THE RISE OF THE SOFT CITY

© Gehl/Island Press

Within these 65 years city functions had been separated. This functionalistic or Modernist approach kept residences, workplaces, recreation and traffic apart and became totally dominant worldwide; especially after 1960 as rapid urbanization began to take place all around the world. Freestanding, monofunctional buildings were surrounded by leftover spaces but even though there was a widespread discontent with these kinds of settlements, surprisingly enough there was never a proper assessment of whether this approach actually works for mankind. Nevertheless, people such as Jane Jacobs or members of the New York School, the Berkeley School or the Copenhagen School of Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts did not only criticized the functionalistic approach but also came up with new directions. Whereas Jacobs was the first one who described many of the problems of the Modernist approach within her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities she also pointed out very simple principles which should later result into a new people-oriented city planning: look out of your window, look at the people and look at life before you plan and design. At the same time, the Copenhagen School along with Lars Gemzoe, Birgitte Svarre, Camilla van Deurs and Jan Gehl, produced a steady stream of books with concise titles such as Life Between Buildings (1971), Public Spaces – Public Life (1996), Cities for People or How to Study Public Life (2010), which have been spread all over the world. It is hardly surprising that the principles of the Copenhagen School finally also turned the City of Copenhagen into one of the world’s most livable cities. However, this people-oriented city planning has also been applied to many other cities around the globe – from Stockholm and Oslo, to London, New York, Moscow, Sydney and Melbourne. Within this context also the British-Swedish architect Ralph Erskine came up with his outstanding neighborhood and housing projects. While the Modernists focused on freestanding buildings surrounded by far too much leftover space, Erskine focused on the people, the buildings and the spaces between the buildings. As a result, he had a significant influence on the art of making good neighborhoods, great site plans, great architecture; always paying attention to the details, the people and the city at eye level.

Whereas today city planners and architects are fully aware of the advantages and the importance of a people-oriented approach we are still in the middle of an ongoing learning process of how turning our cities into livable and lovable places again. It is not only about finding answers to the question how to build attractive multifunctional neighborhoods and cities but also about developing strategies for ‘good’ densification, new mobility concepts, better infrastructure as well as climate change. The bad news: We still have a lot of things to do. The good news: We are just a stone’s throw away from the solution if we accept the rebirth of proven principles. David Sim, partner and creative director at Gehl, explains them within his book Soft City. As an educator at the Lund School of Architecture, he has worked with a number of “Erskinists”, primarily Professor Klas Tham. Since he has a very intensive people-oriented schooling, he has an outstanding ability to see, to observe, and to reflect upon the scenes from life and cities. Taking up Jan Gehl’s principle of the human scale, David Sim’s Soft City concept exclusively concentrates on already existing potentials within our urban environment instead of developing technology-based solutions following smart city concepts. “Rather than looking to complex new technologies to solve the challenges of increasing urbanization, we can instead look to simple, small-scale, low-tech, low-cost, human-centered, gentle solutions that help make urban life easier, more attractive and more comfortable. Softer may be smarter”, explains David Sim. In short: It is all about using the ‘things’ which are already there and adapting them to our current needs.

In times of rapid urbanization David Sim observes an increasing number of people suffering from loneliness. What somehow feels contradictory at first sight since people move into cities because of the diverse possibilities – from cultural offers to sports op- portunities, bars and restaurants – begins to make sense when looking at the relationships, or rather the lack of relationships among people as well as between them and their environment. “There is an epidemic of poor health due to people living their lives indoors, sitting inside mechanically ventilated buildings with artificial light, transporting themselves everywhere in cars. These are the challenges that Soft City addresses. Spending more time outdoors in the company of others, moving about, experiencing ‘life between buildings’ is more important than ever (…). Soft City is about moving closer getting together, connecting people to one another and to all of the aspects of life around them”, says David Sim. What sounds simple and true has either been ignored or handled exactly the other way around for decades: human activity was reorganized into distinct silos, people and things were continuously separated – usually to reduce the risk of conflict. However, what if precisely these potentially conflicting aspects of everyday existence can be brought together and connected to deliver better quality of life? David Sim discusses these questions in three chapters, namely Building Blocks, Getting About and Getting On and Living with the Weather.

