View Full Version : City Size

11-19-2009, 12:50 AM
I'm working on a city but I think I may be making it too big, but I'm not sure and am looking for some advice

Currently it is 10 miles x 7.5 miles. SO the basic question is how big should I make this city

A little about the city and the campaign it will be used for

Basic Geography
Center City lies between two mountain ranges which cuts the Northwest part of the continent off from the rest of the continent. The two mountain ranges at this point are about 150 miles a part from each other and each house a different Dwarf Clan. It is on a major river and has docks for ships going up and down the river. It is a temperate climate region (think the climate around New York City) with 4 seasons. Temperatures rarely go below 0 or above 100 degrees

The racial demographics are approximately as follows
85% Human and Halfling
5% Dwarf
<10% other races
<1% Elf

Total population is greater then 25,000

Basic History
The city was once a simple fishing village under the protection of a noble family. There was a civil war in the ancient Kingdom, and this noble stayed neutral. Because of that he was forced to flee to this town. The ancient kingdom completely collapsed itself so no one came looking for the noble or his family.

The village grew to the size of a small town, but wasn't constantly attacked by Barbarians, Orcs, Gblins etc so couldn't grow beyond that size because of the attacks.

A war broke out between the two clans of Dwarfs, and the nobles (Descendants of the noble) brokered a peace between the two clans and as a part of the peace plan, so the two clans could get used to working together built a keep for the town.

Because of the keep, ad with help of the Dwarf clans the attacked basically stopped and the town started to grow.

About 150 years ago the noble family was overthrown by the wealthy of the city and it now ruled by a council which one member from each family who has a total net worth of 500K or more (less then 1% of the population) plus elected representatives (voted on by land owners) from throughout the city the total of which is two less then the amount of people who are on the council because of their money. (Yes the government is now mainly run by plutocrats, which means a lot of corruption.

Some City Features
The city wall was completed 100 years ago and is pretty well maintained because most of the land outside the city is still wild land. Before that it was unwalled except for the keep itself.

The keep itself is approximately 800'x800', 3-4 stories high (plus a basement level (maybe 2)). Entrances through the wall of the keep are only on the east and west sides of the wall.

A Coliseum
A Great Library
Dwarf District (nicknamed Dwarf Town) to the south of the keep and a Noble district (all the people with that high net worth) to the north

There were 4 (Maybe more) Thieves guilds (think more like present day Organized crimes. They dealt with the tradition pickpockets, extortion, protection, assassinations etc.) However there was a meeting for the leaders of the four guilds and the city guard came in and arrested the leadership of all the guilds (executed the morning publicly). The headquarters of all the guilds were hit by the city guard that night as well as many of the various safe houses of the guilds. The total upper echelon of the guilds were either arrested or killed and will most likely be put to death soon.

The campaign will start the morning after where the players, who were part of one the guilds, went to an inn which was one of the neutral territories for the guilds.

I have no ideas what my players are going to do, Though there is a story of things going on, what role they play I don't know because I have decided to leave this campaign open from the player point of view. They may decide to be one of the ambitious people and create a new thieves guild, or decide to try and find out how the guilds were taken out so easily, or decide to go the traditional adventurer (I hope not the traditional adventurer) route.

So how big should i make this city?

11-19-2009, 02:03 AM
Looking over some real life city population density stats i have come up with a approximation that may help you out.

Boston is a busy but not too crowded city. It has a population of 589,141 a land area of 48.43 square miles and a population density of 12,165.8 per square mile. But if you think about the taller buildings which allows for more people to live on top of each other it is easy to see that the city would feel much more crowded if it was limited to single family dwellings. (I lived there in my youth and three story houses divided up into apartments is common as well as apartment buildings of four or more floors with multiple units on each floor.)

So i would suggest for the sake of argument we cut it down to 5,000 people per square mile which would give you something in the range of five or six square miles for your city if you want it to seem to be teeming with people. (People ready to slit each other's throat just for some breathing room.)

I live in Las Vegas and we have a bit more room here, but there are certainly people everywhere you go. We have about 2000 people per square mile, but keep in mind there is plenty of undeveloped land here in the city. You can drive down a street inside the city and be looking at desert.

