Urban planning in science fiction

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English: Hong Kong from Western District overl...In my Sa’adani Empire setting, there is a distinctive cultural attitude that shapes what kinds of cities are favored and how most urbanized Sa’adani live. I’ve had to think about this urban planning and the philosophies behind it in order to better characterize some city settings in my writing.

Details about urban planning aren’t sexy and don’t surface too often in fiction – not even in science fiction, where you’d think we’d spend some brain cells thinking about how people might live in the future.  Granted, we read about the end product – urban life, whatever its form – but often very little of the process or rationale that lead there.   Yet I find that process interesting. I think about sustainable living and how we are ever going to make sense out of the morass that many of our cities have become.  In my science fiction I’m always curious what choices and priorities lead people to live as they do.

Here’s part 1 of a 2-part post on this topic. This is written pretty much from the Sa’adani point of view.  There are implicit and explicit assumptions built into this discussion that stem from a Sa’adani cultural framework (such as the statement that “a city’s emotional focus is on communal life”). Whether it is or isn’t, that at least is the Sa’adani cultural ideal, and where they believe energy ought to be going in the management of small-scale urban living.  Obviously I could write another book elaborating on these background assumptions alone. But never fear: I’m not going to. 😉  I’ll just let this piece speak for itself.  With no further ado, then:

 Cities in Sa’adani Thought

A city is a center of community, a more mature form than the village or town which is its predecessor.  Its emotional focus is on communal life, not merely on the economic benefits of having services and products clustered closely together (although for practical reasons such features are of course not ignored).  A city nurtures and shapes the life of the spirit, of the community, family and individual through creative expression, learning, philosophy and spirituality.  Chau-sen deities associated with cities never lack for avid followers, a reflection of how a city becomes a nearly personified thing in the mind of those who live there.

A city is also a self-organized unit for defense under the patronage of its leading House, Houses, or clans.  According to the ancient ideal, a city is self-sufficient at its core, able to withstand sieges and fight off attacks, and produces what it needs to support itself even in time of war or famine.  In diversified and eclectic economies, complete self-sufficiency is less often required for purposes of survival, but the ideal is still cherished, inspiring urban thinking and influencing many initiatives, such as energy self-sufficiency or encouraging the production of a variety of goods rather than specializing in only a few.

With economic growth, cities also become economic centers, bringing together resources, production and distribution for the betterment of the community and the broader marketplace. Largely in consequence of this, it  is recognized that cities can easily grow too large and cumbersome. Especially when they prosper, people flock to abundance and the tendency is to let unchecked growth run rampant. But this quickly  leads to a city that is difficult to maintain, less inclusive of citizens and less able to serve their needs. It may also lead to political unrest, for the larger the city, the more anonymous and disconnected an individual feels when there are hundreds of thousands of residents – even millions – instead of manageable tens of thousands.  Ties of fealty to a liege lord and clan head are weakened, and the importance of the kin group forgotten.

This is a lesson that has been learned in past civil conflicts, and has left a hallmark on Sa’adani thinking about community life and urban development.  A Sa’adani governor would rather see three smaller cities work out shared borders and close economic intercooperation, than see the three meld into one large combined polity that loses touch with the needs of people, and becomes an inefficient, alienated, unsustainable urban sprawl.

 Old Ideals for Modern Times

In olden times, cities grew up around agricultural abundance coupled with military might. A lord’s fortress protecting an agricultural region became the center around which commerce and cultural life aggregated. With later shifts to industrial, information, and cyber-centric services, cities generally remained communal centers under kingroup leadership. Technology improvements permit people to live and work in a far more decentralized manner than during industrial eras, but they still gravitate physically to urban clusters for social and cultural purposes if less for business ones.

The result of Sa’adani philosophies and shifting urban life mean that across the Empire, a large number of citizens live in relatively small urban areas rather than singular sprawling megalopolises.[1]   Indeed, this is the Sa’adani ideal.  Where geography permits, this pattern is quite visible, with webs of interconnected urban centers dotting the countryside. Even where urban density and growth have forced small cities to grown into each other, the tendency is for localities to maintain their cultural and community identities, seeing themselves at worst as culturally distinct and unique wards or districts in a larger urban patchwork.

Since Sa’adani personal identity stems first from family and clan membership, second from kinship-related lines of fealty, it is customary for people to define themselves as being of X bloodline and “belonging”[2] to Y city which of course is also part of X bloodline’s heritage.

In places where the localized sustainable community pattern is not or cannot be followed, there are higher rates of crime and social and individual ills that result from a more stressful living environment and breakdown of social support networks. This is yet another argument, urban planners say, for limiting growth to small, sustainable cities.

The solution the Sa’adani have evolved to this challenge is the creation of the Sheo Evos [SHAY-oh AY-vohs]: the “Flourishing Communities”, today shortened simply to “she’vos”.  It is not just a philosophy, but a specific prescription and urban planning approach to create the ideal Sa’adani living circumstance.

More about she’vos cities will follow in part II of this post.

 

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1.   A notable exception to this is in the CAS Sector (setting of Mainline), where kin groups are a weak bond, and urban complexity for the sake of economics of scale has long been a standard. This is one more reason Cassian culture and living circumstances often feel especially foreign to a native Sa’adàn: it is congested, commercial, individualized, anonymous, and not kin-based.

2.  The verb for belonging is ‘gesoin’, another meaning of which is “to be a part of”. This implies a person is inextricably connected to their urban polity.

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