The setting is a medieval fantasy, think general dnd or LotR. I have already created a map and it’s existed for a while now but I desperately want to know where cities and towns might logically pop up. Where might boomtowns pop up and why? What does an area need in order to stimulate a large population growth for cities and towns to develop?

Here’s some context:

The map is roughly the size of North America.

Villages range in the hundreds in terms of population, towns will consist of 1,000-3,000 people and cities can go over 100,000 inhabitants. I don’t have a world limit for population so don’t worry about that.

The northernmost parts of the map are similar to Canada while the southern parts are similar to China and many other countries in the very north and very south of Africa, not its center.

The names on the map are names of locations not cities or towns.

enter image description here

If there is anything I’m missing or more information that I need to add, if so please feel free to share.


12 Answers 12


Not uncountably large. One factor.

Fresh water.

People need it. You can get by with wells for small populations but you need moving water for medium or larger populations.

Water is also good for taking away waste.

Water is also good for trade because in a medieval tech world, larger waterways are reliable means to move materials.

-- You will have cities where large rivers meet the sea. You will have cities some distance back along the rivers. Look at the Mississippi or Danube for examples. You may have cities where large lakes meet rivers, Chicago style.

As regards boom towns these boom because of undiscovered resources that get discovered - like gold. Folks in a boom town also need to drink and also need to get the gold or other boom resource to markets and so flowing water would again be desirable.

Your map has a very realistic coast and realistic waterways. Plop some towns on them!

  • $\begingroup$ I have a question, not a large one but somewhat related to your answer but it’s not about worldbuilding. Can trade vessels of medieval times or merchants utilize rivers for trade to a location up stream or is the river only useful when your riding with the current? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ @HomegrownPotatoes - Paris had better hope boats can go upstream! My understanding is that boats were towed upstream by men/animals on shore or pushed upstream by men with poles - good picture of the latter here: pittsburgh-port-to-the-west.com/keelboats.html $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 18:17
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ also remember the fall line. The fall line is the highest upstream navigable point of your rivers. If you look at the map of the eastern United States, cities like Richmond and Philadelphia are on the fall line. Compare your elevation to your rivers at the farthest point upstream where a boat could reasonably sail. That’s where trade would come to drop off goods and towns would grow there. See education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/fall-line $\endgroup$
    – lonstar
    Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 1:15
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @DaveX /The rivers and lakes that don't drain to the sea won't be fresh water./ Lake Superior and its big friends might take umbrage at that statement. I believe you are thinking of endorheic lakes and their freshness depends on where they are as regards shrinking / growing. Mono lake used to be bigger and fresher. It got salty and smaller as it got old, same as me. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 21:14
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Willk I think Lake Superior etc. drain to the sea--I think the residence time is on the order of 200 years. I intended to lend support to your Fresh Water criteria, but I am overstated the non-freshness of the rivers. $\endgroup$
    – Dave X
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 2:30

enter image description here

Here is your map with labels where, based on the basic information, you'd likely see larger settlements. Of course, this varies: a coastline that is all cliff will be less likely to have a settlement than one which has less slope, as one obvious example. Note that these don't preclude other settlements, these are just the ones I'd consider most likely.

  1. There are likely to be settlements along this river/estuary. It's an obvious trade route and allows easy access to the sea and inland.

  2. You've got a sheltered bay (good anchorage?) with a river flowing into it, thus a source of fresh water. So this is an obvious location.

  3. Large anchorage, again on the river, and at a mountain pass, making an obvious trading hub.

  4. Roughly looks to be where the river narrows and larger craft would likely have trouble going further upriver. This makes an obvious place for a port. Think Montreal as an example.

  5. Bay, river flowing into it, again a likely location.

6, 7. Rivers flowing into a large lake, obvious location for trading hubs.

  1. End of a bay, river flowing in, larger lake inland. Obvious location.

  2. Similar to 8, but on the coast rather than at the end of a bay. Mountains in between 8 and 9 provides a natural boundary between them.

  3. Again, river meets sea, obvious location.

I've marked two rivers with an X. Those don't make any sense to me in terms of geography.

