Creating a realistic city

This is a quick guide on how to make realistic North American and European cities using real-world concepts and examples. (sorry, Asia)

As someone who is interested in city planning and things like that, I find that many city builds can often be unrealistic and unnatural. Of course, exceptions and corner cuts have to be made to make a game engaging, but I’m hoping that this guide can give you some ideas on how to make a city seem like a real one.

General Concepts

Before we dive deep into North American and European cities, we first have to understand how cities form.

Cities, throughout history, have always formed around some sort of advantage, whether it be trade, geography or sometimes out of necessity. Cities start as small communities, no more than a few dozen people, often focused around agriculture. Sometimes, the geography of a city becomes desirable and more people move in, changing it from a small town to a busy city.

If you look at many European cities before city planning really became a thing, you can see how cities grow outwards from a central area, often what is called the “Old town” or “Old city”


(Gdansk, Poland, where the “Old town” (middle of the image) is the center and newer buildings surround it)


(Paris, France, where newer skyscrapers and developments surround central Paris, much older)

This is mainly evident in European cities, since North American cities often used plans instead of growing “organically”, however, places like New York City’s financial district has some level of organic growth, although minimal.

North American cities use grid patterns to create their cities. It makes them more organized, but can cause gridlock, where traffic cannot move at all. There is a heated debate as to whether European cities or North American ones are better, often based off of road planning


(New York City’s 1811 grid system proposal)

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(A city’s grid system)

Inside the cities

We will now go more in-depth into city growth and planning. It will be divided into 3 sections:

North American Cities

North American cities are often planned much differently compared to their European counterparts. Being much newer than many European cities, they often had solid plans on how the city should expand, after many countries in Europe decided that the organic growth of their cities seemed to be an absolute mess.

Roads

Roads are an essential part in cities, and we will talk about road hierarchy and roles

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(General road hierarchy chart)

HIGHWAYS/FREEWAYS

Highways are large, high-speed roads often meant to connect cities, and even provinces, states and countries together. In rural areas in the U.S.A., highways often never go skinnier than 4 lanes (2 lanes each way), and in Canada, a much less populated country, will often become 2 lane roads.

Despite these highways being all over North America, they are a fairly new thing that have done both good and bad to cities.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 saw the first signs of construction of massive country-wide “interstates” to connect cities together efficiently.

Interstates are all numbered between 1-3 digits, and each number means a different thing.

Single and double digit interstates often signify the largest highways, going from north to south and east to west. East-to-west interstates get even numbers, while north-to-south interstates get odd numbers. For east-to-west interstates, the larger the number, the more north the interstate is, and for north-to-south interstates, the more east the interstate is, the larger the number.

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(The I-70, going from east-to-west)


(The I-5, going from north-to-south)

Triple digit interstates are smaller highways that branch off of a main highway, and either end (spurs) or find their way back to their original highway (loops/beltways/bypasses). Triple digit highways start with a number from 1-9, (spurs are more likely to be odd, loops are more likely to be even), and the last 2 digits are the original interstate’s number.


(The I-5 and I-405, where the I-405 breaks off from the I-5 and loops back to it)

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(The I-64 and I-564, where the I-564 breaks off the I-64 and does not return to it)

Highways often take of massive amounts of space, and they have had a fairly rough history during construction. These interstates, despite being widely beneficial for economics and transportation, often cut right through city centers, as well as minority neighbourhoods, often wiping them out completely.


(Before and after interstates were constructed in Detroit)

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(Before and after interstates were constructed in Minneapolis)

ARTERIAL ROADS

Arterial roads are usually the next road after highways. Their main job is to funnel traffic from the highway to other places around a city. Arterials often have minimal intersections and usually go across the entire city.


(An arterial road (the overpass) over a highway, which collects traffic from the highway via a service interchange to transport vehicles around the city)


(Kingsway and Broadway (1A and 7A), large roads that cross the entirety of Vancouver, Canada)

Arterials are often big roads, sometimes being as big and sometimes bigger than interstates lane-wise.

There are mainly 2 types of arterials: urban and rural.

Urban arterials are often more dense and tighter packed to fit in dense cities and are meant to cross city centers at certain points (some exceptions are made of course)

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(A large urban arterial going into the city center)

Rural, or non-urban arterials are often hit with lots of controversy.

Controversy? It’s just a road. How does a road spark controversy?

Well, it comes down to how the road is constructed.

