Soft City: Building Density for Everyday Life

Soft City: Building Density for Everyday Life

Soft City: Building Density for Everyday Life

Soft City: Building Density for Everyday Life


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Imagine waking up to the gentle noises of the city, and moving through your day with complete confidence that you will get where you need to go quickly and efficiently. Soft City is about ease and comfort, where density has a human dimension, adapting to our ever-changing needs, nurturing relationships, and accommodating the pleasures of everyday life. How do we move from the current reality in most cites—separated uses and lengthy commutes in single-occupancy vehicles that drain human, environmental, and community resources—to support a soft city approach?
In Soft City David Sim, partner and creative director at Gehl, shows how this is possible, presenting ideas and graphic examples from around the globe. He draws from his vast design experience to make a case for a dense and diverse built environment at a human scale, which he presents through a series of observations of older and newer places, and a range of simple built phenomena, some traditional and some totally new inventions.
Sim shows that increasing density is not enough. The soft city must consider the organization and layout of the built environment for more fluid movement and comfort, a diversity of building types, and thoughtful design to ensure a sustainable urban environment and society.
Soft City begins with the big ideas of happiness and quality of life, and then shows how they are tied to the way we live. The heart of the book is highly visual and shows the building blocks for neighborhoods: building types and their organization and orientation; how we can get along as we get around a city; and living with the weather. As every citizen deals with the reality of a changing climate, Soft City explores how the built environment can adapt and respond.
Soft City offers inspiration, ideas, and guidance for anyone interested in city building. Sim shows how to make any city more efficient, more livable, and better connected to the environment.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781642830187
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 08/20/2019
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 182,744
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 10.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Architect David Sim is partner and creative director at Gehl, where he has worked for more than 15 years. He has developed citizen-engagement tools and a people-first approach to planning and flexible frameworks for development. David is an accomplished educator, teaching all over the world. He spent seven years at Lund University reforming architectural education towards a more holistic approach.

He has worked on numerous plans from transit areas in Tokyo to an urban planning framework for city recovery in Christchurch, New Zealand after the 2011 earthquake, and is currently working on a masterplan for St Saveur, a new part of Lille in France.

Read an Excerpt


Being Neighbors

"Neighborhood is not a place; it's a state of mind"

When talking about the human environment, towns and cities, urban design, or placemaking, the word neighbor is always useful. Think of your neighbor and you immediately think of another human being. It is not a vague planning concept or an unspecified urban phenomenon, but a living person, someone like you, but different. Neighbor is not a technical term or professional planning jargon, but a simple word that everyone knows and understands. At its simplest, neighbor can mean the person next door. At its broadest, it can mean all of humanity.

Neighborhood is a state of being in a relationship. More than anything, the human environment is about relationships: relationships between people and planet, relationships between people and place, and relationships between people and people.

In the relationship between people and the planet, we have made harsh places and severe climates habitable. Coexisting with other people has allowed us to cooperate and collaborate — to organize, trade, manufacture, and learn. Our ability to cultivate, control, and even manipulate these different relationships has allowed us to go beyond survival, to create societies and cultures, and often (but certainly not always) to achieve a better quality of life. Successful neighboring has allowed us to thrive and flourish, to live longer and fuller lives.

Of course, being a neighbor is not always easy. People have different perspectives and needs, values and behaviors. The benefits of colocation can just as easily become problems, as surplus becomes waste, energy becomes pollution, mobility become congestion, collaboration becomes exploitation, and coexistence becomes conflict.

Yet, in our rapidly urbanizing world, the word neighbor is more relevant than ever. All over the world, cities are not only densifying, but also diversifying. It is precisely the diversity and the differences that create opportunities. The simplest way to tap into everything society has to offer is to have neighbors, close neighbors.

The thesis of this book comes down to a simple equation:

Density x Diversity = Proximity

The idea is that the fusion of density and diversity increases the likelihood or the possibility of useful things, places, and people being closer to you.

The attraction of cities lies in mutual benefit. They offer reciprocal systems or arrangements, which support symbiotic relationships. There are at least three such benefits that can explain the attraction of a dense, diverse urban environment: physical proximity, common resources, and shared identities.

Physical proximity to people and places can improve access to employers and employees, teachers and tradesmen, shops, schools, and services where and when you need them. Proximity in an urban context is made possible by common resources such as public spaces, hospitals, libraries, universities, and public transport. It is about being closer to where decisions and discoveries are made, where new knowledge grows, where fashion is created, trends start, and culture happens.

With proximity, the space of the urban environment can be translated into time, with the convenience of being able to do a wide variety of things in the same day, in the same morning, or even in the same hour.

We know that infrastructure costs per capita decrease as density increases. Additionally more people make for more customers, allowing a wider range of commercial and cultural activities to thrive. In theory, the larger the city, the larger the pool of common resources. It is exactly this access to these that compensates for the sometimes cramped and crowded living conditions of urban life.

