View Full Version : Help with a canal city

08-24-2007, 11:35 AM
I am just in the planning stages of mapping a fantasy city that relies heavily on canals. It is a regional transport hub on a river built on a large (now mostly stabilized) delta where it meets the sea. It is also the start of an overland trade route.

I need to have a sea harbour for sailing vessels and a river harbour on the main channel for river barges. Buildings and services are just as likely to be on the canals as on streets, sometimes both (canal at one side, street st the other).

Problem is, I have no idea where to start. I have never lived in or visited any communities built with canals. I expect that there will be lots of arched bridges, etc. but don't have a clue where to begin. While I have lots of resources on how road systems develop, I have no idea here!

Looking for tips, pointers, or general advice.

-Rob A>

08-24-2007, 03:09 PM
RobA, I had a chance to correspond with Roger Porter about a year ago when he was working on a similar project. I pointed him to this site and I hope he'll show and be able to give you some pointers. His finished piece is at http://www.diamondthrone.com/resources/graphics/Ka_Rone.jpg I suspect Ka Rone is a wee bit too symmetric and planned for what you want to do (it was a Giant city created for the Arcana Unearthed setting), but it may give you a few ideas you want to use in drawing your city.

Turning to the real world, there are three locations I would check out: Venice, Amsterdam, and the canals of Southern England (although the last are a bit anachronistic having been built in the 18th and 19th centuries).

I would keep several things in mind as you constructed your city. One: if your city is like Venice (which was built on several islands close to each other) then it will have many canals, if the canals were dug, the system is not likely to be as extensive (although magic might be used to overcome it, the lack of modern construction equipment will impose limits on how extensive the canal system can be).

Two: markets, taverns, warehouses and other commercial establishments will cluster near the port areas and the grand canals (as with a road grid, while there may be many roads, there are only a very few that carry the bulk of the riverine and walking traffic). There should be plazas/open spaces near the ports as these can function as open air markets and the sheer amount of traffic congestion caused by a port needs an open space to relieve it.

Three: houses will tend to be 3-5 stories and face inward toward a courtyard in a Venice like city since the canal system is also functioning as a sewer system (although they're trying to clean the canals up, Venice is only now beginning to tackle this problem--if you ever visit, don't do it in the height of the summer as the stench you may never forget ;). Given the stench (unless the city somehow uses magic to clean the canals) no one in their right mind will want windows at ground level and the higher elevation can be conducive to catching breezes (which along with fans were the only type of air conditioning in the middle ages).

Four: keep in mind the riverine port will be handling shallow draft ships while the ocean port will be handling deep draft ships (thus the ocean port might have drydocks for keelhauling and construction while the riverine port will have the terminus of towpaths for donkeys/horses to drag the boats back upstream). One excellent example of a interior riverine port (no canals though) was Salzburg in Austria which became very wealthy handling salt from the mountains upstream. Speaking of wealth, there should be nicer neighborhoods in your city as all the wealth flowing through it is likely to generate a decent sized merchant class.

Five: Last, but not least, while a canal city is likely to have many bridges, most of them will be wood. While magic can change things, the lack of steam power and heavy duty machines made constructing stone bridges expensive and a long term project (similar to building the Hoover Dam today--environmental considerations aside, the sheer expense of that type of project is going to mean that it gets built very, very rarely). As a real world example (and I would appreciate any Britons correcting me if this is wrong) London Bridge was the only bridge that crossed the lower Thames for centuries. It wasn't until the Renaissance and more recent times that more spans started being thrown across. Also, given the importance of stone structures and the scarcity of space in cities, like the original London Bridge it is not unusual for a stone bridge to be a miniature community in itself with structures built/hanging on the sides--sometimes completely blocking the view of the river!

I hope the above provides a little bit of help. Good luck with mapping out your city. I hope you post it online when done.

08-24-2007, 03:44 PM

That is some great feedback! I have started collecting aerial photos of Venice as a reference for canal systems.

