Building Fantasy Cities

Today it’s a followup question on the Equestrian Survey and Census article – although answering it is going to involve quite a lot of analysis of cities in general and how to adjust them to make sense in fantasy worlds.

There’s one place where you lose me, which is with regard to the average city size. Given that the cultural level, area, and total population are all set at being roughly equivalent to that of Victorian England, why would the cities be so much smaller, with the largest cities being only 50,000, and the average city size being half that?

It’s self-evident that the ponies don’t cluster together quite as much as humans do, for a variety of reasons (e.g. control of the weather, a lack of major predators outside of specific danger zones (like the Everfree Forest), easier access to an herbivorous diet, etc.), but that still seems exceptionally low for the city population.

For instance, you note that Canterlot has a major restriction on its population size, but then use it as the baseline average for the size of an Equestrian city, which seems paradoxical. If Canterlot’s lack of space, due to being built into the side of a mountain, is an issue in the first place, doesn’t that necessarily mean that it’s population is artificially limited by those concerns, and so most other cities should have a larger population on average?


Now this one is going to be complicated…

Cities serve a variety of functions.

  • They provide massive labor pools, allowing a society to build, master nature, and accumulate resources. For example, most of the earliest cities that we know of were focused on building and maintaining irrigation systems (since such systems are most beneficial if there is cooperation throughout the watershed, such areas tended to become empires).
  • They concentrate wealth and demand to support specialists and financial centers – incidentally making them destinations for long-distance trade, such as the Great Silk Road.
  • They serve as trade and industrial nexi, allowing individuals with particular skills to easily locate and cooperate with each other – or to be found and organized in pursuit of various projects.
  • They foster education, invention, and innovation, in part by allowing the easy mixing of races, cultures, and languages, in part by allowing those with new ideas to share them readily and have the reserves to allow risk-taking, and in part by simply allowing those with scholarly interests to gather readily.
  • They provide defensible refuges and strongholds, resisting both organized attacks and natural disasters such as floods and fires to at least some extent (thus the classic “city on a hill”, with a city wall and cleared farmlands about it).
  • They serve as religious, diplomatic, and organizational centers, breaking down the isolation of villages.
  • They are national symbols and centers for political power. At the most basic level, village militias simply cannot resist a sufficiently ruthless (I.E. Willing to massacre village after village until they get obedience) army. On a more advanced level they define administrative areas and provide a nexus for administrating them from.
  • They serve as a repository for social records – recording a societies history, traditions, and ideals. They are a living link with the past, accumulating monuments, art, historical structures, and literature. They host and preserve major musical, theatrical, and other events.

For humans, “Civilization” – the process of making people “Civil” – was quite literally defined from “the proper way to behave in a city”. Cities are what make humans prosperous. Thus, for example, poverty in India is strongly linked with a low urbanization level (28% in 2005). Looking at some figures… still in 2005, the 53 metropolitan regions in China focused on cities with more than a million people were home to 370 million people (29 percent of the country’s population), but accounted for more than 62 percent of the country’s nonfarm GDP. Similarly, Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg accounted for half of South Africa’s GDP but represented just under 20 percent of the population – and Lagos produced 60 percent of Nigeria’s non-oil GDP all by itself.

Yet human cities have never been able to replenish their own populations. They have always been supported by immigration from rural areas. Humans do not like being too crowded, they do not reproduce as effectively in a city, diseases spread far more easily in a city, and the anonymity of the crowd fosters crime, corruption, and a lack of social involvement. Cities are prone to shortages and congestion, require an elaborate infrastructure of roads, farms, fuel, and water supplies to support, and require elaborate social controls, laws, sanitation systems, and more to function effectively. Cities have allowed tyrannies, exploitations, and displays of greed that small villages could never support. The underclass is a creation of the city.

On a physical level, cities need immense amounts of food, water, fuel, timber, stone, metal and other raw materials. They need transport systems and trade routes, waste disposal, acceptable climates, room to grow, defenses, and communications. A city distorts the economic and social patterns for great distances around it, drawing people, wealth, and resources towards it like some kind of social neutron star.

Thus the popularity of villages and small towns, of gated communities, of summer homes and retreats to the wilderness, and – as transportation has improved and become more accessible to the middle class – of suburbia. Cities bring wealth, opportunity, and advancement, but there is always a price to pay.