When you see these people they are usually in their cars going someplace else. I imagine if they were walking on the street it would look like a festival was in progress.

All this is a round about way of saying i think your city would do well at about 5 by 3 miles and be busy without driving people into the wild surroundings. Six by four would also seem good. The other alternative of course is to keep your original size and increase the number of inhabitants. (Besides, what would people do in their spare time stuck inside an isolated city with danger outside the walls but get to know each other?)

11-19-2009, 07:43 AM
I reckon you should look up the stats like Nordling has done but instead of using Boston, look for an area of the world much like the demographics that you want. Modern day stats are not much use in a fantasy setting. I think 10 miles across is about 20x the size it might be.

11-19-2009, 09:53 AM
Joey, try this:


A quote from there:

City Size: Cities and towns of the Middle Ages cover one square mile of land per 38,850 people, on average. This is a density of about 61 per acre or 150 per hectare, so the land within the walls of a typical city of 10,000 would be 165 acres—hardly a city by modern standards, in terms of population OR size. Some very large cities may have had up to twice this density.

Looks like your city is WAY too big - should be around 0.75 mile across!

11-19-2009, 10:06 AM
Dear God! TEN MILES! That is way too big (unless you are including in that figure the farmlands). With an average human walking speed of approximately 3 miles per hour, it would take a person 3 hours to walk from one side of your mythical city to the other, or nearly a full day for a round trip. Worse if the PC/character is a halfling with a shorter stride/movement rate ;)

The following link gives some interesting studies on size of ancient cities (Notably Ancient Babylon, and Ancient Egypt): https://faculty.washington.edu/modelski/WCITI2.html
*NOTE Some of the table entries appear a little 'off' and reading the document I can only suppose they are missing some hyphens in areas.

Now, the above mentioned document shows cities like Eridu having a population of 10,000 people and only occupying a space of 50 hectares, or about 7 hectares by 7 hectares. Now 1 hectare is an area 100m x 100m, and a square kilometre (km2) is 1000m x 1000m, so there are 100 hectares in a square kilometer. What's that in Miles? Well, 1 square mile (1 mile x 1 mile) is approximately 259 hectares or 16 x 16 hectares.

SO, A population of 25,000 people would likely be at most for the city proper in a medieval period be around a single square mile. Even using a town like London, by 1600's had a population of approximately 250,000, and thus would be larger. By that period hansom cabs were common, and foot traffic was limited to one's burrough.

See Diagram below for comparison

11-20-2009, 04:54 AM
Thank you all very much. The articles were all very useful. I decided for my purposes I needed a city of a high pop so I went with the 10K/50 Hectares. My city is now 1.572 miles (8,300') x 1.9138 Miles (6,300') )can hold about 97K people, but it will hold less then that because several areas won't be as dense as others, for instance, the upper class district of the city.

I have another stupid question which wasn't covered in about those articles, what would the typical size of a home for the average family be?

11-20-2009, 10:41 AM
Very small. Most homes were 1 or 2 room shacks. A medieval family was somewhat larger than most families today. I would say an average of 4-6 kids, however there was a high infant mortality rate. In addition, extended families would often share a house. I would guess by some drawings that I have seen that 20'x30' would be a good starting place for a lower income house. Then move up from there. Many homes would be 2 floors, and often were rentals, with one family on the first floor, and another on the second.

Probably half of the city would be these smaller, lower income homes. They are the "grunt" work. From there you would have merchants and shop owners whose home is also their business, so they would be bigger. Then you steadily move up till you get to some of the larger townhouses which will be owned by wealthy merchants, nobility, and others who can afford them.

11-20-2009, 11:27 AM
Also don't forget that in cities, especially walled ones, it was often easier to build UP than it was to build out.

The idea of the modern 10+ story apartment building isn't actually modern. The poorest housing would of course be at the top. Medieval cities packed a lot of people into a small space.

11-21-2009, 09:56 AM
Having seen some Scottish crofters cottages and African tribal huts first hand, I'd say 10' x 20' might be more typical, with some of the smaller huts being not much bigger than an igloo.

In a city, often a family would share a single rented room, perhaps less than 10' square, with 6 kids, granny and the animals. Even the smaller family businesses might have only two rooms - a family room and a workshop.