Urban arterials are often tighter packed, which causes drivers to slow down which reduces the chance of accidents. Furthermore, there is usually more pedestrian infrastructure closer to urban centers.

Non-urban arterials do not often go through city urban centers, where they become very vehicle-orientated, disregarding pedestrians. These roads are often called “stroads” (mix of road and street). With enough observation, they can be easily identified.

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(A stroad, easily recognizable with its lack of pedestrian infrastructure, wide lanes, little residential and lots of big-box retail, gas stations and fast-food restaurants.)


(US Route 19, the most infamous and dangerous stroad in Florida)

COLLECTORS

Collector roads are the 2nd smallest road in common road hierarchy. Their purpose is to collect traffic from arterial roads and funnel them to smaller, local roads.

Collectors are usually the only roads that intersect with arterial roads, since arterial roads want as little stops as possible to keep traffic flowing. They are between 2 lanes and 4 lanes, with some larger ones becoming roads with dedicated bus lanes on the sides.


(A collector road (left-to-right) intersecting with an arterial road in Philadelphia)

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(A collector road (Skyline Rd) intersecting with an arterial in Dallas)

Collector roads often have less vehicle-orientated businesses, and have higher density shops, and sometimes lowrise and midrise residential, or a mix of both (mixed-use)

LOCAL ROADS

Local roads are roads with the most property contact. These are the small, 2 lane, often unmarked roads that face houses and suburbs. They have low traffic volume, as they only serve local traffic, compared to arterials and sometimes collectors.


(A “suburb” made up of many small local roads that connect to a collector in Albuquerque


(A series of local roads that connect to a collector road that connects to an arterial in Winnipeg)

This concludes our brief covering of roads and hierarchy. If you want to dive deeper, go ahead. I recommend channels like YUMBL, CGP Grey and Not Just Roads.
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Infrastructure

This section will cover everything related to infrastructure, (apart from roads) from density, to services, to developments, and everything in between.

DENSITY

Density describes, well, building density. The higher the density, the tighter buildings are packed together. Downtowns often have higher density then say, the suburbs, which are extremely spaced apart, making them low density.

Density is in important part of cities. The higher the density, the closer amenities and jobs are to inhabitants, although, density can have its fair share of problems.


(The city center of Tokyo, Japan, where buildings are wall-to-wall and is extremely dense)

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(Low density housing, where buildings are spaced far apart)

City centers are often the most dense, then density begins to dissipate the further out you go. Sometimes, higher density areas can arise, which we will cover later (DEVELOPMENTS)

North American cities are fairly dense in the downtown areas, however, the suburbs around the city are very low density. Many consider the growth of suburbs, also known as urban sprawl, as a bad thing, as it causes cities to expand in land area, which cuts wildlife down, increases traffic, and increases energy needed for people to get from their homes to their jobs, often in the city center.

Cities like New York City do a good job at managing urban sprawl, where the city is extremely dense, and even the suburbs are fairly compact. However, cities like Los Angeles are known for their urban sprawl. If you look at satellite data, you can see the miles of single-family houses.

BUILDINGS

Buildings, despite being a fairly general topic, can help solidify your city build.

All cities have their signature “architecture”. The northeast, like NYC, have their iconic brownstones and old skyscrapers, the west coast has their latin-influenced homes and more modern skyscrapers, and the southeast, like Miami, with their art-deco hotels and modern hotels.

Choosing a “theme” for your build can help ground what you are trying to build and give it personality, instead of making very bland buildings (Ahem, the Midwest…)

The northeast, such as NYC, Boston, etc., has lots of postwar architecture, full of straight lines, minimal ornaments and symmetry, as well as many buildings from before the war, with lots of detail, intricate shapes and iconic window shapes and walls. The west coast, such as San Diego and Los Angeles have many traces of Spanish Revival, being so close to the border of Mexico.


(Postwar skyscrapers in New York City)


(The Palos Verdes Estates in Los Angeles, inspired by Spanish architecture)

DEVELOPMENTS

You may have seen signs in front of properties saying things like “Development Application” and “New Development”, but what do those really mean?

Developments often mean new properties are being built, often subdivisions or mid-high density properties to replace low density ones.

They often occur just like how cities themselves form, around something of importance. Often, it is around something like a brand new mall, transport station, new amenities, or anything in general that can be used as a selling point in real estate.


