Question: On what "factors" is the location of any (non-)fictional city actually based?

Background Information:

  • I'm actually trying to get all logical/physical choices to generate a random World.
  • Assume that all cities are grown from villages and were founded "When History Started" or "At The Beginning Of Time".
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    $\begingroup$ Related: Culturally Correct Ideal City Location and Is the location of major cities deterministic? $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Mar 7, 2017 at 12:48
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    $\begingroup$ No one is going to shoot you, but it might be put on hold as too broad or duplicate. If this will happen, you can edit to point out differences from existing questions, and narrow it down, for example by providing some context: are your cities naturally grown from villages? Located during medieval period? Or in a way they was created during the beginning of the USA? Or using modern tech and politics?... $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Mar 7, 2017 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ Hi and welcome to Worldbuilding. One if the first things to do when writing a question on any stack exchange is to search the current questions and answers to see if we have an answer for you already (for example this search. However you might find this video useful. $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2017 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ Try to define the scope of your question. As it is now it's too broad to be answered. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Mar 7, 2017 at 13:02
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think the question is too broad to be answered. In fact it is quite narrow and precise, as OP is mentioning that he is asking about city locations at the beginning of historical times, when technology has just started developing. This leaves out a lot of subjectivity as natural limitations would kill most subjective ideas and only objectively sound locations would be left, which would not be too many for any planet/world @L.Dutch $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2017 at 13:05

6 Answers 6


Hello and welcome to WorldBuilding :)

Your first question on this site is very interesting. While your question resembles the ones mentioned by Molot, it is not a carbon-copy of them, and indeed deserves a thorough answer.


Your limitation of the time period (at the start of civilization) in your question is very important and it is this which also makes it all the more interesting! This means that those people would have none of the modern (or even medieval) technology available to them and would have to choose only those locations which are naturally suitable for large scale settlement.

1- Water!

Freshwater is the most important factor in selecting a location for settlement. If you observe the location of all ancient cities, you will notice they were all built on the banks of rivers or lakes. The reason is simple: due to the lack of technology, those people were not able to dig out wells and were limited to settling on locations where fresh, drinkable water was amply available to them.

So, as a starting point, we mark all the banks of rivers in your map/world as the potential locations where the nomadic people would think about settling down permanently.

2- Food

You cannot live by water alone. Of course you are going to require food, too. When you mention at the start of historical times you are referring to a time when agriculture was beginning to develop. Being located near riverbanks would definitely provide you with a permanent resource for drinking and irrigation, but what about the soil type? Of course you cannot settle down at a place where water is amply available, but the soil is infertile and there is no prospect of agriculture or securing enough game to feed your people.

So, now we eliminate all those locations near the riverbanks (and lakesides) where the soil is infertile and the region is barren and lacking in wild game. Only the regions which are fertile, or those having large game reserves would be suitable.

3- Natural Disasters

Would you want to settle down in a place which lays on a geologically active fault-line? Definitely not! The city would be destroyed within a few decades, or a couple of centuries at most. What about a region which is home to intense tornadoes or cyclones? The same. You would not want to settle there, even if it was very fertile and rich in wildlife.

So now we limit our locations to the riverbanks which are fertile and are not home to severe natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and cyclones. Of course an earthquake or a storm would ravage the place once in several centuries. The region just shouldn't be in the bull's eye for such calamities.

4- Lifestyle

Finally, there is the issue of lifestyle and preferences. If you belong to a hunter-gatherer culture where only few people are inclined toward agriculture, you would probably prefer settling down on a riverbank where wild game is available in excess, even if the soil is not very receptive for agriculture. Similarly, for an agricultural-minded people, a fertile plains region would be more preferable to a savanna teaming with game.

