Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Steady Urban State


The above is a screenshot from a two-part Polish youtube video, quite obviously describing the Galician town of Cracow as it once appeared (Galicia is in south Poland, east of Silesia and bordering on modern day Slovakia).  I post it to denote the openness of the city's layout, even within the walls, as shown in the video.

I have another example, much more descriptive and in depth:


Granted, the model and presentation is out of another time, circa 1950s and 60s, but the detail rendered here is archeologically and academically supported, which is a rare thing on the internet.  Note how much open space exists: farmland, grass for forage, space for play and gathering, trees, trampled ground isolating the town industries.  Compare this with a crammed generation product that I linked a few days ago, or with George RR Martin's 2012 popular depiction of King's Landing:

Did not do the fucking research.

The above is so ridiculously out of keeping with reality that it makes the traffic/supply problems of ancient Rome look ideal in comparison.  I've seen the bought version of this map; there's no green space inside the walls, which would mean that every gram of food would have to be brought into the city every day to feed the enormous population.  If you consider that the walled city of Constantinople had access to water on three sides, while King's Landing hasn't enough enough waterfront to fill even one side, no doubts the streets and houses in the center of this town have long ago been abandoned for lack of provisions.

And this is my subject today.  The reader may remember that in my last post, Putting Down Roots, I talked about how accumulation and assembly of towns occurred organically, due to the nature of the terrain, access to water, a need for defense and so on.  The principle applies inside the city as well. Cities were not, as they are now, built a neighborhood at a time, with every house the same and the roads carefully designed for the suburban commuter.  A system which, incidentally, is already starting to break down, even though it has been in place only fifty years (watch this whole video, it is well worth the time and it will reshape your thinking).

If the food comes in by the docks of the urban center, the population will naturally gravitate towards the docks, in order to have access to the best food ... and take advantage of the continuous demands for labor that a dock will provide.  A new ship may arrive any day; and though the wharf may be ready with an established labor force to unload a ship a day, what will then do when three or five ships all come in at once?  Hire temporary labor, of course ... so that poor people will drift to the town's port on the off-chance that they will work one day in seven, enabling them to survive.

The same is true of the gate through which most of the agricultural produce arrives, or the fringes of the toolsheds and mills, as shown in the Birmingham video.  The poor will flock in whenever something unusual happens ... a caravan arriving, the first cartloads of grapes at harvest time, the slaughtering of the spring lambs, the aftermath of a storm blowing in from the sea or a fire that has engulfed a city block ... like the people picking garbage as shown at the end of this piece of Ron Fricke's Samsara.



The above video showing all kinds of modern urban cultures.  The key factor here is money: which we should clearly see as acting on an urban environment in two forms.  We might describe these forms as "kinetic money" and as "potential money."

The garbage pickers, for all the unpleasantness of it, are participating in the kinetic form: the acquisition of money, the environment that makes the transfer of money possible (in its absolute lowest form, as people sustain themselves with refuse that can still be made useful), and what we would think of as being paid for labor in a traditional sense.  Farming, whether through garbage or growing things in the field, is kinetic.  Money is moving from one person to another, or from the environment into someone's possession.  In order to get money, the population of a town moves towards those places where the movement of money allows some sort of acquisition.

Potential money looks like this:


This is also from Samsara ... here, the money just sits.  The owners of these towers and flats are also in the business of accumulating money, but in a different part of the city than this place, where it is stored.  We can think of potential money as stored money, the same way that potential energy is stored energy.  As you stretch an elastic between your fingers, you "store" energy into the elastic, where it remains stored until you release the elastic, at which point the potential energy becomes kinetic.

When a riot occurs in a city, we have the same sort of mechanical framework in place.  The buildings above are raided, pillaged and burned, becoming a different sort of garbage pile for the raiders to pick over.  If an urban environment does not sufficiently provide enough kinetic money to exist in the system, increasing the potential collection of money, sooner or later those people without money or food, who are starving anyway, will force that potential to become kinetic.  Sooner or later, you will have to release the elastic band.

This is a good way for you to view the raw, thrumming energy that exists behind the veneer of houses and streets that form the city.  It isn't necessary to go so far as creating city-wide violence every time you want to create an in-city adventure for your players.  The transfer of potential money to kinetic money goes on all the time, on a small scale: robbery, muggings, forced prostitution, kidnappings, isolated murders (even between rich people, trying to get each other's potential money), witch burnings to place the victim's money into the pockets of the church or the authorities and so on.  And the reverse also happens, the daily efforts to ensure that potential money remains potential: clubbing poor people in the streets, enslavement and deportation for debt, free food, lands open to common settlement, restoration of prostitutes to their families, anything that will keep the population passive and happy to do little more than pick over garbage.

If we're going to make a city map that means something to gaming, we need to take these two things discussed above into account.

That the city has to exist as a much more open environment than we suppose, with gardens and fields that may exist even inside the city walls, where food can be grown inside the city, not only for siege purposes but also because the loss of an occasional apple is a good thing for the passive steady state that keeps the urban system from collapsing in riot.  Free space gives employment, it gives room to breathe, it makes for a happier population and it provides a valve for change, where a former field can be turned into another neighborhood, until such a time as the city needs to extend beyond the walls so that more fields can be incorporated into the system.

This ideal lasted until the industrial revolution, when labor took a whole new form and what made the system stable was a whole new environment: one where materialism brought new pleasures, where many more jobs could be sustained in much smaller spaces, where the accumulation of kinetic wealth could enable the tight, packed-in cities with which we're much more familiar.  Without the industrial revolution, without factories and mass transport, cities could not sustain so many people without the need of a lot of space.

This space made contentment possible; life was still hard for the poor, who could steal an apple but might spend three days in the stocks for it (which gives another escape valve for hatred and anger, directed at a prisoner instead of the authorities).  But the hard life was sustainable for those better able to make use of the shifting, changing, seasonal job market.  You might be a temporary day laborer, barely surviving, but with the right attitude you might be the temporary laborer who found a permanent job once some more trusted fellow was injured or killed.  There was room for advancement, for change, for luck, if you found some opportunity in that city that was missed.  So you wandered the streets, looking, looking, adventuring even, ready to turn to even crime if it could be made relatively safe and sustainable.  Which is what we'll look at with our next post.

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