Cities start when a person leads a group of others, sometimes only their family, off to unknown territory. Mind you, the land may be known, but there is a reason people are starting a city, and it has to do with the unknown. Did they find gold nearby? Is it going to be a future train station? Is the current government levying heavy taxes or persecuting for religious or political reasons? These people left to settle for a reason, and it’s not a bad idea to have that reason as a short sentence. It usually tells you how the city will form.
Starting a settlement is a terrifying thing. It often is met with death. Why did your people survive? Jamestown is famous for the way the people made it through winter through a work or die mentality instituted by John Smith, a name we all know. And not just because it’s immensely popular. It will also show the economics of the village and the culture to come.
Do they mine? What happens if the mine dries up? Do they farm? Have they had to deal with Biblical locust raids? This tells you a lot about where they have been and where they are going. There will be monuments, districts, buildings named after these founding fathers. There will be cultures, codes, rules, ordinances, edicts, religions all based on these early individuals, and the brave people who followed them. Flesh it out. While not a city level, how many adages of Ben Franklin’s do we have floating around? The institutes he created, many endure to this day, created out of necessity.
As a city goes forward figure out what their economy was to get started and what it is today. Did it remain the same or change, and if so why? Are their ruins of old factories, left over when the city became a technological center? Dubai is currently using oil money to create infrastructure for tourism and other industries, because they’re aware the oil will dry up. Did your city have that foresight? Remember that economies are lively, they interact with others. How does your city get along with the neighbors, did one neighbor, in the hopes to put them under, get involved in the same industries, at lower prices?
If you look at Grand Theft Auto, you will always find a mixture of construction sites for buildings, along with the dilapidated houses and abandoned warehouses. This is how GTA brings its setting to life. Why? Because cities are either growing or falling apart, and often they’re doing a little of both, depending on where you go.
Poor neighborhoods go under until prices are so cheap entrepreneurs come in to raise it from the ashes. And increase land value enough to get rid of undesirables. Downtown is always warred over, whether renovating old buildings or flattening space to create a new skyscraper. There is always construction or deconstruction, and, as we say in the food industry, “Stagnation is decline.” Another great form is the boom turned into a bust. Lots of beautiful buildings started. None of it finished. The beams are rusting.
Finally, at the heart of every city are people. People build. People vote. People make laws. People have their names put on buildings or their likeness put in brass. Every city has a hero or a villain. Sometimes it’s no more than the sleazy mayor who sleeps around, has a divorce, and his daughters are suffering for it.
It could be the DA who promises he will not rest until the cartels are off the streets. Maybe he succeeds. Maybe they find out he has a thing for children. Maybe he dies a martyr when the cartels gun him down. Stories, urban legends, and myths are built off these people and these moments. You all have that, some political figure who is larger than life, and the way the media portrays him cannot possibly be the truth. Because he is a man, he is multifaceted, but his decisions will still touch the course of history past his term.
Do not leave the people out of your city, the ones who died long ago.
This isn’t perfect. A lot of what I left out will be included in my Nations piece next time. There are countless very well done city creation books. My favorite is Damnation City which is a source for Vampire: The Requiem. I haven’t even used it much for role playing. I’ve used it mostly for creating my own towns. Because they live and breathe, and when done right, they have as much life and character as your characters.
Good luck with your cities, and let there be life.