What are some examples of cities that were founded in illogical places?
July 27, 2014 7:27 PM   Subscribe

I know that most cities have a reason for being where they are(near a river, natural harbor etc) but I'm curious about cities that are actually in poorly chosen locations or make no sense at all. I'm sure several of the southwest cities may meet this bill but also curious about global cities too.
posted by aleatorictelevision to Science & Nature (30 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Cities placed in *logical* locations are the strange ones. E.g. Brasilia
posted by chrchr at 7:44 PM on July 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

New Orleans is poorly located below sea level in a hurricane prone area. Some early American settlements like Jamestown and the original Charleston SC were founded in mosquito-ridden, hurricane prone locations. Native Americans used some of these places as temporary settlements for fishing but moved farther inland the rest of the year to escape storms, bad water, and mosquitoes.
posted by Elsie at 7:48 PM on July 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Fatehpur Sikri in northern India was founded by Akbar the Great to be his imperial capital on a site that was chosen for symbolic/religious reasons (vaguely remembering here - too lazy to look for a citation). It's pretty much a desert and there just isn't enough water nearby to support a palace, let alone a city, so it was abandoned after about 15 years. Splendid architecture, though, even if the civil engineering was a bit lacking.
posted by Quietgal at 7:52 PM on July 27, 2014

Dallas claims to be the "city with no reason to exist", though this book calls that a myth.
posted by katemonster at 8:03 PM on July 27, 2014

IIRC, (and I might not RC), Mexico City is where it is because that's where an eagle was seen devouring a snake— Tenochtitlán was founded there because the event had a prophetic significance, and Mexico City is there now.
posted by hattifattener at 8:36 PM on July 27, 2014

Most of the places like what you're looking for eventually were abandoned. Nevade is littered with ghost towns, for instance. They don't generally become cities because they don't last long enough.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:49 PM on July 27, 2014

Perhaps this description from Wikipedia about the siting of Naypyidaw in Burma fits your criteria?

Some Western diplomats speculated that the government were concerned with the possibility of foreign attack, as Yangon is on the coast and therefore vulnerable to an amphibious invasion. The popular belief among the Burmese is that a warning about foreign attack was delivered to the military chief by an astrologer. Indian journalist Siddharth Varadarajan, who visited Naypyidaw in January 2007, described the vastness of the new capital as "the ultimate insurance against regime change, a masterpiece of urban planning designed to defeat any putative "colour revolution" – not by tanks and water cannons, but by geometry and cartography".
posted by anadem at 8:52 PM on July 27, 2014

Not sure if this qualifies....but I lived in Lima, Peru for a few years and the locals joke that when the conquistadors arrived in the 1500's, the local Indian population encouraged them to settle in Lima. As the weather and surroundings are so unappealing - they assumed the Spanish would immediately leave. And of course, they were wrong....
In Lima, there is a mist that hangs out most days; lots of gray days and the surrounding ground is desert-like. Quite a drab place.
posted by what's her name at 9:26 PM on July 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Point Roberts, WA is a part of Washington State. However, it's also an exclave, and is only accessible by going through Canada.

The Powers that Be, in the 19th Century, decided that the border between the western USA and Canada would be the 49th Parallel, with the exception of Vancouver Island. However, that didn't take Point Roberts into account, which was a tiny blip of land that lay lower than the 49th Parallel. It belonged to the USA because of that, and thus also part of Washington State.

Because it's so isolated, and so hard to get to, it's also where a lot of people in the Federal Witness Protection program are relocated to. If you get the chance to go there, definitely do so. It's a wild and weird place.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:05 PM on July 27, 2014 [13 favorites]

The other funny thing about Mexico City is that it was built in the middle of a lake. Maybe you'd call it a swamp. It worked fine with the kind of agriculture the Aztecs practiced, and was a military advantage, but it was less compatible with Spanish style infrastructure. Mexico City was flooded for years at a time in the 17th century. A series of public works projects have since drained the lake.
posted by chrchr at 10:31 PM on July 27, 2014

Just over half of New Orleans is actually located at or above sea level. That being said, the location of the city was crazy, but not irrational (a Miss. port was necessary, and the link of Bayou St. John to Lake Pontchartrain made it possible to ship goods via the Gulf).

Cities with major issues that also managed to thrive (but whose locations made sense in some respects, or which grew for rational reasons) include: Venice, Las Vegas and Chicago (peat-ey, muddy soil, river issues galore).
posted by raysmj at 10:32 PM on July 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Canberra was founded basically to mollify the competing interests of Sydney and Melbourne - hence it's reputation as "a good sheep paddock, ruined."
posted by pompomtom at 11:41 PM on July 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

The mith goes that Madrid was founded by drawing two lines on the map of Spain and seing where they crossed.
Does not really stand up as there was already a town there before Phillip II decided to move the court.
posted by thegirlwiththehat at 1:22 AM on July 28, 2014

I came in here to say Canberra, too. The idea was to put it far enough away from both Sydney and Melbourne that it would never feel more a part of one than the other. That was back in the very early days of automobiles, and no one anticipated such a good network of roads and fast cars/buses that people frequently commute between Canberra and Sydney nowadays.

If they hadn't been so worried about the relationships with Melbourne and Sydney, Canberra might have ended up in a geographically pleasant location, e.g. by the shore, like most other Australian cities, or at least somewhere drought-prone and in danger of bushfires, with icy winters and boiling hot summers. (I love Canberra for many reasons, but its location and climate is not one of them.)
posted by lollusc at 1:29 AM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

RE: Canberra - they also thought that being both inland and elevated would make it invulnerable to Russian naval attack, unlike Sydney or Melbourne (whose legendary rivalry is always overblown). In the 1920s, everyone was scared of naval attacks. Like how now we fear drone attacks and 3D printed guns.