Now I’ll presume that we’re all familiar with human cities (any aliens reading this will have presumably done their research first). What will happen to the functions of a city if – say – it’s full of long-lived nature-magic-wielding Elves who spend fifty years as kids and then can expect to live for seven hundred more as healthy adults before growing old in the century or so before their death?

  • Our elves have less need for massed labor: not only can they take their time on many projects, but their nature magic makes it far easier for them to master their environment.
  • Long, healthy, lives make it easier to accumulate wealth – allowing individuals, rather than financial institutions, to fund projects – and makes specialists much cheaper in social terms. A human might spend eight years learning a specialized craft and forty or fifty years practicing it. An elf might spend ten years learning that same craft and five hundred years or more practicing it. That’s 20% of a working lifetime spent learning versus 2%. 90% off is a pretty good deal.
  • The elves will still need trade and industrial nexi, although long lives will make it much easier to locate Elves with particular skills by reputation – and while that might waste more time than visiting the mechanics guild, being sure of finding a craftsman with two hundred years or practice under his or her belt probably makes up for it.
  • Education is less of a problem for our elves; a longer childhood will allow them to accumulate information effectively even if the process is less efficient. Long lives will, however, tend to inhibit invention and innovation; as time passes people do tend to settle into a comfortable habit of doing what is known to work.
  • Nature magic will help enormously against natural disasters – and can turn rivers, trees, and hills into effective defensive works. Elvish cities can afford to be more dispersed and lighter on the obvious defenses than human cities.
  • Religion is likely to have less of a grip on elvish societies than on human ones. There’s a fairly natural tendency for intelligent beings to become more interested in religion – and on what comes after death – as they come closer to dying. Thus older people tend to be more religious than younger people. With such long lives… religion may not mean that much to younger elves (although activist deities may change this quite a lot in more magical settings). Diplomacy means less too. Humans are likely to want to renegotiate every time an office-holder changes – while an elf is likely to see a hundred and fifty year old treaty as a personal accomplishment and still current.
  • With nature magic, our elves are quite capable of uprooting themselves, moving, and living off the land with relative ease. That doesn’t make cities less militarily powerful, but it does make it a bit harder to employ that power – and longer long lifespans make it harder to develop the separation between the inhabitants of the city and the villagers which makes it easy to be ruthless. Confronting a distant cousin some generations removed is a lot easier than confronting your daughter, brother, or a parent even if it HAS been two hundred years since you moved out. The administrative areas are still likely to be important though – so elven nations are still likely to develop.
  • Elvish social records… are likely to be stored in living memories, rather than in books and structures. Books and structures tend to outlive humans – but few of them are going to outlive elves unless they’re repeatedly recopied.

Cities still have some importance to Elves, but they’re almost certainly a good deal less important to elves than they are to humans. Elvish cities are likely to be considerably smaller, more dispersed, and far more blended into the natural environment, than human cities. They’re likely to have few children about, and have small libraries and apprenticeships instead of universities. They’re also likely to recover slowly if something does happen to them – and to be static and slightly primitive by human standards; innovation and invention will be a rarity, unlike the situation with bustling humans, who change things all the time. If an elven city faces a great threat… the population is likely to vanish into the wilderness, and re-establish themselves elsewhere, rather than fight until there is no choice but to attempt to escape. You won’t find banks and great temples either; you’ll want to look for personal loans and modest shrines. You will find craftsman of great skill, but few mighty constructions.

That should sound familiar enough; fantasy authors usually don’t formally work through the logic – but they’re generally not stupid either.

There may be more differences, or compensating factors to reduce them – but there’s only so far that I can extrapolate from a one-sentence description.

Now to look at ponies, on whom we have quite a lot of information…

Ponies don’t need lots of available labor to master nature. Ponies have mastered nature in ways that humans can only dream of; they control the weather, govern the animals, shove the sun, moon, and stars around the sky, and have powerful magic. A small family of ponies can take care of and harvest an immense apple orchard and farm that sells produce all over the country – a task that would call for a hundreds of human workers. Ponies simply don’t need enormous numbers of workers to carry out their projects.