There will be many islands, as I am imagining a delta similar to (but smaller than) the Fraser river in Vancouver:

or the Mackenzie Delta:

I am expecting by this point in history, the shores are dyked in and stabilized, and the channels are kept dredged.

Thanks again for the suggestions!

-Rob A>

08-24-2007, 04:22 PM
Okay, now that I have a better idea of where you want your canal city to be I have some more useful pointers.

If you can find it, try getting the MERP map of Pelargir in Gondor. Its an incredible Pete Fenlon work of a city located on both banks at the mouth of a river (the Anduin) linked by bridges to a dyked triangular island in the middle. Tharbad from MERP is also an inland river city with a great map.

Marsember from the Forgotten Realms should be a help as well. Even if you don't like FR, Marsember is built on islands in a marsh in Cormyr on the Sea of Fallen Stars.

All though I'm not too fond of the cartography, the D20 supplement Bluffside may be worth a look. Built on a series of islands at the top of a waterfall, Bluffside can provide quite a few pointers (as well as npcs, although Bluffside was developed for 3.0, so some conversion may need to be done) for your city.

One of the most spectacular examples I can think of a fantasy city with canals is Waterfall City from Dinotopia. I'm pretty sure that one of the more recent books featured a map of the city, and Gurney's pictures of it are incredible.

Another fantasy city with canals you might use for inspiration is the capital city of Naboo from Star Wars Episode I. Although not much of its scope is shown in the films, the various DK Star Wars cross section and panorama books do an excellent job of covering it.

For flavoring, see if you can pick up one of the Merovingen Nights series by C.J. Cherryh (I think I spelled those correctly). The series follows the exploits of a band of lowlifes/heroes in a Byzantine fantasy city thats built on a series of islands in a delta.

Best of luck and I hope your project goes well.

08-25-2007, 04:38 AM
In addition to Venice also have a look at Amsterdam and Brugge for more references. Good luck with the project!


08-25-2007, 10:24 AM
I second taking a look at Netherland cities. There's a lot of material on them available, because some of the most prolific cartographers of the 17th and 18th centuries came from the Netherlands. Here's a map of 1730 Amsterdam:

09-20-2007, 09:16 PM
Hi! I've been lurking for a few days now after joining. But I found a thread in which I can't avoid a response.

I had my honeymoon in Venice 4 years ago next Halloween. I learned a great deal about the but the biggest point I haven't seen mentioned is that the bridges are natural gathering points in a city connected together with them.

The Rialto in Venice is a market and it's a stone bridge. One of only three that used to connect the two halves of Venice together. All the piazza (plazas) near it are filled with shops and an open air market. I watched a fishmonger stock an entire table of fish still gasping in the air.

Google earth will tell you a lot about Venice but some of the most important details are in it's history. For example the common "truss" we use to build homes and bridges was developed there to put a roof over the local government builds who needed a large space to meet each other. The trusses they built were designed like a boat hull flipped upside down. Without this structure to spread the weight of the roof to the out walls the large senate room of Venice would have to be braced with several columns.

Anyway, I'd look up some details on the history of Venice to flesh out some of the questions you may have about why Venice and by extension your city arrived at it's current form.

09-21-2007, 09:09 AM
GlennZilla -

Thanks for the additional information! This is great as I am still filling in the city details on my canal city WIP thread (http://www.cartographersguild.com/showthread.php?t=826) and your observation will com in handy here.


-Rob A>

09-28-2007, 04:02 PM

I'm Rog, the guy who thebax2k referred to above. How's it goin?

Anyway, thebax pointed this thread out to me and asked if I could give a couple pointers.

After reading the other posts, I'm not sure what, if any, advice I can give you, considering the depth and scope of what others have already contributed. Also, Ka-Rone was my first map, so I'm not entirely sure I'm qualified to be dishing advice:D

However, if you have any specific questions, post them and I'll give it a shot.

10-08-2007, 10:55 AM
Cities of Harn also features a canal city you might study as a model:

(It's the third city in the above picture).