Another benefit is having a shared identity with your community, which comes from sharing the same places and resources. This feeling of belonging can be seen in people's pride in their city, in its places and local heroes, its public buildings, parks, and promenades, and its athletes and artists. Local urban identity is often stronger and perhaps more relevant than national, cultural, or ethnic identity. Its inclusive nature arguably makes for one of the healthiest forms of collective identity.

Yet another benefit of dense, diverse urban environments is the potential for unexpected opportunities. Towns and cities are sites of the spontaneous and serendipitous random encounters and unpredictable meetings. The ever-changing configuration of people results in a delightful unpredictability, rife with possibilities. Seemingly an insignificant aspect of urban life, it has very real importance.

If we better understand what conditions make for being good neighbors, we can then better accommodate density, difference, and change. We can embrace these as beneficial opportunities rather than unfortunate challenges.

We should recognize that every detail in the physical composition of the built environment has the potential to deliver comfort, convenience, and connection to others. The subtle balance of private and public needs, and the colocation of different activities in the same place make it possible to live well without having to travel so much. By getting the relationships right in the physical environment, with everything you need close at hand, an urban neighborhood can offer a better life.

With everyday exposure and regular encounters comes relevance. With time, this awareness and understanding can grow into reverence, when people care about planet, people, and place. Changing mindsets leads ultimately to changing behaviors.

In this way, neighborhood is not a place; it's a state of mind.


Building Blocks

Living Locally in an Urbanizing World

There are many arguments for increasing density. With rapid urbanization and dwindling resources, we have to use existing infrastructure more efficiently, make better use of the resources we have — specifically the space we have — and make what we build work harder for us. Greater density alone is not going to give us better lives. No real benefit comes from being stacked on top of one another just because it is more spatially efficient.

True urban quality comes from accommodating density and diversity of building types and uses in the same place. I believe that different, even conflicting, uses and users can coexist and enjoy the convenience of colocation if they are accommodated in an urban framework that lets them be good neighbors to each other.


The urban pattern of enclosure seems to be as old as the built environment itself. Ever since the very first formal human settlements, thousands of years ago, there has been a simple pattern of building that could be called urban. The urban pattern is characterized by building to the very edge of the property rather than in the middle, and having joined-up buildings, where different properties are juxtaposed. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this urban pattern is the different outdoor spaces created between the buildings. By grouping buildings to make enclosures, extra, controllable outdoor spaces are created at no extra cost.

The enclosures between the buildings or inside the block give privacy and security, which are much-needed qualities in an urban environment. The fact that the space is protected, physically and visually, means it lends itself to useful activities, either as an extension of life inside the buildings or as an additional, complementary space where other activities can happen. Protected spaces make room for flexibility over time, for temporary or seasonal uses, and for future expansion. They also contain noise, smell, and mess, thus sparing the surrounding neighbors from potentially annoying activities. In this way, these protected outdoor spaces can be seen as zones of tolerance and have a vital role in buffering humans and their activities from each other.

When multiplied, groups of blocks create other types of spaces: streets and other public spaces like squares that also come at no extra cost. These spaces are important, even though they are usually not completely enclosed. They are defined by the edges of the blocks, allowing access between them. A level of containment ensures they are weather-protected places, making movement through them and time spent in them more comfortable. This ancient urban pattern of building has the advantage of creating two very different kinds of useful outdoor spaces — one private and the other public. The spatial economy of the system allows these different kinds of space — built and unbuilt, private and public — to coexist in close proximity to each other, separated only by the buildings themselves. Using the minimum material and space to enable different activities to develop, this pattern solves the greatest challenge in urban design, which is accommodating density with a diversity of building types and uses.

There are many variations on the enclosed form, ranging from one big courtyard enclosed by a single building where the entire block is effectively one property, to multiple buildings surrounding a number of subdivided outside spaces. From the hutong to the patio, the Hof and the cloister, there are examples of enclosed urban blocks in different climates and cultures, throughout the history of urban settlement. The outdoor space enclosed by buildings is a universally useful and relevant habitation form in urban contexts. What is key is that the inner space is clearly defined and recognizable, and controllable by the occupants of the surrounding building or buildings.

A key characteristic of the urban pattern of enclosure is its ability to deliver density with lower heights. By building all around the outer edge of the plot, creating what might be called a crust of buildings around the void inside, a larger footprint for buildings is possible. This very efficient way of utilizing space allows the largest surface for building on, meaning the height of the buildings can be lower. Smaller blocks have more edge, or crust, created by the buildings, relative to their size than larger blocks. Therefore, the same number of square meters of building can be delivered at lower heights if the blocks are smaller.

A classic urban block with around four or five stories does much more than its modest appearance might suggest. When developed to its full potential, the enclosed block can create a symbiotic urban system for many different, co-located activities. The combination of density and diversity of building types and uses, with a compact footprint and on a human scale, makes for an environment that is both efficient and attractive. With its front and back, the enclosed block gives both a clearly defined, open, and accessible public side, as well as a protected and controlled private side. This simple approach accommodates a wide variety of needs, from very public to very private, in close proximity.

The spatial organization of the enclosed block helps to accommodate the diverse demands of everyday life with more options for where different kinds of activities can take place. The front is public, with the ground floor providing an ideal place for service functions, shops, and businesses. The back is private and provides a safe place for children to play or a sensible place to store property.

