I'm trying to design a realistically looking capitol (with a few milion people) for one human nation on an exoplanet.

The technology level is barely better than contemporary.

The city is placed near river, on some roughly flat, semi desert. (just boring terrain)

Roughly counting 25% of labour force work in industry (like in modern industrial powers), ~2% in agriculture and the rest in services. The idea is the following. It would be very nice to have heavy industry. It would be also really nice to have a clean city, full of parks etc, in which all population including workers can spend their time after work.

To solve this contradiction the idea is the following - to place the industrial district downwind, and transport the workers using some local version of suburban rail. Additionally to stop any residential, office, etc development in that one specific direction, to have some green buffer zone.

1) Is such concept reasonable? (assuming that local political climate allows that)

2) Whats the reasonable distance between city and such industrial district to protect city mostly from pollution and keep the commuting time reasonable? (does anyone has any study how big area gets affected by pollution?)

3) Should such district be spread around or it would be enough just to put such factories along the rail line?

(So far the best thing that I found were studies concerning London and their airport expansion. It was quite useful concerning how much free space one should leave for a big city and its airport. Just in the perfect case it would need something like that concerning heavy industry)

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Nice question. For 3) I would suggest to try to spread the district; after all people (workers) will "live" there during their work hours, so you do not want high contamination levels there even if it is an "industrial" district. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Dec 9, 2016 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ Please not that the "Capitol" is a hill in Rome (or in Washington DC); the city where the government resides in the capital of the country. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 10, 2016 at 7:55

3 Answers 3


Modern industrial uses are a lot less noxious than they used to be, even though most people don't realize that.

For example, the U.S. Mint in Denver is actually a pretty hard core industrial use that turns raw metal into coins through an industrial process. But, from the sidewalk right next to it, in the middle of downtown, you wouldn't be able to guess that it wasn't an office building.

Detroit has one of the nation's largest salt mines, tucked away with an entrance in an innocuous low rise building that you'd never notice was anything other than a storage facility with a decent sized parking lot. It's less of a disturbance to the neighborhood than a rowdy dive bar.

A large scale brewery capable of providing beer for several million people is similarly surprisingly quiet (almost all a series of connected pipes), employed about twenty people, and is mostly notable for trucks dropping off raw materials and taking away finished products. Small scale distilleries and milk processing plants (I have both in my urban residential neighborhood) are similarly barely more notable than a self-storage place.

I've been to the factory that makes all of the world's Celestial Seasonings Tea, and you can't hear anything notable on the outside, although it does have some strong smells on the inside. Ditto for several other factories around town.

The factory in Colorado that makes the giant windmill blades for industrial sized electricity generation from wind creates less disturbance in the neighborhood than a high school or a pro-baseball field.

Also, most modern factories run on electricity and natural gas, rather than coal and oil, like they did in the industrial era.

Pretty much the only really noxious modern industrial facilities are oil refineries, coal fired power plants (a rapidly declining share of the total power grid), steel plants that use coke (the coal product, not the soft drink), slaughter houses, and dog food factories (one in Commerce City, Colorado stinks up the entire city when the Chinook winds blow in from the north).

The other really noxious modern land uses are landfills (although less so now that people figured out that collecting methane emissions and recycling compost creates another revenue stream), and feed lots (thousands of cows crammed densely into cattle factories) which smell intensely like cow poop for miles.

enter image description here

A modern feed lot

Factories do like to be near rivers or rail lines, however, so goods can get to and from their destinations.

Bottom Line

Almost all of the intra-urban geography of the vast majority of industrial uses are anachronistic residues of how bad industrial uses were for neighborhoods a century ago.

And, to a great extent that goes for what goes on inside factories too. The number of people killed or seriously injured in factories is now barely more than the number killed or injured working in offices or malls or convenience stores.

This is also true of other historical NIMBY uses that still have that connotation like secure prisons and jails which have virtually zero escapes and really don't have to be a bother. From the outside, it is almost impossible to distinguish a modern jail from a modern courthouse, if designed appropriately.

The vast majority of dangerous jobs these days involve working in uncontrolled surroundings like an outdoor construction site, a farm, logging, commercial fishing, or working on repairing roads and bridges.