(Brentwood, Vancouver, Canada. Many new buildings have popped up due to a metro line as well as the opening of a brand new mall)


(Vancouver, Canada, where a brand new mall under construction is also sparking up new apartment developments)

All of these developments were around something important, which is where real estate opportunities pop up.

If your city has things like transportation hubs, large parks or stadiums, or other amenities, don’t be shy to put in some larger than normal buildings in! It will make it seem as if your city is real, and is always evolving and changing.

SUBURBS

Suburbs are one of the most iconic pieces of usually American cities. They are large, often single family homes, row after row.

Suburbs are easily recognizable in a few ways:

Same style houses: Often, suburbs are created at the same time. What I mean is, one development company will create, let’s say, 80 houses at once. To save money, the design every house near identical to each other.

Windy roads and cul de sacs: Suburbs often do not follow any kind of grid pattern. They are full of windy roads and little loops called “cul de sacs”.

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(A picture of a suburb with a cul de sac)

Very vehicle-orientated: Suburbs were created with the vision of vehicles will dominate the country. The large suburb boom happened at a similar time to when the Interstate project was underway.

Suburbs often have small, sometimes no sidewalks, and wider than necessary roads, and do not have easy access to public transportation, usually always near a large arterial or highway.


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So this sums up information on how to make a North American style city. Of course, the best resource are map apps. Go into satellite and look around. That is what I have always done, since the best way to make a city is to look at one.

Eastern European Cities

Eastern European cities are in my opinion, cities that have gone under the most change in an extremely short amount of time. Yes, they are historical, but under their control of the Soviet Union, many cities were influenced by the imagination of Communist leaders to shape them into ideal living areas under Soviet eyes.

Roads

Europe in general didn’t exactly have a plan when cities formed, and they formed naturally, often in a radial pattern.


(Main roads (green) in Paris)


(Main roads (green) in London)

However, a funny little thing happened in Eastern Europe.

Taking inspiration from the west, the construction of large, straight roads and highways were ordered. These often cut right through historical city centers and split communities apart.


(A road constructed in the late 1950’s in East Berlin ordered under Communist control)

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(A road in what was then Soviet controlled Afghanistan, constructed in the 1970’s)

The Soviets, like the west, saw organic city growth without plans as a mess, but instead of building around it, they decided to build straight through them, deciding that the total redesign of cities was necessary.

Things called micro-districts were also formed. These were small communities on a loop of roads full of big block apartments.

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(A micro-district in Estonia)

I know this does not go very in-depth on roads, but there is not really anything to go in-depth here. There was no “plan” before Soviet leaders decided on these very rough plans on how to transform cities into industry.
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Infrastructure

This will cover mainly the Soviet influence of eastern cities, as prior to that, infrastructure across Europe was fairly similar.

FORMER BUILDINGS

Before the Soviet Union enforced their power on cities, European cities in general followed the same theme: highly detailed building fronts, bright colours and comfy storefronts. These are quite recognizable, like the rowhouses of Amsterdam, or the red-roof buildings of Warsaw.

CITY PLANNING

I have already said that Socialist designers wanted to completely redesign cities in some extreme scenarios, but what does that look like?

Like all European cities, they all have some sort of historical center. Often times, they were respected and built around, but in rare cases, they were steamrolled over in place of new buildings.

The intention of this type of designing was because Soviet leaders wanted these cities to become part of the Soviet Union’s massive industrial capabilities. These cities were turned into basically megafactories, and they needed a place to house all the workers.

These houses for workers, called Khrushchevka and Brezhnevka, were low-cost, cramped, large apartment “blocks” designed to house many at once.

Khrushchevka buildings were often between 3-5 stories, and were less cramped.

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(A Khrushchevka in Tomsk, Russia)

Brezhnevka are the most infamous of Soviet planning. They were much larger than Khrushchevka, and often give an almost dystopian vibe.


(Brezhnevka apartments in Tolyatti)

These apartments often took up massive amounts of space, and often dominate the skyline of Eastern European cities.

SOVIET MODERNISM

Soviet modernism was a movement to modernize Eastern European cities. Planners saw the old historic regions as “ugly” and wanted to make the Soviet influence on these cities even greater.

Soviet modernism saw many buildings often associated with the architectural style “Brutalism”.


