Bringing your City to Life – Part 5 (by Ari Gilder)

Hello again mappers! Welcome back to this series on weaving the cartography and tale of a city or town using CC3+ and City Designer 3. I hope you’ve read the back issues (part1, part2, part3a, part3b, part4). Last time we delved deep into the Random Street tool, an essential part of large city mapping. There’s still more to say about the particulars of that tool – we’ll cover that later.

Today I’d like to continue the discussion from Part 4 about district style. I’ll of course continue using my example map of New Cassia to demonstrate. We talked last time about what makes a district unique from its neighbor, and we explored using building style to differentiate. Today we’ll cover other flourishes that can be sprinkled strategically throughout a map.

One thing to note: for all of these suggestions of unique or common elements, don’t feel limited only to my suggestions here! Find things that are applicable to the particular characteristics of your city.

Common Elements Checklist

Before we cover that which makes districts different, let’s talk about what makes them similar. Take some time and think about what buildings you want to be present in all/most districts. What kinds of things do all walks of life tend to have? Maybe your city has some unique elements based on its government (maybe a major magistrate’s office per district and smaller satellite branches throughout), its geography (perhaps regular watering stations for pack animals in a desert trade city) or its religious history (statues of Orcus throughout a city of necromancers). Think carefully back to your notes about why the city exists and what its primary function is to guide you.

Once you come up with this list (some of this may be trial and error in your first few districts), you’ll actually have a checklist for every district to make sure you’ve appropriately placed these elements (or not – perhaps no taverns allowed in the religious district). Decide if each district needs one or multiple of these elements, and in what concentration. Doing this will bring a beautiful unifying theme across your map, emphasizing that it is one city. I use color to highlight these elements, but they can be done with other methods (certain buildings, effects or spacing).

Here are some examples of common elements I’ve used in New Cassia:

Inns & Taverns
Most cities will be full of houses of lodging, food, recreation and of course drinking. You can easily consider those to be some of the buildings laid down by the Random Street tool, but I wanted to specially call out these buildings by having a unique brown-colored roof (a rarity in the city) as helpful waypoints wherever adventurers may be – they always know they can stop nearby. I tried to ensure that at any given point, there is a tavern close by, except for some of the poorer districts, or the religious district.

Churches, Temples & Shrines
Churches, Temples, Shrines
New Cassia has a rich history of two competing religions, with one currently having the upper hand. They are represented by orange and blue colored roofs. They typically tend to have a consistent appearance throughout the map – the blue are typically hexagonal shrines, often off of main roads, and the orange are lavish churches. The orange churches also have a consistent theme of a stone floor beneath them, a fountain, a statue and some greenery, implying a consistency enforced by the central church. Poorer districts have a higher concentration of the blue shrines, and richer districts have more orange churches.

Guard TowersGuard Towers

A large city needs policing, so ensuring that guard towers are scattered appropriately (more in higher crime areas) throughout the city adds realism.

Signature District Elements

Now that we know what things may be the same across districts, let’s look at some examples of things that might be particular to a district to add to its defining uniqueness.

Remember back in Part 2 when we built our first city landmark? Well it’s time to do it again! I like to try to ensure there is at least one major landmark or notable feature in most districts. These are the things that draw the map-viewer’s eye when they first glance at a district. They need not always be buildings – they could be things like a zoo, a shipyard or a quarry. The earlier you build this in the district, the more it will help define the rest of the district’s character.

City/Town Squares
Squares and Plazas
An often-overlooked but critical piece in defining the character and culture of a part of town is its town squares – large, open spaces where people often congregate, and sometimes merchants do as well. These are often some of the most memorable places – if you’ve ever been to Italy, consider how iconic its many plazas are. Because they are typically open to everyone, this is often where the beating heart of the people of the city thrums.

Remember back to our goal – we are trying to also construct a milieu with a rich story (or at least, the backdrop of one), not just a map – we are trying to bring our city to life. Squares are a great tool to aid in that. You can even use the “micro-questions” technique from Part 2 – ask yourself, why is this square here, and not over there? What significant events have happened here? What are the most recent events that have happened here? Any of these could turn into a history or even a quest.