So that was logical at the time I guess.
posted by evil_esto at 1:36 AM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

San Francisco has no fresh water. Until Stone Dam went in in 1867 to divert water from the peninsula, water in the city was sold by the barrel. 150,000 people lived there at the time.

Today the city gets 85% of its water from the Sierras via Hetch Hetchy.
posted by fshgrl at 2:06 AM on July 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Eden on the South Coast was one of the sites considered for Canberra but due to the threat of Naval bombardment it was not done.
posted by sien at 3:00 AM on July 28, 2014

Salt Lake City is where it is because Brigham Young had a vision that told him to put it there.

Washington DC was located where it is for political reasons (between N and S).

I'm giving answers for cities located for non-geographical reasons - ie, not a port, or a river, or good farm land, etc.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:04 AM on July 28, 2014

My grandfather was a farmer west of Canberra, it always sounded as though he was fairly serious in thinking it was a waste of a good sheep paddock.
posted by deadwax at 3:22 AM on July 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

There are a lot of very good reasons for Mexico City to be where it is. It's a very defensible location and it is (or was) extremely fertile. I've heard native Mexicans joke about how convenient it was that the Aztec mystic saw the prophesized eagle just as the wandering tribe came across an obviously perfect place to stop wandering.
posted by 256 at 3:33 AM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Make sure you're sitting down when you start reading about Naypitaw, the capital of Myanmar (Burma) that was built in secret.
posted by ouke at 6:00 AM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

> Most of the places like what you're looking for eventually were abandoned. Nevade is littered with ghost towns, for instance. They don't generally become cities because they don't last long enough.

This is the boring but correct answer. Cities are always built in places that were logical at the time; just because the original reason has disappeared or the city has outgrown it doesn't mean they were "founded in illogical places."
posted by languagehat at 6:53 AM on July 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think the best example going right now for what you're asking about would be China's ghost cities, which are being built because of a huge real-estate/lending bubble.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:38 AM on July 28, 2014

The people who are saying "If it lives and breathes, it was there for a reason (even you don't see it)" are correct. But I will chime in with the answer of Venice, which is sinking into a marsh.

Of course, it is also there for a reason: As best historians can determine, the peoples who founded the city fled to the marsh to avoid their enemies, basically. The fact that no one wanted to live there or go there was a feature, not a bug. (Kind of like how some penguins reproduce in the Antarctic to escape predators, even though it means not eating for many weeks.)

But it isn't there for your usual "logical" terrain-based reasons like "Hey, there is great farmland! And, also, this river/whatever is an awesome transit feature!" It was a reason of "The undesirable traits of this bit of land are less of a problem for us than dealing with our human enemies. So, let's build a city on a marsh! (and our descendants can have their buildings slowly sink into it)" In other words, it isn't there because the terrain has all kinds of desirable assets. It is there because the situation between them and other humans made an inhospitable piece of land more desirable (or less undesirable) than dealing with their enemies.
posted by Michele in California at 10:15 AM on July 28, 2014

Best answer: Chicago's size and historical importance have very little to do with it being in a logical location. The book Nature's Metropolis discusses it at great length, but basically, everyone in the 19th century thought the US needed a major commercial hub in the "west", but it could have just as easily been St. Louis, or Indianapolis, or Milwaukee (to name a few). Although Chicago's lake access seems like a great benefit, that was always pretty questionable:
"The location with so many 'advantages' turned out to have some daunting disadvantages as well. The mouth of the Chicago River, for instance, which many speculators wanted to see as a great harbor and gateway between East and West, had a sandbar seventy yards wide at its mouth. ... Water at the mouth was at best about two feet deep, certainly not enough to float a vessel capable of reaching the Erie Canal. ... By the late 1840s, the government had spent almost a quarter of a million dollars on dredging and maintaining this 'natural' advantage."
Furthermore, ice and storms closed lake-based commerce for half the year. And as mentioned above, the city is flat as a pancake and surrounded by wetlands, making stormwater drainage a nightmare (which continues to this day).

Ultimately, Chicago's rise had much more to do with its becoming a railroad hub, which was driven not by location (aside from being roughly in the middle of the country), but rather by boosterism. It's more nuanced than this, but essentially, Eastern investors were throwing their money at whichever city sounded most likely to succeed. It just so happened that Chicago gained more traction than any of its rivals:
"The railroads centered on Chicago not because nature ordained that they had to do so--nature made no such pronouncements--but because investors and everyone else who acted on booster theories proclaimed that they should do so."
posted by gueneverey at 10:24 AM on July 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


posted by ereshkigal45 at 1:01 PM on July 28, 2014

Response by poster: Gueneverey, reading that book actually prompted this question! Thanks for the responses, time to dive into wikipedia.
posted by aleatorictelevision at 2:29 PM on July 28, 2014

> New Orleans is poorly located below sea level in a hurricane prone area.

This is not true. New Orleans, as it was originally founded, is on high land. It's the subsequent sprawl that was built below sea level. The French Quarter wasn't flooded in Katrina.
posted by kjs3 at 2:10 PM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

> Atlanta exists due to an arbitrary junction of three railroad lines.

Junctions of railroads aren't arbitrary, nor is placing a city at that Junction.
posted by kjs3 at 2:11 PM on August 16, 2014

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