I haven't gone much further inland, because there a lot more depends on climate, even with rivers. Canada and China are the second and third largest countries on the planet, with climates that range from treeless tundra (either due to latitude or altitude) to temperate, to steppes/prairies, to wet to desert, so "like Canada" and "like China" are actually moderately useless as descriptors.


People need water, it's why many towns are along rivers. In ancient times cities close to snow covered mountains that could have an aqueduct constructed had an advantage over cities that couldn't.

Failing that, access to large supplies of good quality ground was essential.

Additionally, navigable rivers also provided a means of trade and communication between settlements along such rivers.

For ocean going trade, ports need to be established on the coast. This leads to the development of coastal settlements.

Some boom towns might be located in some mountainous areas because of rich mines. Others will occur at trading cross roads, similar to those that existed along the old Silk Road.


The size of your map means that you should focus on story-relevant points of interest rather than attempt to realistically depict every city and town. Unless civilization is very new to this continent, you can pretty much guarantee that every square kilometer of habitable land is occupied to one degree or another. While the number of actual cities will be few, given a medieval tech level, there will be tens of thousands of towns and countless villages dotting the landscape. That said, I'll try and give you some good points to consider.

The best way to imagine medieval population distributions is to imagine a tree. Villages are like the leaves, towns like the branches, cities like the limbs, and the capitol (or most significant habitation) like the trunk.

Villages contain anywhere from 200 to 500 inhabitants and will either be surrounded by farmland or be adjacent some resource gathering operation such as logging or mining. Villages will have a dirt path or dirt road connecting them to the nearest town. The length of this road was typically the distance a man with cart could travel in a third of a day. As stated earlier, there will be a countless number of these given the size of the region you specified, so I would not bother placing them unless they are story relevant.

Towns will have between 500 and 1000 inhabitants and also host the marketplace for a region. Each town will have many villages that feed into it and will often, but not always, be adjacent to something facilitating commerce such as a navigable river, coastline, or developed road (a rarity in the middle ages). In the event that none of those conditions exist, the town will instead be a waystation for travelers and traders, such as an oasis town in the desert or the midway point between a vast expanse of wilderness. Towns will also be the minimum size of habitation where you might find a local lord - most often a baron(ess), but sometimes someone of a higher rank. If this is the case, then that town will most likely be adjacent to some defensible position such as a hill, cliff top, river island, or the like. That defensible position will be where the local lord has his castle (the size and construction of which is a whole other topic).

The towns of a region, just like villages, will surround the cities they support. The cities will have populations we would today consider small with between 1000 and and 8000 people. They will almost certainly be on a coast, along a major navigable river, or next to a lake because waterborn craft were, by far, the most efficient means of transporting goods over distances. For the rare exceptions to that rule, the city will instead be placed where it is because it sits at the crossroads of a major trade route or controls access through a mountain pass. They will also very likely be the home of a higher ranking member of the nobility such as a count, viscount, or possibly even a duke. Just like with towns, if there is nobility in the city, their castle will be built at the most defensible position possible. The most important takeaway point though is there will be relatively long distances between cities, even if all of them are along the same coastline or river.

Finally, there are capitols. Again, relative to modern standards these will be small. Paris in the 14th century had somewhere around 200,000 people living in it and it was one of most populous cities in all of Europe. These will be the most widely spaced habitations of all. There will be many days travel between cities of this size and most often, a country will have just one(hence 'capitol'). It will almost certainly be the seat of power for a country's king.

Just like the preceding tiers of populations, capitols will be 'fed' by major roads or navigable rivers from the cities supporting it. These will almost always be not only located on a major river, but also one that opens up into sea. For London, it was its position on the River Thames which opened up into the Baltic Sea. For Paris, it was the River Seine which also opened up into the Baltic Sea. For Rome, it was the river Tiber which opened up into the Mediterranean which, itself, granted it central access to all the major cities that had been inhabited since antiquity.

The whole reason Capitols got as big as they did was because they sat along the most logistically ideal location for importing the tremendous amount of foodstuffs they needed. The rivers would bring in goods from the interior while the coasts would bring in goods from all the coastal cities. The rivers would also supply the city with drinking water for the inhabitants as their proximity to salt water meant wells would be easily contaminated with brackish water. So, if you place a very large city somewhere, regardless of whether it's a capitol, you should do so where it will have ideal conditions for trade, access to fresh water, and some means of getting large amounts of food.