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    $\begingroup$ Natural disasters is a bit of a doubtful one. Lots of natural disaster prone areas also come with large benefits. Volcanoes often have very fertile land around them, locations with lots of tectonic activity might have natural wells and many fertile river deltas are prone to flooding. $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2017 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ Back in historical times in Naples, people didn't know what was causing the neighbouring mountain to shake. So they settled down to farm on the very fertile fields on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. When Roman god Vulcan finally showed his mighty power in AD79 they named all such similarly dangerous trembling mountains after him, volcanoes :) so, some of your more ancient town locations may actually be placed in what was later known as dangerous places. $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2017 at 15:03
  • $\begingroup$ Rivers aren't just sources of water - and the rivers humans settled weren't all that good for water either. The main point is that they bring in the fertile waste from elsewhere, and build large fertile valleys through deposition and erosion. They're also a good source of power and transportation, and in many locations, other resources (fish, ores...). And finally, many big cities were originally founded at places where rivers could be crossed - because that's where the land-based trade-routes went through, giving opportunities for various inns and markets, and of course, taxation. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Mar 7, 2017 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ And perhaps give a bonus where a river and another natural trade route (ocean, lake, mountain pass, tributary) meet. $\endgroup$
    – Davislor
    Mar 7, 2017 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ Those towns would later be found only in history books. Know what I mean? ;) @EveryBitHelps $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2017 at 16:25

Next to a river is always a good place to start an inland village (which may sprout into towns and cities). Many cities in Europe and Central Africa are founded along rivers. There are numerous benefits to this, among others:

  • The soil around rivers are more fertile due to regular flooding
  • Rivers provide a more constant source of fresh water
  • Rivers have benefits for productivity (using boats for transport of goods or building water mills)

Caution should just be taken for flooding, and adverse conditions upstream may have detrimental effects, but in general, rivers are good places.

Coastal cities such as Cape Town were often founded as halfway stops for long sea-expeditions, like the East India Company, to rest and restock. Food resources along the coast will be more prominent as there will generally be fish and more potential fresh water.

Mountainous terrain may provide refuge to people who will otherwise be vulnerable to vicious animals or stronger rival civilisations.

In South Africa we don't really have any prominent rivers, so the motivation for settling was different. Disregarding the long history of people moving away from Cape Town due to political reasons, Johannesburg started out as a mining town since we have quite a lot of gold here, so people moved here after the potential money. More north of Johannesburg we have platinum (Rustenburg) and coal even more north and diamonds in the Northern Cape (Kimberley). Pretoria is kind of in between the platinum and gold. It's away from the dirty mining business but still close enough to reap the commercial benefits. (Sorry for the strongly South African references, but that's what I know well).

These may be more modern reason's for setlling, but I still think it's valid. In fact, villages originally in these areas may have a greater advantage in modern times and thrive as cities with these resources.

To summarise, you can have your people settle close to:

  • Fresh flowing water, and if that's not possible
  • Generally more humid areas,
  • Mountainous areas.
  • If you'd like a more modern twist, let them settle near valuable resources
  • And then just for some randomness, have a small chance that cities may form in less hospitable areas like deserts. (There are people surviving and thriving in arid, hostile conditions. As Mrkvička suggested in the comments, the conditions may have been conducive to a thriving civilisation but deteriorated slowly enough for the people to have adapted)

This is not exhaustive but I hope it helps.

P. S.

A good book to read is Guns, germs and steel by Jarod Diamond, discussing a lot of reasons why civilisation came to be as it is.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding, you made a nice first post here! One thought about the "randomness factor" - it could be so that the cities were formed when the land once was lush and thriving, but that later desertification have caused the region to become more arid and hostile; the people might have survived well enough to not want to leave, or realized that even if the region is getting nastier, all other nearby regions became worse. $\endgroup$
    – Mrkvička
    Mar 7, 2017 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! That's a great suggestion. I'll add that to my answer $\endgroup$
    – ChP
    Mar 7, 2017 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ I'm almost envious seeing your answer. You presented the same idea, in better words than me. Definitely deserves a +10 $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2017 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ @YoustayIgo this is really nice to read on my first post. I was actually considering removing the post when I read yours, but I'm glad I didn't. $\endgroup$
    – ChP
    Mar 8, 2017 at 5:11

Cities typically grow out of trade.

Some genesis points:

  • Ports - Towns with safe harbours that are convenient for overseas trade to arrive will grow with the incoming and outgoing trade.
  • Fords - Towns that grow up where trade routes cross a major river. These are natural stopping points and act to compress trade routes in one place
  • Cross-roads - Again, these are compression points for trade routes
  • Religion - If something significant has happened, a town will grow up around that area

Basically, anywhere that groups people together with a need for them to stay together for a period of time or for a purpose. The greater the demand for people, the larger the town becomes.


