I believe that an urban "block" shouldn't be just fluff. Whatever the block happens to be, it needs to address some several concrete uses for the players, beyond just knowing what sort of block it is. We could slap together a town with twelve residence blocks, a market block, five or six workshop blocks, a castle block and a church block, and call it a day ... but that's what we've been doing for town adventures since the game started. Creating a bunch of labels, or making a list of buildings and people, without pulling those disparate elements together into a meaningful, interesting town personality.
To my mind, the individual blocks should slowly create a mental shape; investigated, one by one, the players should get in touch with the town's character, through the characters of the inhabitants and the overall complexion of the physical town's layout and nature. I know many people have tried to do this by building down from a grand design, like King's Landing. But I think it is better to build up from the bottom; so that, piece by piece, inspiration by inspiration, the town will find its personality in an organic, unexpected and growing way. The DM doesn't need to "pre-conceive" the town. As the players explore, and as the DM responds to that exploration, the town's identity will emerge without the need for guidance.
My example with the beach was meant to provide some of the base needs that a block, not a town, ought to possess:
- The block should provide some specific purpose for the players' use. The beach is a source for transport across the sea; it accumulates fish which can be purchased. It is a place where boats are repaired.
- The block's residents should have a character, based on what they do and what they respect. The people of the beach respect people who can do for themselves; who can fish or sail; who can do a hard day's work; who don't consider themselves superior because they possess wealth, status or intelligence.
- The block should be a source for adventure. The beach offers the opportunity for smuggling. Or to block smuggling. It is the natural entry point for raiders who come from under the water.
- The block should provide an advantage for the player's well-being. The beach is a good place to rest; swimming is a restorative, relaxing activity; so resting there heals hit points faster.
So long as these principles are installed in each city block that is put in place, the characters will have a reason to search; and to fight for places where their search has turned up something treasured.
Suppose that we start with a rule that dictates that if players come to town, they ought to seek the rest and solace that a tavern provides. Whatever they eat and whatever they drink, it feels good to eat and drink at a table, where we're served, after a week of sitting on the ground drinking from pottery flasks and eating out of a cold pot. If they don't seek a tavern, and partake at least a little, we can say they feel so down and miserable that their intelligence, wisdom and charisma will all be at -2 all the next day.
Now let's add that a typical pub will be such a let-down, after wishing for one while out in the wilderness, that what players usually get is no better that a lesser penalty: -1 instead of -2. The ale is tainted, the food is sub-standard or almost rotten, the tables are rickety, the chairs are uncomfortable ... but it IS still better than not going out at all. So we put up with the place because at least it's not another night around a campfire, where we have to walk out into the darkness to piss. At least, at least, the pub has an outhouse. Or the room has a pot to piss in.
But ... the party comes to this one small town and the pub is a great little place. There's a regular bard, the cook has some talent, the ale is made in a real brewery, and not on the premises, the tables are clean, the service is smart and friendly and the owner makes us feel welcome. And the next day, the DM tells us we all have a +1 bonus to our intelligence, wisdom and charisma.
Examine that. There are great bars out there. Bars that give no bonuses, but no penalties. Really great places like the last example. And better places yet? Who knows? Why don't we look around this big city for a few days and see if there isn't a better place than this?
And then, if we find such a place, a place that gives us a terrific bonus, we will be damn sure that every time we're in Kronstadt, we're going to stop in at The Lord's Cutting Board.
That is, until the day we come to Kronstadt and find that the place has burned down.
If we want players to care about things, like beaches and pubs, we have to provide more than fluff. We have to provide real concrete benefits to such places. And to make the players feel the benefit more keenly, we have to squeeze the player with penalties when these places don't exist. Otherwise, they won't have any reason to explore.
It's a bit of the stick on one end of the player and a bit of the carrot on the other end. Once the players understand the game ~ avoid the stick, search for the carrot ~ the system begins to feed on itself. The players WANT to search the town. The same way that players want to search a dungeon. It is the same principle, really.