I am in the process of beginning to write a fictional book. The book will be set on present day Earth however I want there to be a fictional city.

In my head, I have decided the name, that there will be a river and possibly a coast.

I just wondered what is the process of designing a map for the city?

I have tried starting to draw one, but it is hard to get a realistic scale or size or even where to start!

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ possible duplicate of How can I ensure my cities don't all look the same? $\endgroup$
    – James
    Jan 14, 2015 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Antony, as written I feel this is a duplicate (or at least that the answers on the other question cover your question). If there is something more that is not covered go ahead and edit your question to differentiate it from the Q linked above. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Jan 14, 2015 at 15:01
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I have retracted my close vote Antony. Also I am completely stunned that we haven't covered this before now... $\endgroup$
    – James
    Jan 14, 2015 at 15:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Game maps != real city maps. $\endgroup$
    – user3082
    Jan 14, 2015 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ Not an answer, but one of the things you need to consider is how planned is your city? Some (few) cities completely plan and control all construction and lot development. Most modern western cities are zoned: the streets are planned, but construction/development is done/initiated by individuals/companies and are only constrained by the roads and zoning rules. Some are initially planned, then revert to zoning afterwards. And historically, cities were unplanned, people built anywhere, and streets were created de-facto. These types all tend to look very different. $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2015 at 16:24

9 Answers 9

  1. Age: Is this a brand-new city (say Dubai or Brasil) or centuries old. This will dramatically affect the city's shape and growth pattern. For instance, the grid design (perpendicular streets, like in NYC and Chicago) was invented several times in history, starting with the Indus Valley civilizations, but was often overruled by defensive needs (walls, etc) forcing the city into a compact, circular format. Medieval cities (most European cities) have city centers that are shaped by their origin as forts built to control a strategic junction of trade-routes. Such cities were generally very small (a large capital city like London would only be about 40,000 in 1400 C.E.), and this is often reflected in the claustrophobic city centers of European capitals. Almost without exception, pre-modern cities would be placed along a river, since water was the cheapest form of transportation by far, and also a source of water for drinking and industry, and was also used for sanitation, and food. Lots of canals would have historically been built and used for transportation purposes. Many were later filled up and paved over.

  2. Topography and Climate: This will have shaped how it grew and where your city was located. If there is a river-bank, a city would not start off in the flood plains if that would mean catastrophic yearly or decadal flooding, but rather on a hillock nearby.

    • Different climate modes would imply different construction technologies (so houses crowded together or spread apart with gardens)

    • Topography: Altitude: Settlements in plains tend to spread out like a circular blob, while those in hilly and mountainous areas would be spread like a snake or octopus along roads and valleys.

    • Topography: Sea Access & Port Origin: It might seem obvious that cities cannot grow on water, but that's not actually true. Ports are usually at river mouths, due to rias forming natural harbors, so what was the shoreline once is usually silted up over centuries, either naturally or by the city itself dumping its waste in the harbor. You're probably thinking Netherlands, but look at historical maps and you'll see that surprising amounts of cities like Boston and New York are literally built on the silted-over trash-heaps of previous generations.

  3. How the city fared during industrialization: Did it become a massive industrial center? Expect lots of rail lines, large areas dedicated to factories, and high density (if not necessarily high rise) dwellings for the factory workers. These cities will tend to be a lot larger than those that skipped on the industrial growth spurt.

  4. City planning: Paris, for instance, was a hotspot of popular uprisings, which were very hard to put down because of the narrow streets could be easily turned into fortified positions with numerous choke-points and overlapping fields of fire. Napoleon III hired Haussmann to redesign the city, and the wide boulevards like Champs-Élysées are his legacy. So, was your city systematized and redesigned, or not? Some cities (D.C. for instance) start off with a grid planning and grow on it. Others (Boston) are a semi-systematized nightmare of needlessly serpentine roads, with tunnels to avoid stop-and-go lights every 100 yards. That will affect things like the proximity and density of high-way networks, large wide streets, etc. As they grow, megacities often swallow what used to be independent cities and villages, so keep that in mind as well. Most modern cities in the West have rather strict Zoning laws, to preserve historical heritage (in Europe) or keep out poor people (in US suburbia).