Privacy wasn't viewed the same as it is today.

Take a look at this - the first 'cottage' belongs to the lord! :


11-21-2009, 02:02 PM
I make my huts on the 10 to 20 foot range and my small houses/businesses for the city dwellers in the 30 to 50 foot range. My house brushes are all that way.

11-22-2009, 12:58 AM
10'-30' is what I normally do, so I was in a good range, so that is good. But I have my next stupid question.

How wide should roads be in my town? I know there is some variability in this question so I'll break it up by street type.

Main Streets?
Side Streets?
Back Streets?

11-22-2009, 02:36 AM
The width of streets depends a lot on how they are being used. If they are only to support foot traffic, they can be rather narrow. If horses are being ridden through the street, more room is required. Chariots, elephants, single-horse carriages, small vendor's carts require additional space. Full-sized coaches, dragons as mounts, giants, great trains of tribute, marching bands or armies, and the like want really wide streets.

There is also a question of social conventions. If your inhabitants are comfortable rubbing shoulders with strangers, the streets will be narrower than if convention dictates maintaining a sword's length distance between others.

Finally, you should consider government and city planning. A certain width might be legally required for safety purposes (e.g., to allow four people to run abreast if a fire breaks out) or other justifications. Laws may not always be followed, but this is the sort of thing an effective government can pretty much always enforce. Then you have to consider if the streets are used for something other than traffic. If you have channels for waste disposal (open sewers, basically), you need to allow room for them in addition to space for traffic.

11-22-2009, 08:35 AM
I make my main streets wide enough to fit two wagons going in opposite directions plus some foot traffic...about 20 feet. Side streets then are about 12-15 and alleys are 6-10 feet. These are numbers that I've made up with no real examination of real world old towns but I'm not so fastidious to go and research it so I've always just used my gut.

11-22-2009, 10:00 AM
Was just watching an Episode of Battles BC (http://www.history.com/content/battles-bc), regarding the battle of Jericho, and the BENCHMARK figure used by historians for estimating ancient city/town populations (this is the real deal) is 240 people per urban acre. In Jericho'scase the city was approximate 8.5 acres, so a pop of 8.5 x 240 = 2040 people.

So, in a city of one Square Mile in size, that is 640 acres (or 639.9974 tobe exact).and 240 x 640 is 153 600 people.

11-22-2009, 12:28 PM
That sounds pretty good to me. Even back then in ancient times they could build 2 to 3 stories upward and have shared walls. It's not medieval numbers but fudging that number up a little bit wouldn't be too drastic. London didn't hit 1 million until like that 1800s (if I remember right) so you could double that number and be real close to having a colossal medieval city.

11-22-2009, 11:26 PM
I agree with the street sizes that Ascension gave. That is what I use. I will occasionally put in a wider street if there is a reason, but for the most part, those are good numbers.

Don't forget to put plazas and squares in various areas. Many will center around a well or a fountain which will be the source for fresh water. They will also be used as local market areas where farmers will sell fresh goods.

11-22-2009, 11:27 PM
Your two main constraints on city size are:
Availability of Resources
Availability of Transport

To get more people packed into a city, you have to figure out how to get their CRAP out (literally!). If you don't have that sorted, your population peaks due to pestilence.

To get a "larger" city you need better transport. As mentioned, people aren't likely to walk more than about 2 miles to get ANY daily necessity (would you walk for 1 hour to get breakfast, DAILY??). So, once you know the transport level, that will give you an idea of the kind of size your city can have and the number of markets it will need.

As far as dwellings go. Most of Europe had fairly stable 3 storey buildings by the 1600s. Inner city districts often got replaced with stone townhouses (3 storeys with maybe 3 apartments, but often just one family) and with more stone buildings in slum districts the population density quickly climbed.

Check for old drawings of Moscow/St Petersburg, Hamburg, Rome, Madrid, Paris and London to get the ideas.

11-23-2009, 03:13 AM
Because I have been talking about Jericho recently, i thought these would be could:


An ancient map showing the location of Jericho to the Bottom Right of the RED SQUARE.

