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If you live in a town of wooden buildings, fire can be a big problem. If you have the luxury of being able to plan the layout of a city, how do you plan the city to avoid major fires?

Notes:

  • Low-tech doesn't mean low-knowledge. For example, they could be rebuilding after a fire wiped out most of the city, allowing them to start fresh with fire prevention in mind.
  • Water is not scarce. Low-tech cities are likely to be built near a lake or river so as to ensure sufficient water.
  • Other building materials are probably available, but not as cheap or plentiful as wood.
  • The city is compact - a lot of people want to live in a fairly small area.
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City planning was always the key to prevent big fires. Each time after a devastating fire ravaged a city, like Great Fire of London in 1666, leaders were thinking about how they can rebuild better.

Generally, there are few important considerations:

  1. Wide and straight roads. They would stop, or at least slow down the fire, as well as provide quick access to fire brigades and improve evacuation;
  2. No building cluttering and no slums;
  3. Easy water access throughout the city - there must be a well, or cistern, or body of water within quick reach from every block.

Other things, like professional fire brigades with fire watchers are also beneficial. Switching building from wood to brick or stone is also good, but looks like you want prevent it in your scenario.

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  • $\begingroup$ How wide do the roads need to effectively stop the spread of a fire? $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Aug 28 '17 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ The wider, the better. Haussmann's boulevards are probably out of question for small medieval city, but two-way cart traffic streets are much better than harrow alleys. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Aug 28 '17 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ one of the big problems in 1666 which was done away with was jetties, wooden tudor buildings would often overhang on upper floors, post 1666 you see mostly straight sided buildings of brick or stone with no overhangs $\endgroup$ – jk. Aug 29 '17 at 15:44
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Plan I: evacuate all the poor people from the more elevated parts of town, build your palace and rich friends' houses up there. For preference out of brick. Nice wide streets, aqueduct water service, sewer. Surround this precinct with stony zen gardens, plazas, stone basilicas and so forth. Life is golden! Let the poor people build their wooden hovels down below. Learn to play the tibia utricularis and when the town burns down, get down there and buy up the land from the dispossessed; sell some on speculation; build more wooden apartment blocks and charge rent on the rest. Occasional fires are good for forests and cities alike. Burn out the dead wood, so to speak.

Well, this plan avoids major fires up there on the Palatial Hill where it's important, eh wot?

Plan IJ: tile roofs and cladding, especially along the perimeter of a block or precinct. In conjunction with relatively wide streets, this should keep many fires from spreading far. Blowing cinders that land on the roof will cool and cause no great harm. Wide streets (at least between blocks & precincts) will protect neighbouring buildings as well.

Plan IIJ: urban sprawl. Build several small citylets in close proximity, perhaps surrounded by farm land or orchards and with the civic infrastructure at the centre. When Mrs. O'Leary's cow burns down one residential precinct, the others, owing to their distance from one another, will be left intact.

Plan IIIJ: Hobbiton. Build your city near the water source, but up in the hillsides above. Dig smials and line them with wood panelling. Impossible for a fire to spread from one house to another, on account of the intervening earth. Round doors optional.

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If water is readily available I see no reason why it would not be a major part of fire suppression. The other main thing to consider would be increasing the distance between buildings to stop fire from jumping to neighboring buildings.

I can't really see any reason to get more elaborate than that, water has always been the best low tech solution for preventing fires.

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  • $\begingroup$ Water is a low tech solution for putting out fires. It is hard to use it for preventing fires. Stuff tends to dry out. $\endgroup$ – Willk Aug 28 '17 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ How would they use the water? What systems would they put in place to get it to the fire? If the fire is half a mile away from the water source, carrying a bucket back and forth between the fire isn't going to do much. $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Aug 28 '17 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ @RobWatts Well the ancient Romans managed to move water all over their cities through the use of aqueducts. Now they didn't use them much for firefighting, but they could be used to deliver water just like our modern plumbing. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_aqueduct $\endgroup$ – Braydon Aug 28 '17 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ What would an aqueduct look like if most of the city is at or above the level of the water nearby? Doesn't the water level need to be higher than the city in order to transport it into the city? $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Aug 28 '17 at 22:35
  • $\begingroup$ @RobWatts That is correct, but you never specified the water source was lower than the city so I thought it could be a possibility. If you're okay with the lake or river being above the city then aqueducts should be an option. One idea would be to have the river be significantly more elevated upstream from where the city is build on its banks. (Obviously they are always slightly slanted, but maybe this one has fairly steep areas) Maybe throw in a waterfall or two. $\endgroup$ – Braydon Aug 28 '17 at 22:40
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Brick.

from http://fox2now.com/2017/08/14/why-st-louis-is-built-of-brick/

St. Louis, MO — It's not the easiest way to build a house, nor the cheapest, but beginning in the middle of the 19th century St. Louisans decided to stick with brick. Part of the reason was under their feet.

"There were huge clay deposits in there and so that really made it possible to create brick on site. Then the other impetus for this is the Great Fire of 1849 which burned down really the entire St. Louis downtown and led to the passage of ordinances that really required that more construction be brick," said Dr. Robert Archibald.

I suspect brick businesses made sure that their legislators passed this ordinance. I know Chicago passed a similar ordinance after the Chicago fire. A city next to a natural water body probably has clay available like St Louis did and so bricks would not be prohibitively expensive. Available coal helps too, or you can use your wood to make charcoal to fire the brick furnaces.

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If water is not scarce, then build canals. They'll provide handy transport links around the city for bulk goods (on barges or rafts). In addition they make good firebreaks, and are a ready source of water for locals to throw onto fires. In posh areas, have 'water gardens' and 'lakeland parks' instead of canals.

The city council can make laws saying all buildings over a certain size must have water troughs outside for animals to drink from, and/or a water pump for humans to drink from. These are an additional source of water when fire breaks out.

Lots of big town squares, which are cobbled or paved. People can erect temporary structures here, such as market stalls, but no-one can build anything permanent. Again, these act as firebreaks.

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    $\begingroup$ How much water would it take to build canals? Would it be possible to make it work for a city by a lake? $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Aug 29 '17 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ @RobWatts. Oh yes. Build into the lake! Take the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan as your inspiration. Or Venice. Useful article here: mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/aztecs-and-lake-navigation $\endgroup$ – DrBob Aug 30 '17 at 12:19

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