Given that level of production, it’s no surprise that pony societies are affluent and resource-rich. We don’t see tenements, migratory workers, long workdays, or anyone who could be considered poor on the show outside of a few voluntary near-hermits (and possibly poor Trixie, who more or less gets the shaft). Instead we see huge parties, tidy houses, plenty of leisure time, little kids with the resources to undertake sizable projects (and a distinct lack of worry about the expense of fixing all the damage they cause), a small town stuffed full of specialty shops selling luxury goods, and ponies with plenty of time to spend camping out just to get a favorite drink.

Yes, we do see a few episodes with Applejack worrying about money – but those worries always seem to vanish before the next episode and usually make little sense in the first place. How did a financially-pressed farmer wind up volunteering to pay for civic maintenance anyway? Doesn’t the government have any source of money? Can’t it just call on the local citizens to spend a day helping out? (That should be enough judging by how quickly a little kid can refurbish a treehouse). After all… they did that when they wanted to prepare for a storm in Look Before You Sleep.

I have to go with the overwhelming evidence for affluence here. Even the money-shortage episodes tell us that it is perfectly normal for local farmers to be able to pay for major civic projects by themselves.

When it comes to transportation and trade, four Earth Ponies can pull a train weighing many tons at a steady trot (about 10 miles per hour) for at least a day. Trixie apparently pulls her caravan around without any trouble. Cars and trucks may be faster in operation – but they’re far more expensive, require a lot of maintenance, need special fuel (as opposed to a hearty bowl of oatmeal), require trained operators, and require much more elaborate roads to exploit that speed advantage. Not only is local hauling not going to be a problem for ponies, but there are numerous major industries that they simply don’t need.

As for long range trade, in Feeling Pinkie Clean a couple of Pegasi apparently drop a flowerpot, an anvil, a wagon full of hay, and a piano, on Twilight from a fair altitude – and the problem seems to be clumsiness, not weight.

Practically every Pegasus in town can fly fast enough to participate in creating a tornado. That’s pretty fast. In addition, they can rest on clouds, extract water from clouds, and create blasts of wind (seen in Winter Wrap Up and Magical Mystery Cure) with a simple flutter of their wings. They don’t need landing strips, fuel, maintenance crews, or special facilities and most ground-level obstacles – rivers, deserts, mountains, badlands, et al – mean nothing to them.

The Silk Road was four thousand miles long. It could take several years to for merchandise to transverse it, with goods changing hands – each time at an increase in price – many times along the way.

There’s no reason to expect a couple of Pegasi towing a truck to take more than a couple of months and possibly far less; larger migrating birds commonly cover five or six hundred miles a day without magical advantages.

Ponies don’t need trade routes, their cultures can be expected to mix quickly and easily, and they don’t need big cities or massive investments to handle import-export. There’s really nothing stopping a couple of teenage Pegasi from picking up an old cart and going into intercontinental trade – and if one of them happens to have or get an appropriate cutie mark, their credentials will be stamped right on their butts.

And yes, Cutie Marks are a very big thing indeed. If you need a master mechanic for a special project in a human city you’ll likely need to talk to some professional organizations, check credentials, research reputations, negotiate terms, and more – with expenses at each step, both direct on your part and indirect in the support of those organizations, licensing boards, and so on.

In a pony town you just ask a kid for directions to the pony with “master mechanic” stamped on his or her butt.

Factories? Not only are ponies incredibly productive, but what little we have on their devices suggests that most of them are creations of unicorn magic. Presumably, somewhere in Ponyville, you can find a little shop run by the unicorn “Frigid Air” and his or her partner “Beautiful Finish” who build wooden boxes, screens, and fans and enchant them to keep things cool.

Education is not a big thing for ponies; they get their destines stamped on their butts at an early age, develop the relevant skills quickly and easily (as in the Cutie Pox, and also because they focus on the relevant skills instead of on general education to meet all eventualities), and begin happy careers early on.

Invention and innovation are, however, quite another matter. Equestria has had – via Pegasi and clouds – access to plenty of cheap electrical power for well over a thousand years and possibly as long as two or three thousand years. Humans developed a reliable battery some two centuries ago – and yet humans seem to be far ahead of ponies in the use of electricity. That’s partially because humans don’t have magic to do things with, but it’s partially because ponies don’t need invention and innovation very much; they’ve already got a semi-utopian society and pretty much everything they need.