© Laura Stamer

Building Blocks

“The first chapter of the book is about how to build places which can accommodate both density and diversity to deliver the convenience of proximity. It’s about living well while living locally. In these Corona times, this is more relevant than ever.”

Along with rapid urbanization and dwindling resources comes the need for increasing density. We do not only have to use existing infrastructure more efficiently but also make better use of the resources (and space!) we have and make what we build work harder for us. However, greater density does not lead automatically to better lives because what does make sense in terms of spatial efficiency does not at all in terms of quality of life unless you enjoy being stacked on top of one another. From Sim’s point of view “true urban quality comes from accommodating density and diversity of building types and uses in the same place”. He believes 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.

Putting theory into practice, Sim emphasizes the urban pattern of ‘enclosure’. Even though it seems to be as old as the built environment itself, it still offers much-needed qualities in an urban environment such as joined-up and juxtaposed buildings which leads to attractive architectonic diversity, controllable private and (potentially green) outdoor spaces (at no extra costs) as well as repeated patterns of blocks that define public realms of streets and squares. Since ‘enclosure’ results in spaces being physically and visually protected, they lend themselves 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”, explains Sim. From the hutong to the patio, the Hof and the cloister; there are many examples of enclosed urban blocks in different climates and cultures, throughout the history of human settlement. What holds true for all of them is that they help to accommodate the diverse demands of everyday life with more options for where different kinds of activities and therefore human interaction and communication can take place. As Sim points out: “The front is public, with the ground floor providing an ideal place for service function, shops and businesses. The back is private and provides a safe place for children to play or a sensible place to store property.”

When it comes to the building itself, David Sim concentrates on ‘layering’ and the great potential of the Ground Floor as well as the value of the Top Floor and the Roof. From Sim’s perspective, one of the best examples of density and diversity of building types and uses at a human scale is in the medieval core of Switzerland’s capital Berne. Especially Berne’s old town shows the potential of diverse, dense blocks made-up of medium-rise buildings. The streets are characterized by an attractive mix of different uses and functions, creating a vibrant urban space. The buildings are between four and five stories high, with big roofs and arcaded ground floors fronting the street, with courtyards to the back. These simple structures also make for a pleasant microclimate between the buildings: The arcaded ground floor creates a promenade that can be used in all weather and invited people to stop, stand, linger and talk to each other. Narrow laneways not only reduce the size of the blocks and create pedestrian shortcuts but also offer more shop frontage for commercial activities. The Berne structure is a perfect example of enclosed blocks at a human scale which can accommodate uses of almost any size, from extra-small to extra-large, while maintaining the human scale. You can find something surprisingly similar in Tokyo, which suggests that some aspects of urbanism are universal.

Last but not least, the pattern of ‘enclosure’ and ‘layering’ might help to find the so-called ‘missing middle’ in urban development. “This ‘denser-lower’ scale of medium-rise buildings, which creates both desirable public and private spaces, could both help deliver better new neighborhoods for the people moving into cities, as well as make good neighbors to the existing places and people already there. This is a density which can enable and support public infrastructure, public and private service, as well as recreational and cultural activities”, explains David Sim. In the long run this balance of common good and personal fulfillment might allow building blocks to build resilience.

Getting About and Getting On

“The business of getting about connects you not just to where you are going, but also to the places you pass and the people you meet on the way”, says David Sim. “Urban mobility is also about social mobility. Ultimately, we shouldn’t be talking about transport or even mobility, it’s really about access. Accessing the assets.”

Looking at Modernist-planned cities with their separated zones and functions it becomes clear that they do not only create a huge need for transportation to access the assets needed to live a full life but also this physical separation makes for social segregation since different kinds of people and different activities are located in different places. An inconvenient everyday life is accompanied by social challenges as different groups of people simply do not have the chance to meet in a natural way. In order to understand the human dimension in mobility, the layer beyond urban mobility such as walking, cycling, scooting and using public transportation or private cars etc. has to be uncovered. According to David Sim there are many small movements around the neighborhood, for crossing the street, getting the bike onto the bike lane and waiting for the bus. All of these small movements, using different forms of mobility, are actually also opportunities for sociability, namely invitations for people to interact with other people. “This is the human dimension of urban mobility. Getting about is a necessity of everyday life, while getting on is about making progress, advancing our lives, and connecting to and being comfortable with the other people around us. Walkability can make for sociability, as every single step, in every building where people live and work, and even in the smallest spaces in which people move is an opportunity for connection”, explains David Sim.