Dragør, Denmark and Rosengård, Malmö, Sweden. The picturesque Danish village of Dragør (left) is famous for its microclimate, which allows fig trees to grow in its small gardens despite the relatively cold and windy northern climate. It's hard to comprehend that the village made up of cottages and laneways has the same density as the Rosengård housing estate in Malmö (right) with its large slab blocks.

Different Built Forms Delivering the Same Density

The same built density can be delivered with very different building typologies and very different in-between spaces. The four examples of built form shown here have the same density. Each has a total floor area of 22,400 m (241,000 sq. ft). What is important is the usefulness of the different built forms. The notable aspects are the proportion of enclosed or protected outdoor space that can be more useful than undefined open space, the proportion of building edge that can help create useful street frontage, and the proportion of the ground floor and the top floor (or penthouse), as these can be more useful and attractive, and often have greater economic value.

The walls of buildings help to ensure that the noise from streets and public spaces, especially of traffic, is kept out. There is a great value to peace and quiet in the dense city, and the enclosure can even make it possible to sleep with an open window toward the courtyard. The built enclosure can also block air pollutants, which means cleaner air for ventilation, and washing can be hung out to dry.

Although the urban pattern of the enclosed block predates the existence of motorized vehicles, it is practical for dealing with them. Vehicle access to buildings is necessary for emergency services, deliveries, and picking up or dropping off at the door. However, motorized vehicles bring with them noise, fumes, and the potential for accidents. The solution is to keep the vehicles outside of the enclosure, creating a vehicle-free space on the inside. The enclosed block can deliver the best of both worlds, as there is easy access right up to the front door of the building and a safe, clean, and quiet outdoor space just at the back door.

This pattern of enclosure is not without its failings. You will not have to look hard to find places where the system of enclosed blocks and courtyards is compromised, with the open spaces eaten up by greedy buildings, destroying the usefulness, comfort, and tolerance of the system. Sometimes, the courtyard is reduced to a dirty storage facility, or a place for outdoor toilets and bins. However, in many other places, the courtyard has been rediscovered and turned into a vital shared resource that is light, green, and airy.

The enclosed block can also make its own weather. The perimeter of the block shelters the inner space from the wind, while the variation in the dimensions of the courtyard space or spaces and in the height or heights of the surrounding buildings can let in more or less direct sunshine. The courtyard can be a wind-protected suntrap or a shady oasis, depending on what is appropriate in the context of the local climate. The enclosure can offer greater control as well as greater consistency of microclimate and this can allow residents to spend more time and do more things outside.

The Potential of Smaller Blocks: Donnybrook Quarter, London, England

The Donnybrook Quarter social housing project is an example of low-rise, high-density housing that is also low-cost and high-quality. Two new streets were introduced, creating smaller blocks within the site. In addition to creating new public space where one street widens to become a square and improving walkability with new local shortcuts, these smaller blocks create more street edge and allow the required density to be delivered with buildings of just two and three stories. The lower heights accommodate individual houses, each with their own front door and walled courtyard garden, using a simple and affordable form of construction.

Here at Donnybrook Quarter, the foundation of small-scale blocks and individual components, make for an intensive-yet-sensitive solution to urban living, proving that human scale and intimacy are possible at higher densities.

The eighteenth-century, traditional blocks along Dronningensgade Street in Copenhagen's Christianshavn district are a model example of what the enclosed-block form can accomplish. Within what is a fairly dense block is a remarkable diversity of spaces and buildings. The area shows how very simple differentiations in the spatial organization can allow far more to happen, not just for the diversity of buildings, but also for the diversity of its open space.

In the northernmost block, located next to a public square and close to the main thoroughfare, various non-residential uses have flourished alongside a range of dwelling types, including a student residence. The active ground floors include small shops, offices, and services, a "bodega" pub, a cellar restaurant and music venue, and a nursery school with big front windows. There is a co-op supermarket that has progressively expanded into neighboring buildings, including a former cinema and a bank, creating an important local shopping hub. The courtyard includes a nursery for the smallest children and a shared laundry for the student housing.

The block has organically evolved into a robust urban form. The many changes over time can be seen in the architectural styles, which are extremely varied, ranging from the traditional vernacular, classical, 1930s functionalist, and 1970s social modern. The neighboring block to the south (indicated in green on the diagram on p.26) is perhaps even more interesting, as the spaces between the buildings have been partially redeveloped in an urban renewal program to create higher-quality outdoor spaces.

The variation in styles, ages, and types of buildings gives the streets plenty of character. There are larger apartment buildings alongside small townhouses, older construction and newer infill. Each building has its own particularities, which helps to give the streets a distinct neighborhood identity.


Excerpted from "Soft City"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Gehl Architects Finance & Administration ApS.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Forward by Jan Gehl

Being Neighbors
Building Blocks
The Time of Your Life
Getting About and Getting On
Layering Life
Living with the Weather
Soft is Hard to Break
Nine Criteria


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