Unfortunately, I have been unable at the moment to find a map of the city itself ;)

12-16-2009, 04:37 PM
As other people have said, the biggest constraints on city size are the availability of food and water and sanitation, coupled with that fact that if a city gets too big it's impractical to get across.

But maybe it would be co0l to have a fictional world where special conditions allowed for a really huge city. Perhaps the city is located at a crossroads of trade, so that food is coming in from other places on a regular basis, and maybe it's built on a river/had aqueducts. Maybe there were sewers built under the city a long time ago. Maybe the local government pays for public transportation - a whole fleet of carriages to drive everyone around. I mean, it wouldn't be strictly realistic but it would be a cool setting.

12-16-2009, 06:34 PM
That would be an awesome setting. Something to consider for a later time

12-24-2009, 02:01 PM
Here is an ancient city that was well known for it's incredible size:

Nineveh (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nineveh)

There is a light map of the city walls btw on that wiki.

"an "exceeding great city of three days' journey", q.e., probably in circuit. This would give a circumference of about 100 kilometres (62 mi). It is also possible that it took three days to cover all its neighborhoods by walking..."

One scholar estimated about 174,000 people lived there and this was one of the BIG cities back then.

According to what they have found digging it up, it's like 4 settlements that comprised a spread out 60 mile area circumference.

It was called by one name much as our modern cities include all the suburbs etc. (eg. Los Angeles or Phoenix) The litereal city proper is not technically that big but we still call it by a single name. Take the original London compared to what is today considered "Greater London" for another example.

What's been said before is true. The feeding people and maintaining some kind of healthy environment limits the size. Our metropolises today are only able to exist because of massive trucking and transportation to move food stuffs into these urban areas. If trucking stopped, we'd be out of food on the shelves in a matter of days. Then things would get ugly.

12-26-2009, 01:16 AM
Definitely interesting, thanks Jax

12-26-2009, 01:52 PM
Our metropolises today are only able to exist because of massive trucking and transportation to move food stuffs into these urban areas. If trucking stopped, we'd be out of food on the shelves in a matter of days. Then things would get ugly.

Which is actually only partly true. If you don't want 20 types of sugar coated cereal, and are happy with a choice of 1, and basically cut down eating to the very basics of what you really need to live (no thousands of pounds of chocolate bars and such) and don't rely on tinned food, or individually packaged food stuffs, you can still ship a whole lot of food in hand carts.

By far the bigger reasons for major cities to exist is that we have more methods to employ people in large centers to produce items that people on the farms would actually want to buy. (Added in that a single farmer can now produce what would have taken 100 farmers to do 500 years ago.)

And if cities kept eating a high level of beef, well,... Then we could strap sacks of other foodstuffs onto the back of the cattle, and set up slaughter houses in the cities!

Look Mom! Here comes dinner!

12-26-2009, 05:04 PM
Well I can see that may be true in areas that have a lot of farms and such. I live in the middle of a desert so I'm pretty sure there isn't enough food from the land hereabouts to feed the over 5 million people.

Still, imagine what would happen as soon as shelves started showing empty spots. People would buy up as much as they could just because supplies were running low. The hoarding would be terrible and then people who didn't have anything would come looking for the hoarders which would probably end violently.

I don't think folks hiking beef or anything into the cities would make it more than a mile or so in before they were jumped and the animals slaughtered on the spot.

As an example take a look at what happens when there is a perceived gasoline shortage...people run out and fill up every container they own. I would expect much worse if it was a food.

You are right that we COULD make it work, but I lack faith in mankind.

This discussion seems to backup how there is a limit to how big a mid-evil city could get before anarchy destroyed it. I think the technologies of today have enabled us to have these colossal Metropolises. Maybe if constant herds came in and were slaughtered around the clock you could build up a big city. Of course, food is only one of the problems faced. Sanitation & health also put a crimp on population parameters and just killing that many animals in one place is bound to cause problems. Heck I have to take out the trash every time my wife cuts up a chicken.

12-26-2009, 07:12 PM
Well, yes. If the trucks just stopped one day all together then things would go badly. But if it was we slowly scaled back the trucks and started using other options, then we wouldn't get the "Change panic" set in. It is like the slow switch away from gas and personal cars. It isn't happening over night, some say it might not even be happening, but either way it is a long way off.

