Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Cities: A Google+ hangout report

Last week we had a great chat about Cities - such a great chat, in fact, that we didn't cover certain aspects of the topic! So if you are interested in talking about the resources that go into supporting a city and how to set those up, come to the hangout today at 11am PST and we'll discuss it!

My fellow discussants last week were Glenda Pfeiffer, Janet Harriet, and Brian Dolton - thanks so much for coming.

Our first topic of discussion was City Planning - i.e. whether the city was a planned city or not. I brought up the distinctions between the city of Kyoto, Japan and the city of Tokyo. Kyoto was planned and designed to be the Imperial city, and was between roughly 700-1000C.E. As a result, it was laid out with roads on a grid system which it retains to this day. The boulevards and parallel streets all run north-south or east-west. Orienting in the city is easy, and you can take an alternate route any time you like so long as you retain your sense of orientation to the compass. Tokyo was not planned in this manner (and has in fact had large parts of it destroyed and rebuilt), so its feel is totally different. There are small areas where streets will run parallel, but this can never be entirely guaranteed. If you turn one street too early you can often get completely lost. Neither of these two cities utilizes a lot of street names; I think probably Kyoto has more of them, but in each place these are only for large notable streets. In Tokyo, houses are numbered based on their position on the outside of a block, rather than on either side of the streeet: the number of a house will bear no relation to the number of the house across from it. This can be very disorienting for Americans!

Population density is also a very important question for cities. I remember hearing as a child how dense the population was in Japanese cities, but I never really understood how this was accomplished (short of literally stacking people on top of one another). Japanese cities will give me a sense of being contracted. The small streets will be one lane wide and totally impractical for any sort of parking, with no sidewalks at all, and the houses are built right up to the road. They have no surrounding gardens; if they have gardens at all, these will be in the back or on the inside. One of the consequences of this is that it's very easy to walk from one place to another. The American wide lanes for cars, sidewalks, big yards, etc. mean that it's impossible to walk out of your neighborhood (especially in apartment neighborhoods) without a significant expenditure of time, and hard to get anywhere useful.

That brought us to the question of transportation. I mentioned that in my underground city of Pelismara (in Varin), the five vertical city levels mean that it's actually pretty easy to get from one place to another on foot. The diameter of the widest level of the city is only five miles; so long as you have good climbing legs, you can get all around it as a pedestrian.

Brian jumped in at this point to mention the old European cities, describing them as "inconvenient for modern life." Old cities, he said, are a mess but enormously fun. This brought to my mind a story I had heard about the rebuilding of London after bombings in World War II, when an attempt was made to impose order by changing the placement of streets, etc. but the local citizens totally ignored it and simply followed the twisted complicated roads they always had - and in the end the original street placements were retained. If any of you have ever navigated Paris or Brussels in a car, you'll have a sense of this (I once spent an hour trying to get out of Brussels!). Brian particularly mentioned Venice, where the canals mean that modes of transport are limited to boat or foot. The placement of the canals means that movers have to carry things through the narrow streets on carts. Rich people with large homes and large things to move in - say, like grand pianos - will need to find places bordering the canals, because otherwise there would be no way to get these large objects through the streets into the house!

The topic of Venice brought me to Janice Hardy's city of Geveg (from The Healing Wars series), which was modeled partly on Venice and partly on Africa (Lake Victoria). She used the canal organization for her worldbuilding, but changed the climate, the flora and the fauna, including providing menial jobs for people pulling water hyacinths out of the canals, which put them in danger of being attacked by crocodiles.

Janet picked up on the idea of a lake city and mentioned a city she had read about which was on pylons in the middle of a lake. Laketown in The Hobbit was like this too, and Brian mentioned that there was an age where laketowns were common, particularly in Russia. Because of the heavy forestation and the effort it would take to clear land for a town, in some locations all the towns were built over the river or in the lakes. Both Glenda and Brian mentioned Tenochtitlan (current Mexico City), the Aztec city which had floating crop platforms in Lake Texcoco. (If you want to explore this environment, I recommend the work of T.L. Morganfield and Aliette de Bodard.)

Brian brought up the recent archaeological finds in South America, which are a rich source for possible alternative modesl for city-building. He mentioned that there had been fishing towns where the only major agriculture was the growing of cotton to make fishing nets. Glenda mentioned that she has a particular interest in the area between Peru and Ecuador. I mentioned the Andes (thanks for the inspiration, Janice!), where it was impractical to use wheels because everything you owned would constantly be running away down an enormous hill (Brian suggested square wheels to deal with this problem). On the other hand, if you had an Andean waterfall and a lake uphill from you, that would be great for creating plumbing systems, or even generating power.

