Abandoning a City

This week, we’ve already talked about young cities and older cities, so let’s move on to the next common spec-fic city: the abandoned, most often ruined, city. After all, abandoned cities give all the architecture without any of the potentially intimidating politics (though if you can organically slip politics into an abandoned/ruined city somehow, I want to read your work), and an excuse to throw in whatever hostiles might have claimed the place since it was abandoned.

You’ll probably want to start by figuring out what the city looked like before whatever happened to it happened to it. Technically, this is optional, but it does help a great deal; let’s face it, a place built of stone that’s been flooded to within an inch of its natural life is going to look pretty different from one built of, say, wood that’s had the same sort of flood. Getting the initial appearance out of the way first makes for better consistency later.

The first thing to ask yourself, once you’ve got your before picture firmly in mind, is what happened to the city. Most often, this is going to be a disaster which resulted in the city being both ruined and abandoned—but if you’re taking that route, do make sure you include a reason why the people gave up on the place. People can be amazingly illogical when it comes to their cities; I’ve heard about places that were obliterated by landslides, many lives lost due to bad evacuation plans, and they still rebuilt—and did I mention this was in the last fifteen years? So “it’s mostly destroyed” on its own might not be enough to ensure the place stays abandoned rather than rebuilt. Natural disasters aren’t the only options, either; feel free to invoke one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (War and Plague do this stuff all the time), or find some other reason—all that matters is that in the end, it makes sense that nobody’s come back there.

Now that you know what happened, think about what immediate effect that’s going to have on the look of the place itself. A city that’s lost its entire population to something cataclysmic is going to show marks—dented walls, flammable materials burned away, tall thin structures blown over, catapult stones in otherwise improbable places, it all depends on what you threw at it. The ones emptied without much explanation might not show as much by way of damage, but in most cases there will probably be signs of what emptied them (though if the place was emptied because everyone died, and visitors aren’t even tripping over bones here and there, that has its own brand of creepy right there).

Now age them. Dust is settling over them, the plants and animals are making use of them, you’ve got erosion by wind and weather, organic material is rotting away, the iron has been cheerfully oxidizing, windows are breaking, wood is warping, and all of that is going to have an impact. Make sure you’ve got a pretty good idea how long it’s been since the place was last in use, and then try figuring out what would weather and what would stand about as it was left. In both this case and the last one, I cannot possibly recommend research enough; making it clear that you know what you’re doing rarely hurts, and sometimes, it’s those one or two little details from semi-obscure and nonintuitive facts about what goes wrong (like the fact that basements of houses under conflagration tend to flood) that really fascinate the audience.

Admittedly, you can get an abandoned or ruined city by just creating standard ruins, but if you take the time, they’ll be more their own cities, and much more interesting.


  1. UZ says:

    Environmental reasons are the awesomest reasons. Everyone does magic disasters, whether it’s:

    1) General town-burnings (although you have to feel sorry for Edge from Azel Saga, his town was vaporized with a giant laser)

    2) The Great Brush-Tarring of Dragonlance, where millions died because they were… supposed to have known that they were… near someone who was bad… I think? Not 100% clear on that whole sea of blood thing

    3) Having the entire population turned into magic energy statues so that someone can wear their souls as an invincible sea monster in the sky

    4) Hey Bob, let’s make the shoggoths really smart! Good idea Jim!

    It’s imaginative and all, but consider, an environmental problem will empty the city just as badly as a magic one. Consider the effect that an ice age has on a coastal city – lower the sea level twenty meters, and your “trading hub” has a giant shipping dock in the middle of a grassy field. A little global warming and your glacial water sources vanish.

    The best part is these happen over a long span of time. Songs can be written about it. There can be generational complaining. It can be *chronicled*. These are the best kind of disasters, the slow-motion ones.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Excellent points!

  3. Shinali says:

    Abandoned cities need not be obvious either: I saw a segment on TV about an old rusty credit card machine found in the Alaskan wilderness, complete with credit card. Turns out that Good Friday Earthquake that took out much of Valdez, Alaska, dumped the gas station it was at into the harbor (among much of the rest of the city). Realizing they were on loose glacial sediments, and pretty much doomed if they ever rebuilt, they tore down what remained of the city, and rebuilt it on more stable, higher ground, a few miles away. Nature doing what nature does, it’s old town site is now wilderness, and the credit card machine washed back up on shore one day. Nothing else around where they were hiking even hinted at a city.

    And yes, abandoning a city isn’t done lightly. Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed by Vesuvius, and now Naples sits on the ruins of Herculaneum. Of all the TV shows I have seen that talk about terrible natural disasters, only twice has the community not rebuilt – one it was replaced by new lava flows from the still-erupting Kilauea, the other was a hurricane-caused massive landslide that basically shunted the entire residential housing either into the ocean or into the upscale area, so thick and so devastatingly that there was really no land to build on anymore. Pretty much everything else I’ve seen, the city rebuilds, and relatively quickly.

    I did make a setting with cultures that buck the human trend to rebuild – if they have an earthquake or volcano or tsunami, they figure out where didn’t get damaged and move there. Their maps of abandoned villages and damage zones have been used by outsiders to map fault lines and tectonic plates. Their houses don’t stand the test of time; however, so usually the only thing still standing is the giant signal bell used in disasters. One features prominently in a story I’m working on, the bell itself distorted by eruption.

    I do have an abandoned village in the backstory of a character, due to a cholera epidemic. Once it did its worst, they burned the village, thereby cremating the dead and sterilizing the land. Then they salted the earth (because germ theory and villages in the wilderness don’t always jive, and if the ground is cursed, you don’t want people moving back), and moved the village. Mind you, these people probably moved their village occasionally anyhow, as fits their tech level.

    Basements of burned houses flood?!

  4. UZ says:

    Warped bell, very nice! Nothing makes people worry like a sign that says “Beware of the” and the rest of it is bitten off. Ditto early warning systems that are horribly burned or have holes through them :)

    Re basements – most cities have a centralized pressure system and it’s often preloaded like a water tower, that’s why you still have water pressure in the city when the power goes out, because the water storage is often higher than your house.

    If the fire disrupts the plumbing in any way, water will flow until the pressure equalizes which may take a long time. And, well, fire goes up and water goes down. I assume this is why but I’m not an insurance adjuster.

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