Clean water supplies and waste water management are really the two biggest issues to deal with for huge cities.

12-27-2009, 10:56 AM
I agree with you there.

01-03-2010, 05:20 PM
Actually it probably comes to an even more simple equation: How much filth is around before pestilence kills half the town? The faster the population can reach that "pestilence threshhold" the more frequent pestilence will be and the population will be unable to really breach that "limit".

For places in the desert it is simple: they probably wouldn't exist.

Slaughterhouses and other industries like that were nearly always on the outskirts of large population-areas. You can't easily transport fresh meat (without refrigeration) and most people don't want cured or salted meat for their entire meat intake. Consequently, herds of cattle being led to the slaughterhouse was common. Yes, you needed to protect your stock but most people wouldn't bother killing a farmer to get hold of the 20 cattle he's taking into town on foot (profit vs risk is too high on the risk side).

The main things that have facilitated the metropolis are: mass transit (trains), engineering (sewers, multi-storey buildings) and electricity (pressurised water without needing massive dams, refrigeration). If you removed one of those three from the modern city, and the sizes of cities would decrease rapidly.

01-05-2010, 08:25 PM
Constantinople (Istanbul) is said to have had around 500.000 souls living in it around the year 500.

The plague however made over half the population die. However, if you envision a fantasy city which has early sewage, and reasonably good sanitation, fertile surroundings and a large country around it to attract new people, yes, a city may grow to enormous sizes even in pre-modern settings.

Remember, tough, as others have said before, while cities could become quite crowded, this doesn't necessarily mean it's ground space is very low. Lot's of medieval maps I have seen actually have quite a lot of open space in them. Don't think squares... but in a lot of cities houses where usually built around a single large field.

This wikilink (http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bestand:Konstantinopel_shepherd.jpg) gives a nice picture of the spread of late medieval Constantinople (about 1600 I believe, which is technically no longer middle ages, but close enough). Around that time the population should be around 600.000 souls. Yet, the area this map shows is about 9 by 9 miles (eye-balling not measuring), it doesn't nearly fill the entire map, and it was positively gigantic (about 20 times the population number you gave as a minimum). So yes, your city might indeed be a little too big (or too small in terms of population).

North-Western European cities where quite a lot smaller... Think 50.000 (extremely big) to 5000 (middle sized city). However, nothing stops you to improve sanitation and sewage among other things, and make your average city much bigger.

01-15-2010, 05:12 PM
I often use a book called "A Magical Medieval City Guide" in addition to several resources others have listed earlier to determine size/population/etc. If you're making a fantasy era map I highly recommend it, and you can use for free at the link below.

A little FYI for ya is that for a metropolis, ie 25k+ population density should be between 150-200 persons per acre. With 640 acres per square mile that equals 96,000-128,000 per square mile...for a baseline. If you we're to say that the city is a bit more spread out and had many single dwelling homes and the average building was 2-3 stories you could probably drop that down to 50,000-70,000 per sq mile.

Another question to ask yourself is if the city is walled or not. In the early-mid medieval times living within the walls was pretty darn important..later not-so-much. If it walled, the city leaders are going to build as small a wall as possible, because they don't have the money for bigger and everyone will build within these walls if at all possible.


01-16-2010, 06:28 AM
If it walled, the city leaders are going to build as small a wall as possible, because they don't have the money for bigger and everyone will build within these walls if at all possible.
Size (more correctly the length of the wall; you want it to be as tall as available masonry techniques and materials/funds allow, and thick enough to withstand bombardment from common siege engines) can be minimized only if the city is on flat land. Where significant geographic elevations are present, these will have major influence on the construction of fortifications.

Generally, you'll want your walls to be on an uphill slope (when approached from the outside) when ever feasible, and never on a downhill slope. One of the primary functions of a wall, after all, is to give it's defenders a major advantage of elevated position. If there is a tall hill right outside the walls, this advantage will be lost. Another important reason is that you want to make it as difficult as possible to move heavy and complex engines, such as siege towers, to the walls.

Other natural features such as rivers and shores can also dictate how the walls will and won't be built.