In conclusion, when placing towns and cities, try and imagine them as a tree with the leaves being villages, towns branches, cities limbs, and capitols the trunk; each tier supporting the one above that. Remember that the larger and more important your city is, the more selective you have to be as to where you place it. Adjacency to seaborne trade lanes, access through difficult terrain, a supply of fresh water, and defensible terrain are all factors you need to consider.


Your rivers are not realistic. Smaller streams combine into larger streams and those combine into even larger streams until an ocean is reached. Look at some river tributary maps to get an idea of what they should look like. It might be helpful to draw a topography first, then draw rivers. This will also tell you where crops can be grown.

After that, dot some cities around what appear to be strategic travel locations (along water routes, a mountain pass, an island). Make travel routes between majors cities and put minor cities on those routes.

  • $\begingroup$ I broadly agree, but here in Australia there are several rivers which don't flow to the sea, for example they end at Lake Eyre. This is a very dry, very flat area. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 4:52
  • $\begingroup$ @engineer07 funnily enough I have and excuse for the rivers that just seem to end in the middle of nowhere. In the south east areas of the map there is a harsh desert and in most other places the rivers just stopping is purely for the reason that the rivers just even out, becoming more thin. I didn’t show this on the map becuase it’s roughly the size of North America. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ As for the rivers that split into two I simply just didn’t know this wasn’t possible. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ @HomegrownPotatoes the rivers thinning out is my point. Every drop of water that lands between the Delleorais Mount Range, Dretal Cay Range, and the Eirathy Mountains is all headed for the Golden Tipped Lake area. The rivers near the mountains will combine into a large river in the Hantpho Valley and lead to the York-Tye Bay. River bifurcation is possible. $\endgroup$
    – engineer07
    Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ @engineer07 Once again, thanks for giving more clarification and reality, it’s very helpful. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 21:41

My version.. see below

Inspired by 1) Norway fjords and 2) the fact cities reside on crossroads of waterways and in coastal regions, cities tend to reside at the end of the fjord inland and need a stronghold downstream, for reconnaissance and guard the entry.

Cities inland, around the Twan peaks I placed because I assume there's resources there. I don't know that, you do. So maybe they are to be placed elsewhere.

enter image description here


Factor #1: Access to fresh water

This is the most important factor. Foods can be stored and transported to a certain degree (even in primitive societies), water cannot. Any settlement needs access to fresh water sources as the first and most important factor.

Factor #2: Access to food

Food is a bit easier to organise than water. It can, to a degree, be transported and stored. Plus you always have the option to hunt.

Factor #3: Defensibility

First it's wild animals going after your livestock, then it's big wild animals going after your children or even you and finally it's that neighbour who always envied you for your war charriot. There's just no place you can live in peace! And with defensibility we're back at factor #1: Defensibility depens on how well you can access water when the enemy's at the gate. Again: Food can be stored but if you run out of fresh water, your settlement is lost.

Factor #4: Access to economic circles

Once a settlement is established and wants to grow it needs access to an economic circle. It needs connections to other settlements for trade. This can happen by sea (the easier way as ships can haul large amounts of cargo even on a "primitive" tech level) or by land.

There's a ton of other factors depending on

I found this two videos very helpful when I designed cities back in the day:

On Worldbuilding: WHY are cities where they are?

Why Are Cities Where They Are?

  • $\begingroup$ Rivers and coast: covers pretty much all the factors you mentioned. $\endgroup$
    – Dohn Joe
    Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 8:58

I Use S.T.R.A.W

Stability Trade Resources Access Water. These are the principles that generally guide people to live in certain places, from least to most important.


Note that this isn't safety- I assume that cities are built in mostly safe places by default. That can change, but building does not occur in large quantities in unsafe places.

How stable is the environment? Is it subject to natural disasters on a regular basis? If so, people don't like to settle there without extra incentive.


Is the city able to trade with its neighbors? it's very rare to find a lone city that's far from any other city, they like to be connected. Particularly, connected by road and highway, or by sea. Cities are especially likely to pop up in the middle of a trade route, making their living off passerby.