When it comes to defense, ponies don’t have much to worry about in the way of natural disasters – even their volcanoes seem to be pretty well behaved and their equivalent of forest fires and such (Dragons) can be negotiated with. Actual attacks by monsters, and presumably by organized forces, are dealt with by powerful individuals and small groups – basically the local superheroes. The cities seem to be nothing more than targets, with noncombatant ponies panicked by a rabbit stampede and even the guards being easily defeated by changelings. If anything, cities seem to be a liability to the ponies defenses.

Who would you bet on? A couple of Roman Legions or an immortal sun goddess who can burn your entire nation to ash? When an individual Pegasus can make a tornado, what good is your city wall or defensive line? When it comes down to a fight… the pony guards or militia are, at best, there to try to delay incoming creatures or military forces until the heroes can deal with them. Thus we have Shining Armor, the Guard-Captain, who’s job is basically… to keep anyone from sneaking up on Celestia or Luna and to make a big barrier to delay attackers.

When it comes to religion about all we can say is that – if the ponies have any at all – it doesn’t seem to have any real organization to it. There don’t even seem to be any household shrines, much less anything larger. There are suggestions among the fans of the show that the ponies worship Celestia and Luna – but there’s no real evidence of that in the show itself.

As for diplomacy and organization… “Harmony” is a basic force of the universe in Equestria. Ponies are so harmonious and cooperative that they spontaneously break out in choreographed musical numbers that help coordinate their projects, as seen in raising the Apple family barn or Winter Wrap Up. Even without the organizational benefits I gave to Unicorns in my writeups, it seems like organizing ponies is likely to be easier than not doing so.

When it comes to being national symbols and centers for political power… Ponies have immortal rulers who control the cycle of day and night. Do they really need any other national symbol to rally around? Do self-organizing ponies really need help in defining their administrative areas?

Storing social records is still a thing for ponies – they have libraries after all – but, once again, you have immortal leaders maintaining their traditions for them. Social continuity is pretty much built into their world.

Putting all that together, it looks like ponies do not need cities nearly as much as humans do – and so the various disadvantages of cities will begin outweigh the advantages of further growth at much, MUCH, lower population levels than human cities reach.

There’s no hard formula for that – but that’s where Canterlot came in. As a national capital, Canterlot must support all the usual functions of a city plus the nobility, records and bureaucracy, and all the other functions of the national government – as minimal as those may be for ponies. That’s why capitals are pretty much always fairly major cities by national standards. They have to be. If they’re not… the functions of the government will tend to drift to someplace where they’re better supported.

Yet the growth of Canterlot is obviously severely restricted and it doesn’t really seem to be all that large. If it can serve as an effective national capital, then pony cities in general are not very large. At least as importantly, there doesn’t seem to be all that much available in Canterlot that Ponyville does not have except a semi-university (and possibly “Magic Kindergarten”), some dubious shops in back alleys, an art gallery, the castle labyrinth, and the national government itself.

When it came to Manehattan, Rarity had several competitors there – but she wasn’t lost in the crowd either. Since Ponyville supports her, I can give Manehattan about eight times the population of Ponyville – about 50,000 ponies – and, thanks to the economies of scale and it being a major destination, reasonably have it support eight to twelve competitors for Rarity.

Thus the minimum size for an Equestarian “city” isn’t going to be all that much larger than Ponyville – and while there’s no hard maximum, growing past the point where your city can support all the features you want is simply going to increase the problems of running a city while offering few further benefits. Admittedly, the “average of 25,000″ figure was chosen more on the basis of “this feels about right”, the estimate for Canterlot, historical precedent, and guesstimation than hard calculation – there are just too many fuzzy variables in this for hard math – but it worked out quite reasonably and fit what little information we can get from the show fairly well. If it helps any, considering how productive and well-organized ponies are, that 25,000 is roughly equivalent to a human population of 250,000 people.

Even when I must resort to guesswork, it’s rather fun to explain the underlying logic.

5 Responses

  1. An excellent essay, both for the general points and the stuff about ponies in particular. Thanks for this!

  2. […] of Equestria, Economics, Professions, and the Victorian Era (Speculative). Continues with Building Fantasy Cities: Ponies and Nature, the Affluence of Equestria, Transportation and Trade, Cutie Marks and […]

  3. […] of Equestria, Economics, Professions, and the Victorian Era (Speculative). Continues with Building Fantasy Cities: Ponies and Nature, the Affluence of Equestria, Transportation and Trade, Cutie Marks and […]

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