So in summary: Start with a core, and based on your answers to the questions above, plus whether it's a port, grow it out. In practice, I would look at a dozen or so cities that are similar to what you have in mind, pour over old maps, and go from there.

EDIT: In terms of placement, you can be rather vague. In Eric Flint's 1634, Grantville is a "typical" West Virginian town. Gotham is a blend of New York and Chicago, never clearly placed on a map. If you wish you might as well make up the river name too, but state that it starts from such and such mountains, etc. My favorite fictional city, Ankh Morpork, is at the mouth of a vast river going into a major sea.


I have been drawing fictional maps for the last 20 years. I am currently busy on a project city that has an estimated population of 2,000,000. I agree with all the above posts. I used to do them by hand, but now I do them by CAD. My last few hand-drawn maps were done on some square paper; I pulled out a double A4 sheet (I'm in South Africa, and we use the metric system) and used the grid. Usually I draw on a scale of 1:20000. The map below I drew as a part of my project. Feel free to use it and/or comment on it. The scale of that map is 1:50,000. One small square has a side of 50m.

Anyway, here are my general steps:

  • Draw the coastline and/or your major river and/or lakes (the 'geographics')
  • Draw some contour lines (elevation) for your hills.
  • Lightly pencil in your major roads .A highway is on a gradient of 1:20, and so are my roads. Rail I design on a 1:100 gradient.
  • That will be your 'old' road; later feel free to design in a modern bypass.
  • If you choose to have an river flowing into a sea, then build a port in there. The size depends on your cities size. It could be a small marina, or a container depo.
  • Draw your waterfront. It should be about 50m wide, with small shops.
  • You should have a nice boulevard running next to your waterfront.
  • Draw your central business district (CBD) (offices), on the coast I use a 50m x 50m square per block. You'd need an office block per about 5000 residents.
  • Near your CBD, place a railway station.
  • Near that, I usually have a police station, municipal offices, the courthouse.
  • For cities larger than 50,000 to 100,000 the streets are usually one-way
  • Also in a larger city, have a feeder highway coming into the CBD
  • Place some dense residential buildings near your town center. a 30m x 60m plot can hold about 24 apartaments.
  • Residential areas need schools with sport fields. My model is that 17% of your population are school going children. My schools have a capacity of about 1000 students.
  • Don't neglect your religious facilities, your clinics and your cemeteries.
  • My suburbs are based on single family houses with the plot sizes varying between 400m2 to 2500m2 depending on the level of income.
  • Consider a small airport. Runway should be longer than 1000m by 30m wide, with about 100m on either side, and about 400m of overrun at each end, topography allowing. It should be on a flat terrain, but I have seen real-world runways on slopes. Usually the approach angle is 3.0 degrees to a runway (I held a pilots licence at one stage).
  • Spoil your residents with a stadium. Lots of parking around it.
  • Add a few factories. These have large footprint of about 200m x 300m. My estimate is that about 1/3 of your population works in the factories, and I assume 1 person per 100m2 of factory footprint.
  • Draw in the town bypass, maybe insert a small interchange. (Interchanges are one of my geeky passions)
  • Don't forget your parks (in Britain the ratio is roughly 1 plot of a park for 50 houses)
  • Railway lines have a minimum radius of 200m
  • Clover leaf loops are diameter 100m
  • Restaurants, bars, shopping centers. My town below doesn't have malls.

Here below is one I prepared earlier... 0ED = Kindergarden, OAH = Old Age Home, I have 5 different religions, the 'club' symbol on a green background is the cemetary, Green anchors are marinas, Red anchors are water based emergency services, blue anchors are ferries. Psi-Omicron-I (simulate a fork, plate and a knife) HS = Hotel Small. 1000 MMF = 1000 employees in a medium manufacturer.

This is what I'm currently busy with... Permission is granted to use the image

  • $\begingroup$ Wouldn't “a double A4 sheet” be an A3 sheet? $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2018 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ great details here, the examples and mention of specific features and ratios are very handy $\endgroup$
    – BKlassen
    May 10, 2018 at 16:05

Designing a city map is a layered process so here are your layers (or steps).