The only uses that really should be kept at a distance need a range of perhaps five or ten miles from residential areas if they smell really bad, and otherwise can be integrated very closely with any commercial or residential district if they aren't burdened with the historical legacy of land use decisions made based upon earlier inferior coal/steam age technologies.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ You have to consider the worst case. Chemicals released or created if a factory catches fire or is subject to military attack. Also extreme weather, earthquakes, tsunamis. These are good reasons to.put sources of toxins or explosions a decent way outside a major city even if they are quiet and clean when operating normally. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Dec 10, 2016 at 12:21
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ The risk of chemicals released or a factory fire are reasonable. A concern about military attack is not, and neither is a concern about earthquakes or tsunamis if you are far from the ring of fire. Usually, factories can be built to withstand any realistic type of extreme weather. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 10, 2016 at 22:42

The easy way to answer this question is to find some city on Earth you think is pretty OK, and pattern your future city on that. Pick two or three cities and merge 'em. Over time, most human cities have evolved into something like what you want through natural selection of property. Just look at London 200 years ago vs 100 years ago vs now. They used to have tanning tanks right there in town. They used to have pea soup fog. Blech.

If I had an exoplanet to work with, I would build a very wide city, like Houston Texas, as opposed to a tall and dense city like London or New York. Houston is very spread out, a ring of industry around the business center, a ring of commercial around that, and a ring of satellite suburbs for the population. You're building high speed rail, and you get to plan the city up front, so you can build high speed rail from the suburbs to the city centers.

One thing I will say from experience with Houston, however, is that we don't have a "downwind," and I would expect that most places do not have a permanent "downwind." Throughout the day, the air cycles back and forth from the ocean; maybe if you can get way up in the atmosphere to a jet stream or the top of a weather front you can be a bit more predictable, but still, you can't perfectly place industry.

So: spread out the industry like you're doing with the residential areas. Residents can balance their own demands for squeaky-cleanness vs money or travel time. Some people aren't going to value parks everywhere; they'd rather live close to a power plant.

This isn't a utopia, however. Pollution disperses and eventually gets everywhere. If you have a city, like Houston, with a lot of wind activity, it'll get diluted and spread around everywhere, leaving no "clean" zones, but no specific place very dirty. A place like my home city of Bakersfield in the center of a valley, however, will concentrate the pollution inside the mountains, and no amount of zoning will keep every square inch from being covered in smog.

In fact, if you have full control of your worldbuilding (storywise, they had a survey of the whole planet before they landed), you could build your residential and commercial districts inside a valley, and put all the industrial outside the valley. Pollution would spread up and out, but be blocked from the residential areas; a "wall" to make Trump proud. Inside the valley, weather would be rather stable and the air would remain clean. Put your industry on one side of the mountain range and your agricultural center on the other side, and the pollution from industry will stay away from your city and ag. And nobody will bother to check your maths that way ;)


Industry != nuisance, generally speaking

The assumption that underlies North American Euclidean zoning as applied to industrial facilities is that the more "industrial" a use is, the more nuisance it will cause, and the more resources it will require to support it. While the latter is still rather true, the former no longer holds now that oil and coal burning has been replaced by natural gas or electric heat. A modern, well-run factory poses very little nuisance to the surrounding community -- I lived within walking distance of a major regional dairy, and the only things noticeable about it were the trucks on the main roads and the physical presence of the plant. Hardly a nuisance worthy of being zoned away from residences, if you ask me.

Special cases need special handling

However, a few things still need to be segregated by distance from residential, general commercial, or institutional properties. This is less for nuisance in most cases and more for safety -- oil refineries are not just noxious but quite hazardous if something were to go seriously wrong, and the same holds true for factories that produce or use bulk quantities of reactive, toxic-by-inhalation (TIH), or highly flammable chemicals, or storage facilities for said chemicals as well. Petroleum storage "tank farms", facilities handling ammonium nitrate fertilizers, and public works that use bulk chlorine need at least some segregation on this basis.

These latter facilities are what your industrial centers will contain, akin to the industrial suburbs of the Houston metropolitan area. This also has several logistical advantages. Large industrial plants that deal with high-hazards will often have in-house fire brigades that can then coordinate and pool resources to cover the area with appropriately specialized expertise. Atop that, just about all of these facilities will need specialized transportation access such as large-scale rail terminals and barge docking, and clustering such facilities is advantageous for both industrial users (more convenient and reliable service) and transportation providers (go one place for your customers instead of laying rails all over town).

How this'd look from a zoning standpoint

A zoning scheme for this would have two categories of industrial uses. A "General Industrial" category would be used for low-nuisance, moderate-hazard industries such as a dairy, metal fabrication shop, or general warehouse that could be co-located with more intensive commercial, retail, and institutional uses that need similar infrastructure, while the high-nuisance and/or high-hazard uses would be placed in special "Segregated Industrial" districts that are built around rail or barge infrastructure and have high-capacity utilities serving them.

In fire code terms, you'd put your high-hazard (Group H) uses into the Segregated Industrial district, and most of the ordinary and moderate hazard uses (Group F, Group S, and Group U) into the General Industrial category where they could go in among other commercial (Group B, Group M, and to some extent even Groups A, E, and I) and even high-density residential uses.


You must log in to answer this question.

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