This is the first part of a three-part series on ‘Cities’. The second part covers extra factors that energise successful cities and explains why you should be cautious about planned cities. The third part covers even more factors and explains how technology transforms cities and how it’ll transform them in the future.

Cities are mesmeric human creations. “[A] city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time.” noted the biologist Patrick Geddes.

Cities are audacious living spectacles. Giant urban agglomerations containing huge swaths of people, sometimes tens of millions, who live, work and play all within its confines.

In our urbanised world we take cities for granted but why have certain cities formed and not others? What determines whether a city will be successful or not? More importantly, how do we use this knowledge for lifestyle design to know which cities to travel to and live in?

Let’s analyse the city.

The origin of cities

Surprisingly, there’s no widespread agreement on the technical definition of a city. But while there’s no technical definition, we know two absolutes about modern cities: they have lots of people and they’re urban.

Why do cities contain lots of people? Why do they become urbanised?

The answer is geography. The bedrock of a city is its geography. Literally.

The earliest proto-cities circa 7000 BC contained 1000-2000 people. It wasn’t until the 2nd century BCE that a world city (Rome) reached a population of a million people for the first time.

The reason that populations settled in these early cities wasn’t coincidental. It was because the land of these locations was superior.

Take Jericho, the oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth. Jericho is located in the Jordan River Valley near the Dead Sea. It’s not only the oldest city in the world but the lowest one. 

City Jericho

Jericho is situated in the Fertile Crescent, a region that post-Ice Age was considered to have the best land for the development of farming and agriculture. On top of this, Jericho’s location in the Jordan River Valley gave it two other key criteria for superior land—natural defences and market trade centralisation.

Mount Nebo protected Jericho to the its East and other mountain ranges protected it to the west. It’s location in the valley made it an important hub for trade and migration as people had to pass through it given the surrounding geography. The city’s reliable access to water made it destined to flourish as an agricultural centre at the time.

Then there’s Rome.

Rome was founded along the Tiber River close to the sea but not too close. This meant access to rich, arable land for farming as well as better protection from storms and seaborne invaders. Compared to being next to the sea, being along the river doubles the surface area between water and land meaning more land for growing crops and more space for docking boats and ships.

Also, Rome is famously surrounded by seven hills and the Apennine mountains to the north giving it additional land-based defensive protection. These features along with its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea made its development into a market trade centre all but inevitable.

Once you have a location that can feed mass groups of people, become a military stronghold and lead as a regional trade hub, lots of people will congregate and live in it. Once lots of people live and work in this area with good geography and infrastructure, technology develops making the area urbanised. Et voilà, a city forms.

Of course, this rundown is a simplification of the historical development of cities but these heuristics form the bread and butter of the rise of the majority of cities in the modern world. Academics, historians and urban planners don’t deny them.

Even though most cities have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years, most of the major modern cities became what they are due to geographical advantages of their location and land which expedited their developments as urban areas faster than other places in their countries.

We can prove this with a reverse engineering game.

Look at a map of modern Turkey.

City Turkey

Imagine you have all the land available and have to create a city here in the best location possible. Using geography alone, where would you choose?

You probably wouldn’t create it in the central and Eastern areas which are mostly dry, making them less than ideal for agriculture and water supply.

This leaves mostly coastal regions. Which coastal areas are best?

With any choice available, you probably wouldn’t situate the city along the northern coast bordering the Black Sea. Around the Black Sea, you only have five other countries to trade with. But on the Mediterranean side you have way more.

So we’ve narrowed it down to sea-adjacent regions along the Mediterranean. Where do you go from here?

You could choose a coastal region with a river like Rome. Or even better, an entire strait linking the Black Sea with the Mediterranean and thus the rest of the world plus an extra estuary giving you extra naval protection from attack.

City Istanbul

As an added bonus, the sea region to the south of the area can only be entered via a very narrow waterway which funnels potential invaders like fish in a barrel.