Step 1: Define the site

Define the physical location. The basis of which is a topographical map. This should include elevation, rivers/streams/lakes (I could have just said bodies of water I suppose...), and what the ground is like in the various areas (meaning rocky, or sandy or arable soil etc etc etc, and don't forget forests. There is more to this (any physical characteristic you can think of really)

Step 2: Integrating it into the world. Its a simple matter (relatively speaking) to define a single location, making that location fit into the grander world is more complex. You don't want to define a single location without thinking about how it fits into the greater world, thinking about this up front can be helpful. This will help you define what type of city you are creating. Is it a crossroads that becomes a trading center, is it near a border and did it spawn from a central border fort? More specific to designing the city it will help you make sense of where roads should go. In many cases you have roads (or at least paths) long before you have a city.

Example: using your brief idea mentioned in the OP think about this

  • You build a city with a river that flows south to north and then empties into a sea that defines the norther border of the city.
  • You add a central road/thoroughfare that follows the river N to S
  • You later decide that the cities of this region are all coastal (meaning they would all be aligned to the east or west of the city, in which case having the main road run N to S makes no sense.

This is a really simple situation but thinking about how a city fits into the world around you helps define what you are looking to create and provides logical consistency later without forcing you down certain paths you may not like.

Step 3: City Details

How big is your city (geography and population) how densely populated is the town? To get an idea on how big you want it look at this list: Cities by population density. That should help you define size vs population. Once you have that you can define what type of city it is. Was it originally a fort? Is it a walled city on the plains? Is it a mountain mining town? Hidden forest retreat...you get the idea, this list could go on forever. Other things to think about:

  • Available building materials (this can dictate how your city looks) a desert city is unlikely to have a lot of wooden buildings for example.
  • Natural resources, what does the city produce and what does it need. Generally in fantasy settings cities have quarters (or at least some breakdown of sections) a major manufactured good could help dictate these.
  • Keep in mind your topography, for example a city that spawned from a fort would generally be on a hill or some other strategic location

At this point you have geography, roads, city flavor and style, relevant sections of town and you can simply fill in the details at your leisure. Keep in mind older cities tend to follow geography while newer ones tend to grid things out.


Use real maps.

Grab some maps, same scale, of cities of similar age and climate (and ethnic origin) of the one you intend, and copy-paste them in an image editor until you are happy with your city.

Print the result, and then, start again by hand (either in paper or on screen) copying the features you want from your collage map to your brand new map.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Probably the best approach for the least amount of work. For works set further in the past you can even get away with using a single historical map. $\endgroup$
    – Lilienthal
    Jan 14, 2015 at 19:39
  • $\begingroup$ Also, if you want to make your city just a tad more unrecognizable from your source, you can flip it to a mirror image. $\endgroup$
    – Random
    Jan 21, 2015 at 20:16

I would really not recommend to use Sim city (whatever the version) to make a real fictional city. The transportation system is the main problem, it's almost impossible to create something plausible because the Sims are too dumb/lazy.

I think the main aspect with mapping a modern city is about the transport system. I make the assumption that the city is quite large with over 1 million people.

I started designing a city not long ago, here's the process I used :

  1. Decide how big the city is and how detailed you want it to be.
  2. Find the most appropriate tool to work on it. I used Adobe Illustrator because it was a big city and vector allow me to zoom and rescale the elements easily. A free alternative to Illustrator is Inkscape.
  3. Find the general terrain of the city. Is it flat, does it have rivers running in it, is it in a bay, is there a lot of islands...? You can use real word image for inspiration. The geography will play a huge role in transportation and for a mapping perspective, is a very important aspect.
  4. Now that you have the geography of the city, start to plan where the major elements are. As James mentioned, you city is not alone but liked with other cities by road, rail, high speed trains, highways, ferries. There are long distances link and also likens to cities that are closer like the commuter train is often of its own system of rails.
  5. You need to do some history about the past of the city. Is it an old city, was it planned like Brasilia, or planned but got somewhat out of control (New York, Istanbul)... Newer cities in America developed differently than the old cities of Europe. One thing is that European cities look more decentralized. The polarization between the suburbs and the Downtown is smaller than in America.