In some cases, squares can double as landmarks if they are significant enough. Of course, these don’t always have to be squares – circles, triangles, trapezoids or any other odd shape all work just as well.

Open-air markets are another critical piece of realism for our city which will help build the story of the city. They can often be placed within town squares, or in a designated market area. Seeing a market on a map is a good suggestion that one can go there to shop, but also to collect rumors. Some markets may be specific to a certain type of goods sold there; others may be free-for-all. Each market should be unique.

Look at most cities in a satellite view and you’ll probably find a handful of parks – open, green spaces, with or without trees, sometimes with a path or seating or water…there are lots of different ways to customize a park. As you build the park, think about who might typically visit there – tourists? Parents with children? Shady individuals? It is important to intersperse parks and greenery throughout most districts since they both break up the monotony of buildings, as well as convey a deeper sense of “Ah, people really live life in this city!”

Tin Roof Shantytown borrowed from Abbasi
Poorer districts may have sections where buildings are more ramshackle, or there are just tents, or tin-roof buildings. You can even consider adding some burning barrels or campfires as heat sources to emphasize a sense of poverty. In some cases, each dwelling may look the same, or each may be completely unique in size, shape, color and structure.

Signature Terrain

We already discussed terrain in Part 2 but let’s expand on it. Using swaths of terrain – dirt, grass, stone, marsh, etc. – to lay underneath your district’s buildings and roads can be a great way to add visual distinction as well as uniqueness. You probably have a default terrain underlying most of your city – either grass or dirt typically (but a lava-based city in the Elemental Chaos would make plenty of sense too). Think about where it makes sense to vary that.

Since New Cassia is a water-based city, in many spots I tried to highlight this with some more fertile green terrain at the edge of the canals:

You can also use terrain to convey the character of a district. The nobles district, Emerald Gardens, is full of grassy terrain, whereas the seat of government in Cassian Keep is all stone floors. The muddy terrain in the Ashford Downs (bottom picture) suggests that this is a poorer area.

Find Good Filler Symbols

Often when building a district, you’ll find yourself with a bunch of empty space where you can’t quite place buildings on a road. This can be perfectly fine to leave as is to give one certain kind of impression. On the other hand, I like to add filler symbols.

Tip: When placing filler symbols, try rotating each symbol a bit when placing. Some randomized collections will do this for you. Or, for more advanced placement techniques, use the Symbols in Area command.


The most common filler symbol I’ve used is trees – of all shapes and sizes. Trees are great to take up whatever amount of space you need, plus they also break up visual monotony on the map, letting the eye demarcate different areas to focus on.

Tip: I like to leave placement of trees until the end of a district, or a section of a district that I’m working on. I use the placement of trees as a reminder to myself that I consider this part “done” and don’t need to go back to work on it in any major way.

Tents, Stalls & Markets
As noted above with Markets and Shantytowns – these can be useful filler symbols to place at any notable open space where you just can’t figure out what else belongs there.

Boxes, Crates & Barrels

Boxes, crates or barrels are great filler symbols especially in mercantile or harbor districts, since one would expect lots of merchandise to be stored somewhere.

Stones or Debris

Sometimes, just adding some natural or man-made debris in an area can fill it up, but also provide some visual interest.

Coming Next: Tips & Tricks!

We’ve covered a lot of material in how to make each district of your city both unique, but also share a thematic cohesiveness. Now simply rinse & repeat! In the next article, I’ll cover a bunch of assorted tips and tricks I’ve learned from the consistent and minute attention to detail building a city can require. Until then, Happy Mapping!

Ari Gilder is a software engineer, and has been interested in maps for a long time. He spent seven years working on Google Maps, working on features like local business search, Google Maps and Navigation on mobile, and studying the way users understand maps. He even proposed to his wife using maps. He often spends hours staring at maps in fantasy novels, and in 2013 starting putting together some of his own dungeon and battle maps for a D&D campaign. After a hiatus of several years, he recently dived back into cartography with CC3+, tackling more overland and city maps in preparation for a new D&D campaign. He is a father of two, and has recently introduced his older daughter to cartography, both hand-drawn and with CC3+ where she insists that black and purple varicolor trees must surround everything.

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