(A modern Soviet building)

Less extreme cases were built closer to historical city centers. Large glass office buildings, towering over the rest of the city were built. (no pictures, but check out the channel Akruas and his Altengrad series. it does a really good job at explaining)

In many cases, these modern buildings were built right on top of city centers, wiping out possibly centuries of culture and history in the process.

POSTMODERNISM AND THE END OF THE SOVIET UNION

As restrictions lifted in Central Eastern Europe, a new architectural movement, often called postmodernism, was introduced. Postmodernism had lots of different small branches.

The late 1980’s saw European countries gain some freedom from the Soviet Union, and attempts were made to catch up to the west, which prospered under financial support from the United States.

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Postmodern buildings were often mixed with older buildings. Postmodernism tried their best to stray away from communism, and was a mix of both old and near-futuristic buildings, creating mishmash buildings.



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This concludes the section of Eastern European cities. Yes, I know it was short, but I mainly focus on North American cities. Also, there is not much to write about when there was no plan for creating a city, only editing one.

Western European Cities

Western European cities are more diverse in terms of planning. They are quite similar, but history did have an impact on how they are planned.

There was no set guideline on planning compared to Eastern Europe. Each one developed individually, and I will try my best and describe cities from different countries.

During the Cold War, Western Europe was aided heavily by the United States, allowing them to grow and prosper, compared to cities across the Iron Curtain.

Paris

Paris is a city with centuries of rich history. And this history has shaped how the city has developed over the years.

NAPOLEON

Napoleon had a great vision for Paris, for it to be the glamorous capital of Europe. He wanted to reshape Paris in his image.

Napoleon ordered the construction of various monuments, landmarks, roads and amenities.

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(The Arc de Triomphe in Paris, constructed under the order of Napoleon)

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(The Champs L’elysée, the main street of Paris constructed under the order of Napoleon (will cover later))

Large, straight streets can be found all over Paris. Though not all ordered by Napoleon, they certainly define Paris. If you are making a Parisian city, don’t hesitate to put a large main road somewhere. It will certainly ground the city in it’s theme!

ARCHITECTURE/INFRASTRUCTURE

The architecture of Paris is certainly complex. Spanning hundreds of years, I will be unable to list them all (yes i am just too lazy to explain each one), however, I will make a list of them in order (oldest to newest) so you can explore them on your own

Gallo-Roman (1000-1100 AD)
Pre-Romanesque (???)
Romanesque (???)
French Medieval (French Gothic) (1100-1400)
Renaissance (French Renaissance) (1400-1500)
Baroque (1600-1700)
French Rococo (1600-1700)
Neoclassicism (1700-1800)
Early French Colonial (1600-1800)
Second Empire (1800)
Beaux Arts (1800-1900)
Art Nouveau and Art Deco (Late 1800-Early 1900)
Modernist and Contemporary (Mid 1900-Now)

Paris is a mix of mainly Baroque and Modernist, with everything in between.

How Paris is planned is also quite interesting. Paris is mainly older buildings. Within city limits, there are only a few tall buildings. This is where all the monuments are, such as the Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame, Musée de Louvre and many other significant places reside.

Outside of Paris city limits are where all the newer buildings are. Puteaux and Courbevoie are where all Paris’ highrises and office buildings are. Outside of Paris, buildings are much newer and are less dense, with fewer wall-to-wall buildings and more houses and apartment buildings.


(Puteaux and Courbevoie’s tall buildings outside of Paris)

Much of Paris’ apartment buildings are quite contemporary, with elements of older architecture styles mixed in.



(Some newer buildings in Paris)

ROADS

Paris has very tight roads, and is not very vehicle-orientated like North America.

Driving in Paris is a nightmare, and many use bicycles or ride mopeds or motorcycles.

Roads often do not exceed 2-3 lanes in urban areas, and some become 1-way roads with parking on the side. The city is very walking-orientated, and every road has sidewalks.


(A road in central Paris)
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London

I have not really looked into London that in-depth, so I’ll go with what I know.

London was planned fairly similar to Paris, but there are some differences.

BUILDINGS

Central London is majority older buildings, with newer ones dotted in between them all. Furthermore, London’s highrises are all within technical city limits.


(Central London (red border))

Newer buildings in London, especially tall ones are often glass skyscrapers. There are some smaller buildings that are mainly built out of glass, making them very distinct compared to older buildings.

Further out from the city, there are mainly 2 notable things: Rowhouses and small apartment communities, similar to Khrushchevka.


