your planet: The big grass hutch on a tropical island is ill suited to the Canadian prairie. The Iroquois long house, or the buildings of the west coast Haida might work, with the right forests.

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Noneat least not as such

With reduced resources and no ideological constraint, it is unlikely that the pioneers will devote much efforts to any buildings that has no definite functionality: if they are a community depending on trade (exporting delicious Venusian potatoes in exchange of antibiotics that prevent them dying of horrible diseases) they will build a trade hub (airport/spaceport); if they are a farming community they will build food storage and repair shops for their hardware...

They will try to get as much utility of their buildings as possible: the biggest building available will double as assembly hall1; the school will be a somewhat bigger room at the teacher's home.

And as much utility can be done with without buildings, it will be done: for example jailing people is expensive, so justice will prefer to avoid jail and favour fines, corporal punishment, exile or execution.

In top of that, new technologies usually mean a reduced need for physical interaction: it would not be awkward to find that all the homes have VR teleconference rooms (after all we are in the future, so those are dirt cheap) so there is not even a need for an assembly hall or a school at all.

In the end, it will be highly dependent of your settlers'technology: for example an infirmary would seem like a pausible candidate, but if transport is fast, reliable and cheap enough then most of the towns will just send their ill people to the main hub in the planet with a proper hospital. Or if VR and nanotechnology is good enough, the ill people may remain at home and a doctor can diagnose them and the nano builder synthetize the prescribed drugs...

1If climate does not allow for assemblies to be held in the open.

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  • $\begingroup$ Why the presumption that a non-religious structure "has no definite functionality"? $\endgroup$ – Theo Brinkman Sep 30 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ @TheoBrinkman No, my point is that they would build only structures due to their functionality (including religious one, if the people felt their need) so the structures that they chose to build would be directly related to their needs which in turn will depend of their environment, so there would be no universal answer (if they are an agricultural community they will build silos, if they rely on trade they will build shipyards). $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Sep 30 at 19:56
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The first public building would be a pub, saloon, or bar. people want to socialize and doing so over a beverage of choice along with a little food is the most common way to do it.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's a private building, not a public one. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Sep 27 at 19:29

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