    In planned cities, even when they are planned, it's not possible to plan everything in advance. Most cities rely on a small margin to develop their infrastructures and are constrained by a lot of factors: money , available space, regulations, and the existence of a previous infrastructure. Changing the infrastructure is costly, so they tend to patch the problem instead of starting form scratch.

    This means that cities tend to expand organically. Modern cities have cars and highways, making the distance less of an important factors. Cities spread with a low density when there is an access to an highway. This is not true everywhere, in America, most areas have plenty of space. It's the opposite in Europe.

  6. City layout, zoning and major buildings: That is the part where Simcity gets useful. The main zones are Residential, commercial (shopping, services and offices) and industrial. Other zone include: parks and forested areas, farmlands, and another one for infrastructures for the seaports/airports. I think it's better to have public buildings put individually on the map rather than using zones unless all the schools are in the same district (SC3000).

Industrial : When I look at New York, it appear clear that
industrial zones are located with a direct access to the
transportation system. I mean, most of the industries are simply
near the rivers/seaports. If there is no access to water, they are
close to railways. They need supplies and to be able to ship their
goods, it's as simple as that.

Commercial: Shops are not all big commercial centres. Most are small
or medium businesses.  They tend to be located near busy roads to
attract more customers. They need a good access not to the goods but
to the people. Offices are more complicated. Large offices are like
vacuum fillers. When the prices are too high, you need high density.
Even with access to adequate transportation, the industries might
not be able to cope with the terrain value. Some resident are
fortunate enough to have a condo Downtown but there is not enough
rich people and not all of them want to live in a busy area.
Therefore this area become filled with tall buildings. (in an
American city model)

Residential: Most areas begin as residential or farmlands. Ad the
city expands, the zoning changes. Manhattan was once filled with
Dutch, Irish and German immigrants but they moved and were replaced
by industries and offices later on. People had their houses need
where they worked. Some large factories even build houses for their
workers. But as said earlier, with cars and other transportation
means, access to the workplace has become easier and the distance is
less important. 

Forest/parks: Forested areas only occurs in a low populated area
mainly because of the distance form Downtown or because of a
deficient transportation system in the area. The growth of the city
is often uneven and it's possible to find some pockets of trees.
Parks are always the fruits of a city decision. Originally, these
places where at the outskirt of the city, unpopulated or almost.  

Airports: are located far from downtown in low populated areas,
usually. It covers a large area so it's not possible to relocate
large offices/industries. The height of the buildings could also be
a problem as planes could hit them or create disturbance.

Public buildings: They are located where the people are with
relatively good access with transport. School and hospital are
usually larger with higher population densities but large buildings
can also be found in the suburbs. The concentration of public
building is usually higher in densely populated area because even if
the density is much higher, it's not really ideal to make 10 storey
high schools. So a high population city will need a lot of them. 

University and research centres: Need a lot of people. Most are
located in large cities over 100 000 people. It is not ideal to have
them in the suburbs but it's possible.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You should take a look at Cities in Motion. It is an urban transit planning simulator, which allows constructing very realistic roads and public transit facilities. $\endgroup$ Jan 15, 2015 at 3:29

My first recommendation would be to find 2-3 cities that exist that are close to the features you want in the city. Then you need to know the history of the city you are creating (at least a few rough ideas. Was it a fishing community? shipping? military port? Then steal ideas from other cities that have these features. Never hurts to model on the real world when you can to help with making your city feel more realistic.


There are plenty of map-gen out there.

However, as I said in comments, game-city map-gen is not necessarily real-city map-gen.

So it depends on how whether you want something uber-realistic (in which case, why not use a real city and call it a different name, ala Gotham or Metropolis?) or something which may be optimized for story-telling?

Part of this is going to be where your city is set: weather and history play an important part. For example you're not going to get a thousand year old city in N or S. America. Any city that wasn't built on reclaimed land, or otherwise reliant on newer technology/trade has likely been around for centuries in other parts of the world.