Given the fact that the Soft City concept of urban mobility comprises more than simply travelling from A to B, i.e. presenting an opportunity to connect people with place, with planet, and with other people, a holistic approach is required that accommodate a wide range of mobility options in the same space which at the same time respect the different needs and pace of different people.

“We have to think beyond the technological functions of transportation systems, and instead understand what happens on on the way, how mobility delivers accessibility, on a much wider range of levels, delivering physical and emotional connection to place.”

In short, in terms of the Soft City concept well-done mobility cor- relates with: (a) walkable buildings; since being able to move in and out spontaneously has a huge impact on quality of life; es- pecially when living in an urban context (having exercise, breathing fresh air, having more social contact etc.); (b) continuous sidewalks and side streets; since they create a more comfortable, safe, pleasurable and fast experience for people walking; (c) safe and attractive cycling options which are integrated with life on the street, (d) an easily-accessed, eye-level public transport system, which keeps people connected to their environment as they move, as well as (e) diversity of streets; since thoughtful design can help streets to perform better in how they balance the distribution of different modes of traffic in space.

© Gehl/Island Press

Living with the Weather

“We hear about Climate Change every day, yet somehow it remains an abstract phenomenon. With the final chapter, Living with the Weather, starting with the simple idea of spending more time outside. I wanted to find ways that might let people feel they were ‘neighbours with nature’ in a way that was relevant to their everyday lives. My hope is that from that relevance, comes reverence, as people start to have more respect for the planet.”

Since more and more people live in dense environments, the importance of spending time outdoors, encountering natural phenomena and learning to live closer to the seasonal cycles of the weather increases. Additionally, spending time outdoors also presents opportunities to meet other people. In David Sim’s opinion everyone does not necessarily need to have their own garden, but they should have access to a range of outdoor spaces and experiences, “from a window box to a roof terrace, from a balcony to a public park, from a sidewalk café to a free-lined boulevard. These spaces can bring them closer to nature and help them live better with the weather.” Nevertheless, up until today many new built environments such as homes, institutions and workplaces seem to be oriented to staying indoors as well as any mobility around them is based on driving. The Soft City however follows the vision to regard weather not as something people have to endure but as so- mething they can modify actively – namely by design. “By letting the sun in, and sometimes keeping it out, by sheltering from wind and rain, we have the potential to make ‘our own weather, or at least extend the time we can spend outdoors. Low-tech, low-cost interventions such as shutters and stairs, balconies and arcades can bring people out of their normal, indoor comfort zones into a closer, more satisfying relationship with the natural and social environments outside”, states David Sim or as the Scandinavians say: There is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.

Even though the above stated aspects are just a small glimpse into David Sim’s Soft City concept it becomes clear that the Soft City is not just a built form but a complex combination of ‘hardware’ and ‘software’. Whereas the ‘hardware’ is the physical form such as the streets, the buildings etc., the ‘software’ is made up of all invisible structures – from legislation and finance, to planning and education, democracy, customs and culture as well as behavior and trust. And even though there is no such thing as THE Soft City, you can already see bits of it everywhere, namely low-cost, low-tech, larger or smaller phenomena as well as explicit or subtle tolerances and tendencies. Each of them make your everyday life more enjoyable and support density as well as diversity. “While the connection of people to nature and people to place are im- portant, I believe the connection of people to other people is the most important. Only when people come together can they truly understand what they have in common, and then together explore how much actually is possible”, says David Sim.

Keeping this final statement with this selection of ideas into mind, David Sim jokes that during the production of the book a senior colleague at Gehl suggested the book be called The Shit that works. We definitely do not have to re-invent the wheel again and again; we just have to concentrate on the essentials. Softer, mean smaller, slower, lower, simpler things, done well.

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