Fertile terrain, superb naval and land defence, and geopolitical leverage over other countries who require your consent to ship their goods from the Black Sea to the rest of the world. Sounds like a no-brainer winner?

The Emperor Constantine the Great thought so when he made the city in this area the capital of the Roman Empire in 330 CE and named it after himself. Welcome to Constantinople, better known by its modern name: Istanbul.

For a long time, Constantinople was the largest city in the world and one of the hardest to conquer leading to its place at the forefront of the Roman and Ottoman empires. Even now as Istanbul, it remains one of the largest and most visited cities in the world, a major intercontinental city straddling Europe and Asia. Its geography made it destined to become a powerful metropolis.

Pretty easy? Let’s do one that’s harder.

City Czech Republic

Above is a map of the Czech Republic. Unlike the other countries mentioned thus far, the Czech Republic is a landlocked nation. Where do you select to establish a city in the best location possible here?

As we’ve learned, being near the sea can bring advantages. But in the absence of sea, maybe proximity to a major river suffices.

City Bohemia Moravia

Along with rivers in mind, it’ll probably pay to be in an area with more mountains, valleys and plateaus for geographical defence. Of the two major regions, Bohemia (dark grey) has more low mountains and plateaus than Moravia (light grey) which is flatter.

Having narrowed down thus far, maybe being around the confluence of the two western major rivers brings the added benefits of more fertile land and ease of trade. And maybe situating your city on a major river bend there provides added defence and greater protection from flooding.

Surprise surprise, this is exactly where the capital city of the Czech Republic is located—the legendary city of Prague.

City Prague

Prague was a former capital of the Holy Roman Empire and a major historic and cultural city in Europe. Its advantageous geography helped it reach its high status despite its landlocked surroundings.

This tendency for a place to converge in a certain way is geographical proclivity. Strong geography doesn’t guarantee a convergence but it does make it very likely. Let’s examine what this means.

The geographical proclivity of cities and what this means

In my article on finding and predicting Golden Ages for lifestyle design, I wrote about how an area’s geographical proclivity influences how a scene can develop.

As discussed, a place’s geographical proclivity is the largest determinant to its trajectory as a successful city.

This means a few consequences.

Major now, major later

With few exceptions (which will be discussed in part 2), a city’s geography can’t be altered. Since a city’s underlying substrate can’t change, it’s stuck with its geography for good.

This means that if a city’s geography is good now, it’ll be good later. If it’s bad now, it’ll stay bad in the future.

There’s an idea known as the Copernican Principle (based on but not the same as the discovery in physics that humans aren’t privileged observers of the universe) used to predict the longevity of anything. Using a simple formula, it can predict the likelihood of something existing in the future.

The crux of the formula is a Bayesian rule that states a good estimation of the lifespan of something is how long it has already existed.

The principle predicts that if something has existed for two years, it’ll exist for another two. If it has existed for ten years, it’ll exist for another ten.

Applying this to cities, the longer a city has existed for, the longer it’ll continue to exist in the future. On average, since the most successful cities in the world have tended to exist the longest, they’re likely to be the most successful ones going forward.

The Copernican Principle seems like a simple heuristic but it actually does predict the existence of something within a good confidence range. It explains why new clothing trends fade quickly while timeless fashion lasts and why paper books will continue to exist for a very long time despite the range of electronic methods for reading now available. This same logic applies to cities.

So when you’re choosing a city to travel or move to, remember that its past and current success determines its probable future. Since the existence of most cities is denoted in centuries or even millennia, a successful city now is very likely to stay successful to live in during your lifetime.

Historic centre momentum

No matter how large they are, most cities have an historic centre or place of origin. This is usually but not always situated in the geographical centre of the city.

For reasons discussed, this historic centre/old town is built on the site with the best geography in the region. The original populations wanted to thrive there, not on the outskirts.

This means a number of things. The historic centres/old towns have a magnetic pull as the focal point of a city. They have an existing chain of momentum that has endured since the time the city was founded.