I'd probably just mash-up some maps of already existing cities in appropriate climes.


As an Old Dungeons & Dragons Gamer, use graph paper. If it's necessary to see large scale there are places you can buy 3'x 4' sheets. Scale as needed. Decide "what" you need in the city. Then assume a certain size for your streets, alleys and roadways or possibly elevated rails, railroads and subways. Colored pencils (there's a reason for pencils over pens - you can erase) are good to designate ground level, below ground and elevated areas. Using your street widths set your buildings in place, on average all your buildings CAN take up the same footprint. If you decide this is not good then set a square to be a certain size say 10' x 10' and size your buildings appropriately. Decide on rivers, lakes, ponds or other features such as storm drains (not the storm sewers - but the big tunnel type), caves or whatever. Rough draft your placements before you commit them to your larger sheet.

You can use standard ruled 8 1/2 x 11 graph paper to layout the interiors of any buildings you need to "see" the layout of. I use 1 sheet for each building if one level or multiple sheets if more than one level. You can always make assumptions as to sizes. A standard street lane is about 10 feet wide. Two lanes 20 feet, inner city with street parking add 6 to 8 feet per side. Sidewalks add another 8 to 10 feet again. City buildings maybe 30 feet by 40. Some bigger some smaller.

Unless it's important, you don't need to layout things as sewers, water, electric or gas. Really the most critical issue is to sit down and decide WHAT you want to have in it, place the important things then fill in the rest later. It really doesn't matter if all the buildings have a use or a name. How many of the little places do you pass everyday and don't really notice? You mostly remember the important ones. Those are the ones you want to flesh out in your descriptions. That gives you an option to "use" them for something later if you need a place to do something in your story you didn't anticipate or think about earlier. Knowing your story figure out what the settings are and what you need to have in it, then you can populate the "city" with what you need to have.

Hope this helps in some small way. Either way have fun with it. You're the one making the city. Set your imagination free.

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    $\begingroup$ That sounds like hundreds of hours of work! Have you used this methodology personally? $\endgroup$
    – user243
    Jan 14, 2015 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ @JonofAllTrades - Most serious gamers that run games (Gamemasters or Dungeonmasters) have done this, at least on a small level if not the whole world. There is a really neat sourcebook on worldbuilding from 2nd edition D&D, from plate tectonics on up. I have a 3'x4' outline of a major continent done right now that I am working on terrain features and populations to run a game. $\endgroup$
    – JohnP
    Jan 16, 2015 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnP: Certainly, and I've done considerable worldbuilding myself. I question the idea of placing individual buildings for an entire city. Keep in mind that this question is about laying out a city, not a continent. $\endgroup$
    – user243
    Jan 16, 2015 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ @JonofAllTrades - Depends. I have done that as well as needed. If you are running a lot of city adventures, then yes, there are those that map the city, aqueducts, sewers, etc. - paizo.com/products/… (That's a sourcebook for a D&D clone game). Admittedly, that doesn't go into minute detail, it's used more as a springboard location than anything. $\endgroup$
    – JohnP
    Jan 16, 2015 at 22:21
  • $\begingroup$ I have folders at home that have detailed village maps, store/ building descriptions and even person profiles. A devoted gamer will take time to develop things that might go into the game as you never know who will ask what so you really have to cover a lot. It certainly is not unheard of to make sure detailed bios of cities, people or surroundings. As for making a whole city lay it out, and just detail the places relevant to the story line. $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2015 at 15:40

A point to consider is that most cities do not spring to life all at once, but grow organically. There is a small settlement, or several in the area of a large city. These grow into small towns. As the city grows, the small towns are absorbed but the lines and roads of the original town are still there. This can be repeated several times as the site grows, with settlements around the area at river crossings growing to towns, then some towns growing to small cities and then the area between is filled in as the major city grows. But you still see echoes of these old centers on the map.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I thought about this and in fact somebody asked a question on this site about that too which I have looked at also $\endgroup$ Jan 17, 2015 at 6:29

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