The surrounding geography and climate are really important to the way a city feels. Building materials will be different. The age of buildings will also be different. I mentioned the town of Berk in How to Train Your Dragon, where the town was 700 years old but all the buildings were new, due to the predations of fire-breathing nasties. I think it was Janet (correct me if I'm wrong) who mentioned a real-world example of this in Warsaw, where they have lines on the buildings to indicate how much of the building remained after World War II...but where all the buildings were rebuilt - restored, in fact - based on old photographs of how the city looked before the war. Apparently it gives a very interesting impression of being both classically old and "too new." Tokyo was almost completely rebuilt twice, once after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and once after the bombings of the war, and its architecture, by contrast, is almost entirely concrete jungle.

Kyoto has retained its ancient buildings to a large extent and gives a very mixed visual impression, with lots of really new buildings having old, and sometimes ancient, buildings mixed in among them. Strangely enough, the tenant laws in Japan have contributed to this - it's so difficult to evict a tenant in Japan that buildings tend not to be renovated or rebuilt. Brian said that English high streets are often similarly mixed - that you'll see a building from 1400 beside one from 1600 and then one from 1930 and then one from 1820 all in a row, jammed together. Apparently the tourist cities are the ones that have retained a more unified feel among the homes, where almost all of them have come from a single era (I thought that was pretty interesting... now I need to go find one of those jumbled streets to see what it looks like!).

In worldbuilding, you don't need to have a lot of description to show heterogeneity, just include an example of buildings that don't fit here or there, and show the general overall impression.

Janet talked about the contrast between the East and West coasts of the US. In the West, most of the cities were built after the age of the automobile, and it shows (older cities like San Francisco really stand out). In the East, people think little of putting a junior high school in a building which on the West coast would be considered a historical landmark!

The advent of automobiles brought about huge changes that show in modern cities of the US. In particular we discussed the loss of infrastructure like trolley systems and ferry systems. The San Francisco ferry system was almost completely dismantled when the bridges were built, because people were afraid that no one would use the new bridges; now we've come back around and people wish it were easier to put all that old infrastructure back. I have an example of infrastructure loss in my own city of Pelismara: long ago they had a wired telephone system and moved from it to a wireless system, whereupon the old wires were taken down and recycled (Pelismara has to recycle everything, for a number of reasons). The result of this is that when the wireless system failed and certain pieces of technological advancement were lost, there was nothing to fall back on, and they now have to use human messengers.

This was about the point where I mentioned psychogeography - a super-interesting topic that I ran into when I was at WorldCon in 2011. It has to do with the way the arrangement of space changes the way we think (and I go into some depth if you follow the link above). Something like the arrangement of a home to face inward or outward (i.e. compound with inner garden/courtyard versus home with surrounding gardens) creates an enormous difference in the sense of space and what we consider privacy to be. These days we also have the addition of the electronic/virtual world, which is overlaid on actual reality through the use of maps that point out certain things (but not other things) about our surroundings. Surveillance changes the feeling of spaces, and so does the battle over electronic communication spaces (like governments vs. Twitter users in protest movements, for example).

Some good examples of fictional cities to check out:
Genevieve Williams' futuristic Seattle from her Strange Horizons story, "Kip, Running"
Coruscant (Star Wars)
The Capital of Panem (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)
The layered city from Jennifer Pelland's "Brush Strokes"
Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember, with its finite resource plan

We got to the end and there was still more to say, so we decided to pick up the functioning of cities for this week's hangout (today at 11am PST). Come and join us!


  1. I took a really cool anthropology class on cities once upon a time, and now I wish I could remember the name of some of the books we read from so I could recommend them.

    Another really interesting example of a more recent planned city is Salt Lake. The street numbers all start around Temple Square, putting it at the center (I think it's also really interesting to look at what cities place, if anything, as a center/focal point). Streets are then numbered by compass directions on a grid, so if something's at 800E and 751S, the address is all the "directions" you need to reach a place.

  2. MK, sounds like it would have been an interesting class indeed! I thought of Salt Lake at one point, in fact, but it didn't end up making it into the conversation. There's always so much to these topics that we can't do it all! Thanks for mentioning it.

  3. I loved that class because the professor not only let me write my term paper on the USS Enterprise as a city, but she was *thrilled* with the idea.