The historic centres of cities were simultaneously the administrative centres, military bases and trade hubs of the region.

If you’re the administrative centre of an area (chief government), you’re going to have superior legal, political and financial momentum than other parts.

If you’re the military centre of an area, you’re going to have more long-lasting, robust buildings and architecture than other parts.

If you’re the trade hub of an area, you’re going to have more commercial, business and retail opportunities than other parts.

City Venn

The combination of these factors together strengthens each one and gives unparalleled momentum for the development of an area.

Long-lasting buildings with historical value bring in tourists. Local businessmen and retailers want to benefit from the footfall of tourism so set up shop in the area and are able to hike their prices giving them greater profit margins. Greater profits means more money from tax for the government administration which has a vested interest in reinvesting money into the local infrastructure and commercial zones. These zones receive more attention, resources and updates than other areas of the city. So continues the positive feedback cycle with each factor reinforcing the other.

Governments protect their historic centres like a mother protects her child. Often old towns contain classic architecture and landmarks which can’t be touched for risk of damaging or devaluing the cultural value of the structure. This means the catchment area of the old towns always remains the same. If you own a property in these areas, the value of your real estate will always go up over time without you ever needing to change anything.

City Historic Centre

If you stay or live in and around the historic centres, you’re almost certain to benefit from good proximity to business, retail, leisure and work opportunities. These domains all need to be close enough to the historic centre since it has the magnetic pull. This means more people are attracted to frequent the area meaning more social opportunities for you.

It also means you gain from superior transport.

Superior transport

Since the historic centres act as focal points for cities, they need to be well connected to everywhere else. This leads them to have all types of modernised transport options to ensure the inflow and outflow of people is as smooth as possible.

The result is an amplification of the centre’s existing status as the nexus of a city. This is why major transport hubs are located in the centres including in or around the old towns. They’re the hub with countless spokes emanating to and from them to other parts of the country.

When the physical infrastructure that is transport necessitates that people come through you to get from A to B, you can’t help but become a dominant region.

Due to the transportation advantages the centres have, staying in them means you’re never too far from the action. Your radius is never too long or expensive for what you need to do. As the Historic Centre momentum diagram shows, often you won’t need transport at all since you can walk to where you need with much of the thriving parts of cities well connected with each other.

City Transport


It took 10,000 years for the world to have a billion people living in urban spaces. Now more than half of the world’s population live in cities, a number that continues to grow. It’s easy to take the nature of a city for granted. But there are reasons why they’ve formed and why the ones that exist have survived over time.

A city is only as good as its geography. For most of human history post ice age, survival was dependent on agricultural farming by groups and the protection of those groups and crops. The areas that had the best land for farming, good terrain (land and/or sea) for defence, and proximity to trade and commercial routes became the largest and most successful cities.

This geographical proclivity determines a city’s success and continues to determine its trajectory moving forward. Probability shows that the major cities of the contemporary world will likely continue to be major successes in our lifetimes and beyond.

In line with geographical proclivity, the historic centres/old towns of cities tend to have the most momentum. They started with the best locations early and have a snowball effect of compounding progress going forward through the self-reinforcing feedback loops from inner factors such as government operations, military centralisation and business and trade growth. This attracts more people to live, work and visit the city which in turn creates more opportunities for growth.

A city needs good transport links to strengthen its place as a multi-purpose hub. Cities have multiple types of modernised transport that enhance their connectivity to the rest of the world even further.

Living in such cities, particularly in the centres, exposes you to more opportunities throughout your life.

In part 2, we examine even more nuances of cities including:

– The benefits of mixed-use cities

– The nature of ‘planned’ cities and why I caution against moving to them

– Network effects of cities

Knowing these nuances will give you the edge in lifestyle design in our continually urbanising world. Subscribe to Abroad Lifestyles for more global integrative lifestyle concepts you won’t hear anywhere else.