(A series of apartment buildings in London)


(A series of rowhouses in London)

Both are fairly simplistic in designed, usually with cost in mind to provide cheaper housing. This is sort of like London’s version of suburbs, although much more dense.

ROADS

London is also home to tight, winding streets. However, some levels of loose-grid planning can be seen.

London also has distinct road markings. I haven’t really seen road markings similar to these apart from places in Asia. This includes crosswalks, do not stop areas and many others.


(Road markings and a crosswalk in London)

Yes, I do not have much information on London and British cities in general, it is not an area that I have researched too much. But I promise, the next will be longer than this.
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Barcelona

Barcelona, another city with rich history, is certainly a special place city planning wise. It is quite distinct from other cities in Europe.

BUILDINGS

Home to red roofs and neutral shades, Barcelona’s buildings are very recognizable.

Barcelona is a city that is considered to have mastered multiple types of architectural styles all at once. From renaissance to art deco to modernism, you can find many types blended well together.


(Barcelona from satellite view)


(2 apartments in Barcelona with different architectural styles (some classical one and contemporary)

Barcelona is quite dense, with practically every building being wall-to-wall. Buildings are usually no shorter than 4-5 stories, and go as tall as 8-9 stories.

ROADS

This is where we talk about what makes Barcelona so special.

In the 2010’s, the city introduced a design plan called “Superilla”, or “Superblocks”. These are 400m by 400m blocks of buildings. The project identified 120 intersections to turn into these Superblocks, and more Superblocks are still being created.


(Barcelona’s “Superblocks”)

However, if you know city planning, you may be thinking “Aren’t grids like, kind of a bad thing?”.

And you’d be right. Except, Barcelona does it different.

The goal of creating Superblocks was to cut down traffic and move the city to a more green and sustainable future. So, roads were tightened, often to one lane and limited in speed, and more green space and extra pedestrian infrastructure replaced what used to be a road. Some even have space to create playgrounds, so instead of the sound of passing motorists, the sound of people walking, children playing in the playground and people enjoying their time outside buzz in the air.


(A corner of a Superblock)

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(A plaza replacing an intersection of Superblocks.

These Superblocks have been greatly beneficial to the city, and other places around the world are trying to pick up the concept.

However, much of Barcelona is still sort of organic. I say sort of because there was definitely some intention on how roads were planned. Compared to other European cities, they are way more organized.


(Satellite view of Barcelona (not Superblocks))


(Satellite view of Paris)

Barcelona also has what seems like roads that are similar to North America.

Barcelona has large highways running close with large interchanges. Although they do not run through the city center, they have roads almost like arterials that run in a long, straight line through the city.


(A few highway interchanges west of Barcelona city center)


(A long main road running through Barcelona)
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This concludes the section of Western European cities. Yes, I only covered 3, so I’m sorry if I didn’t cover places like Germany, Italy or other places. Like I said before, your best resource are map apps. The best way to learn is to do it yourself.

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Conclusion

I really hope this helps anyone trying to create a fairly realistic city. I’m going to briefly go over possible hiccups when creating a city so you (hopefully) don’t have to waste your time replying to a buffoon like me. However, if you want to add something or give some feedback, I’m all ears. I will try my best to reply, and add info if it may be necessary.

Often, game maps are created to optimize gameplay, and I understand that. Just because a city is realistic doesn’t mean the game may be fun or immersive. My intentions for this guide was so that people could learn and apply little fragments into their builds. I do not intend for people to follow this guide religiously to create a game only for it to flop because it did not have an engaging map.

Yes, there may be holes in my guide. As I said, I’m open to feedback and will try my best to reply. I only hope for this guide to be a small stepping stone. Always find different sources to best solidify what you are trying to do.

No, this guide will not go in-depth with areas such as zoning, mixed use, airports, logistics, geography, politics and other things like that. These topics are too complex to explain in this guide. Also, I’m not exactly as acquainted to them. If under heavy request, I may look into creating guides for them.

I would add sources, but unfortunately, that is against guidelines. However, you can go find things yourself. Curiosity sparks learning.

If you have gotten this far, I really do appreciate you reading through all of this. Especially when its coming from an absolute clown like me. Thank you for your time.

I probably have carpal tunnel after this much typing.

23 Likes

This is an insane amount of detail and breadth for map design. Super fantastic!

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The fact that you spent so much time typing all of this is simply amazing. This post will certainly help some Builders

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