There is a wonderful Youtube video by Wendover Productions that explains why cities are where they are.

A summary:

  • Towns are usually 10-15 miles apart, because you can walk about five miles, go to a market, and walk about five miles back in a day.
  • The distribution of settlements is related to the sphere of influence of the settlement
  • The distribution of larger towns is more sparse than towns, and cities more sparse yet
  • Cities are located near water, either ocean or river, to facilitate trade
  • Cities are located near natural resources
  • Mountains have varying effects on settlement locations, as they can hinder development, but also be a source of natural resources, and provide protection for cities
  • Continental features are important - wide continents may be much better for human development than tall continents, given that the climate is similar throughout it, and that cultivation of certain plants can be done more easily

I highly recommend watching the video itself.


Ok. A lot of people have covered most of the important things, but let me point out a few more.

Historically speaking, there must be a reason that the camp that became the village that turned into the city was put there/stayed there. Also, the settlement needs to have survived for a long time to grow that much.

So, let us start before history began, and the people were still nomadic hunter-gatherers.

These hunters went from place to place, hunting and gathering. They might have been looking for a good place to stay for winter, and found a spot where there were some good natural options for making some shelter (such as caves, a forest, or a good place for finding rocks), a good water-source (such as a river, stream or lake), and preferably a food-source (such as fish) that won't need them to go on long trips to refresh the store next winter.

Remember, they have their wives and children with them, so they don't want to traverse unknown, dangerous terrain. They want a nice, friendly place.

So, after finding a good place, they settle, and start a village.

It is a good place, so others want it too. That means that the first settlers (or the second, whoever thinks of it first) needs to fortify it. Meanwhile, the food-source needs to be able to feed the villagers (who are now experimenting with agriculture). If the fortifications are too hard to make, the village will probably be abandoned.

As agriculture develops, the strain on the single food source relaxes, and the village is no longer threatened by starvation.

After a while, when everyone has settled down, someone comes up with the idea of trading.

Thus begins a whole new set of challenges for our people.

They need to trade. Not only for food, they probably have a lot of that, but also so that the neighbours don't look over and say "hey! they have all that stuff they don't need, let's go and take it of their hands" starting a war.

And as everyone wants the stuff they are sitting on (be that clay, fish, herbs or ornamental stuff) everyone teams up against them, so that they can trade for that ware with whoever gets it.

Also, trading brings allies. Allies mean strength and more people to do inventing, which means that you develop faster. Allies mean that your daughters can go and marry someone who is not their second cuisine for a change. This is a good thing, because intermarriage leads to all sorts of genetic diseases.

Eventually, these allied villages will decide that it is easier to take all their wares to one spot, which is close to all of them. This will become an early market, or a town centre of sorts, as people realise that if they move there they will get more custom for their wares and services.

As the small community prospers, it grows. As it grows, it creates a sort of economical vacuum where everything and everyone goes. Some people realise that they need better defences, and build some city walls. Others become more powerful, and a sort of government develops.

I think that is roughly all I can say, hope it is useful.


Trade routes.
As long as as there is good communication, the best place to be is on the easiest route connecting two or more major population centres. Merchants going both ways benefit from a safe place to rest and resupply, and the opportunity to make a sale without having to travel the whole distance. This is especially important if the area is otherwise inhospitable, e.g., little water or forage, or possible bandit attacks.

  • $\begingroup$ I already mentioned trade in my answer, just above yours. $\endgroup$ Mar 15, 2017 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkGardner: Your answer is about trading after the settlement is established. Mine is about trade itself being the reason for establishing the settlement. Slightly different. $\endgroup$
    – nzaman
    Mar 17, 2017 at 9:04
  • $\begingroup$ no, mine has that as well, but includes the logical centre of trade becoming a permanent market or fair, and growing into a town. $\endgroup$ Mar 17, 2017 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkGardner: After a while, when everyone has settled down, someone comes up with the idea of trading. $\endgroup$
    – nzaman
    Mar 17, 2017 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ Eventually, these allied villages will decide that it is easier to take all their wares to one spot, which is close to all of them. This will become an early market, or a town centre of sorts, as people realise that if they move there they will get more custom for their wares and services. $\endgroup$ Mar 17, 2017 at 16:46

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