What natural resources does this city have? is it a rich mineral deposit, or maybe plentiful fish? Fertile farmland and on rare occasion millitary objectives are also resources. People moved across the continental US in the 1940s/50s because of a rumor of gold in California, and many towns were settled to serve that purpose.


Nobody builds a city on top of a mountain. Nobody builds a city in the middle of the desert. A city must be accessible from the outside to survive. There are indeed rare occasions where a city may not need nor want outsiders, such civilizations are usually more primitive and conservative than the ones who are actively integrating with other towns.

Water / (food):

There is no question that a city must have access to water and food. If there is none in the area, then there won't be any settlers. Will goes after this point really well in his answer: https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/232697/29072


There are several aspects that need to be considered.

One aspect not mentioned is simply climate. People like to live in comfortable areas. If you look historically at Earth, you'll see many large, older cities are arranged on a narrow band of latitude.

Another aspect is what do cities do? Cities support population by the services they provide. Placing a city is like placing a McDonalds. Each restaurant has its own little demographic territory that it services. The planners draw little circles around potential locations.

Larger, specialty stores need to have a larger territory, but also a certain density. That's why there's no Apple stores in, like, Elko, Nevada.

So, that gets abstracted out to cities in general.

When it comes to villages and towns, the primary mechanic for placement is simply travel time. Each town is roughly a days travel from each other. That makes the majority of the folks "going into town" a day trip for them (since they, on average, travel to the town that that they're closest to, which is 1/2 day travel). How far are you willing to travel to pick up the necessities for your farm.

The rivers are important for larger cities because of the value of large rivers for transport. Faster travel makes it easier for larger amount of population to be supported by the city -- but only if the travel it two way. No fun going down the river in a day, and having to take a week walking back. But that works great for trade goods, which typically have a one way trip.


Villages will be situated at convenient locations for the villagers to get out and farm.

They will need access to water sufficient for their needs and to ways to get such essentials as salt, but basically, they will spread out over all arable land in due course. This will start with the best land in reach, and work down to the barely adequate as population increases.

As a consequence, villages will be close enough together that a villager doesn't have to walk far to get to his fields and do his day's work, and go back. Exceptional work may have a hut attached so he can stay the night, but normally, much less than a day's walk, since you have to work as well


There's lots of good answers here (along the river ways, near water, climate, etc) but you're missing one of the key driving points of civilization: Stuff. Stuff meaning wood, quarries, minerals, fish, plains for farms, whatever exploitable resource you can imagine.

You're missing the mineral, vegetation and climate layers and that will drive a lot of city placement and growth. Material rich areas draw a lot of people who want to exploit that stuff. Cities form near the stuff, cities make roads, cities make forts to keep the roads safe, defend good positions and so on.

Water ways will drive a lot of the trade -- they are pre-established roads after all -- but no one will go from the coast to the Hantpho Valley or cross a mountain without a really good reason. That reason can be anything from fertile ground for fields to marble quarries to rich forests/game to "because a city is there".

Yes, most medieval cities are self-sufficient but they do have industry focuses and there will be a center of government somewhere. Part of the story is driven by where that stuff is. Does some city-state control a vast wealth? Are there exiles driven away? Barbarians or want to take their stuff? Does the city-state reinforce its roads in fear? Do fort towns (aka castle towns) form? Do uncivilized inns and trade hubs pop-up between the city-state, barbarians, and exiles?


You'll want villages distributed roughly evenly over the arable land.

Then upgrade some of them to towns. You want them evenly distributed so that each village is reasonably close to a town, and each town has about the same number of villages nearby. Prefer villages along navigable water to become towns.

Repeat this process for cities, placing them evenly so they have an equal number of towns and all the towns are within a reasonable distance of a city.

Particularly good places to upgrade are:

  • The lowest point on a river that it is practical to bridge. (London)
  • The confluence of navigable rivers. (Belgrade)
  • Near the mouth of a major navigable river (Alexandria)
  • At a strategic choke point like a pass, straight, isthmus, or oasis linking two areas that trade with one another (Istanbul)
  • If there's a lot of fighting like you get with groups of city states or along a border then defensible locations are good (Athens, Venice)
  • A sheltered natural harbour (Portsmouth, Valletta)

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .