In today’s world, over half the planet’s population lives in urban areas. In other words, cities. That’s a lot, and the number is only increasing as cities grow ever larger, ever more expansive. Even on the smaller end (my local “big” city, Chattanooga, has somewhere around a quarter of a million people, and it’s not exactly considered huge), the city is a marker of human habitation, human civilization, and human culture. It’s a product of its people, its time and place.
In the city
The oldest cities are really old. Seriously. The most ancient ones we’ve found date back about 10,000 years, places like Çatalhöyük. Ever since then, the history of the world has centered on the urban. These oldest cities might have housed a few hundred or thousand people, probably as a way of ensuring mutual protection and the sharing of goods. But some eventually grew into monsters, holding tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, primarily to ensure mutual protection and the sharing of goods.
Looked at a certain way, that’s really all a city is: a centralized place where people live together. The benefits are obvious. It’s harder to conquer a city’s multitudes. There’s always somebody around if you need help. Assuming it’s there, you don’t have to go very far to find what you’re looking for. In a rural area, you don’t have any of that.
Of course, clustering all those people together has its downsides. In pre-modern times, two of those were paramount. First, every person living in a city was one not working in the fields, which meant that somebody else had to do the work of growing the city-dweller’s food and shipping it to the urban market. Great for economics, but now you’re depending on a hinterland that you don’t necessarily have access to.
The second problem is one we still struggle with today, and that is sanitation. I’m not just talking about sewage (which wasn’t nearly as big a problem in some old cities as we typically imagine), but a more general idea of public health. Cities are dirty places, mostly because they have so many people. Infections are easier to spread. Waste has to go somewhere, as does trash. Industry, even the pre-industrial sort, produces pollution of the air and water. And water itself becomes a commodity; even though most older cities were built near rivers or lakes (for obvious reasons), it might not be the cleanest source, especially in an unusually dry season.
Through the ages
A city’s character has changed throughout history. While they’ve retained their original purpose of being a gathering place for humanity, the other purposes they serve fall into a few different categories, some of which are more important in certain eras.
First of all, a city is an economic center. It holds the markets, the fairs, the trading houses. Sure, a village can have a weekly market pretty easily, but it takes a city to provide the infrastructure necessary for permanent shops and vendors. This includes food sellers, of course, but also craftsmen and artisans in older days, factories and department stores today. You don’t see Wal-Mart sticking a new store out in the middle of nowhere (the nearest to me are each about 10 miles away, in cities of about 10,000), and that’s for the same reason why, say, a medieval village won’t have a general shop: it’s not profitable. (The Wild West trope of the dry goods store is a special case. They provided needed materials to settlers, miners, and railroad workers, which was profitable.)
Another purpose of a city is as an administrative center. It’s a seat of government, a home to whatever the culture’s notion of justice entails. In modern times, that means a police force, a city council or mayor, a courthouse, a fire department, and so on. Cultures with cities will begin to centralize around them, and these central cities may later grow into states, city-states, nations, and even empires. Larger cities also have a way of “projecting” themselves; all roads lead to Rome, and how many Americans can name all five of New York City’s boroughs, but can’t name that many counties in their home state? With national and imperial capitals, this projection is even greater, as seen in London, Washington, Beijing, etc. This ties into both the economic reason above, as capitals of administration are very often capitals of commerce, and the one we’re about to see.
Thirdly, cities become cultural centers. While projecting force and economic power outward, they do the same for their culture. This develops naturally from the greater audiences the city provides; it’s hard for an artist to find patronage when he lives out in the country. (That’s just as true in 2017 as it was in 1453, by the way.) And since cities provide stability that rural areas can’t, this creates more incentive for creative types to move downtown. This creates a snowball effect, often spurred on by government investment—grants in modern times, patronage in eras past—until the city begins to take on a cultural character all its own. Like begets like in this case, and in a larger nation with multiple big cities, a kind of specialization arises: movies are for Los Angeles, Memphis has the blues, Vegas is where you go to gamble.
Now with magic
So that’s cities in the real world: urban centers of commerce, government, art, defense, and so many other things. What about in a magical world?
In many cases, it depends on how magic works in the setting. Magic that can be “industrialized” is easy: it effectively becomes another public service (if it requires infrastructure such as artificial “ley lines”—I have written a series based on exactly this concept) or private industry (if it instead takes skilled craftsmanship, as with enchanters in fantasy RPGs). In both of these cases, magic can almost fade into the background, becoming a part of the city’s very fabric.
For the slightly rarer and much less powerful magic we’ve been talking about in this series, it’s a bit of a different story. Yes, there will be magical industries, crafts, and arts; we’ve seen them in earlier parts. As magic in our realm is predictable, almost scientific, it will be used by those who depend on that predictability and repeatability. That includes both the private and public sectors. And enterprising mages will certainly sell the goods they create. That may be in a free market, or their prices and supplies might be tightly controlled, creating a black market for magical items.
If magic can be harnessed for public works, then that implies that cities in our magical realm are, by default, cleaner than their real-world contemporaries. They won’t be dystopian disaster areas like Victorian London or modern Flint. They’ll have clean streets and healthier, longer-lived people than their predecessors. Again, the snowball starts rolling here, because those very qualities, along with the city’s other aspects, will function as advertising, drawing immigrants from the countryside. And the automation and advancement we’ve already said will come to food production lets them do it. Thus, it’s not nearly as hard as you think to get a magical city up to, say, half a million in population.
The main thrust of this series has been that magic can effectively replace technology in certain types of worldbuilding. That’s never more true than in the city. Technology has made cities possibly in every era. The first urban areas arose about the same time as farming, and there’s no denying a connection there. Iron Age advances created the conditions necessary for the first true metropolises, and industrialization, machinery, and electricity gave us our modern megacities. At each stage, magic can create a shortcut, allowing cities to grow as large as they could in the “next” technological leap forward.