Updated: Sep 26
By Jacob Rodriguez
*A Review and Reflection of "Soft City: Building Density for Everyday Life" by David Sim (foreword by Jan Gehl)
Good Urbanism reaches the soul. It is within the subtleties and nuances of our everyday lives from which we derive our most basic and innate senses of joy and fulfillment. Our very own instinct and humanity act as both compass and judge of our surrounding world. To accommodate, to socialize, to be comfortable, to be peaceful, our very basic desires to live and to live in a community are at the core of what good Urbanism aims to establish. It is through our “Hygge” (hoo-ga), our sense of togetherness, as characterized by David Sim, that we may fully achieve these attributes of “soft” city building.
Before entering into the realm of dissection and analysis of what exactly constitutes “soft” city building, we must first ask ourselves what it means to be “soft”. My modest interpretation defines it as rounding the edges of the otherwise sharp and unpleasant encounters we experience on a daily basis; balancing the needs of the individual while simultaneously maintaining the integrity and exigency of the community; making walking a feasible mode of transportation; promoting diversity not just in people and background but also in architecture and structure usage; keeping the “neighborhood” alive and strong.
The prerequisite for “softness” is density. The full culmination of people in a singular area, a node of proximity that allows us to organize, trade, manufacture, learn. Density allows for convenience as well as spontaneity.
The Value of the Neighborhood
The neighborhood is a state of mind. It is best to observe the neighborhood, as characterized by Sim, as a relationship between an individual and the place in which they live, their environment, the people around them and the planet. The neighborhood goes far beyond a conglomeration of housing. The neighborhood is a primary and major stepping stone in creating a defined society and culture. It is the area of interaction, if executed properly, it is the tool that allows for the preservation of identity with the simultaneous promotion of diversity. Above all else, the neighborhood allows for proximity.
Density x Diversity = Proximity
Density: the centralization and layering of a population within the boundaries of a defined city or urban area.
Diversity: the quality of having varying outlooks, perspectives, ethnicities, cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, and approaches to life within the composition of a population.
Proximity allows for useful things, places and people to be close to you. It is fundamental in the implementation of the soft city model as practicality and convenience are central and core beliefs. Not only is proximity practical, but it is also sustainable. It is only through the availability of shared or common resources, such as public spaces, hospitals, libraries, universities, public transport, etc. that proximity is possible. By being centralized and optimizing the use of resources in a single area, overconsumption of energy and resources is more easily avoidable and more easily tracked. The allocation of resources within the community in conjunction with the elements of urban density and diversity allows for optimal sustainability and provides an efficient system for energy consumption and distribution.
Furthermore, urban density allows for more cost-efficient infrastructure. Since the population is not dispersed or widely diffused over vast areas of land, far less expenditure is necessary to allocate these common and finite resources to the people which need them. Along with this comes improvements in transportation systems, communication networks, sewage systems, and water systems all due to the efficiencies brought on through proximity. It is through this colocation of resources, establishments, activities, and people that proximity proves itself to be a fundamental pillar and overwhelming proponent of sustainable living through its provision of a natural approach to delivering comfort and convenience.
While comfort, convenience, and diversity all sound like fantastic components of everyday life, in order to truly provide for these attributes one must select a usable “urban pattern” to implement that encapsulate all that is “soft” city building. Enclosure is an especially prevalent pattern used in much of Scandinavia and Western Europe that, put simply, pulls buildings to the edge of the property and joins them up to create a courtyard space in the center of the structure. This creates two distinct outdoor spaces that are controllable and come at no extra cost.
The “enclosed” block provides a quintessential “softness” to the area it inhabits. Through the creation of both a defined public space and a distinct and discrete private space, the enclosed method provides residents with a unique opportunity to experience both the public and private realms consecutively with little interference or effort. With tenants living in the surrounding building, it is as simple as walking or taking the elevator to the ground floor and finding oneself in a magnificently adorned and peaceful courtyard before entering the hustle and bustle of the public realm full of sidewalks, and streets, and noise. The “softness” of the courtyard before entering the public arena provides the resident with a unique and profound sensory experience as these privately enclosed spaces provide an escape from the “outside” world. The practice of separating these areas (the public and the private) with the building itself allows for the minimum material and space to enable a multitude of activities thus solving the fundamental issue of accommodating density while allowing for diverse building types and uses.
Moreover, the pattern of enclosure doesn’t solely entail courtyards surrounded by a single joined-up building. The creation of multiple buildings surrounding subdivided spaces are also “enclosed” by definition consequently creating a feeling of almost miniature blocks within a single large one and providing far more distinct private spaces.
The practice of urban enclosure also allows for density without height, thus explaining the token “low-rise” European city with the majority of its buildings not extending past a fifth or sixth floor. Many American city centers practice the complete opposite with a high-rise or freestanding building approach. Cities such as New York, Chicago, even Downtown Miami and Brickell are composed mainly of skyscrapers and exceedingly tall, singular structures.
This freestanding building approach, while technically supporting a large influx of people with minimal land usage, does have several detrimental effects on the urban fabric of a city center. The freestanding building creates one large, agglomerated, and uncontrollable public space and completely disregards private outdoor areas of enclosure. Additionally, little privacy or security is provided as the building provides no escape from the “outside” world. Tenants occupy two areas: their apartments and the public realm. This lack of defined space forces the creation of artificially constructed blocks and streets producing an odd and uncomfortable urban dynamic. The creation of clear and distinctly framed city blocks is most easily and efficiently accomplished through the implementation of the form-based, joined-up structures inherent through enclosure.
Visual and Spatial Experiences
The visual, spatial and functional perceptions of structures in an urban area form the urban dimension of that area. While buildings are “glued” to each other, it is important to keep in mind that they are still individual. Joined buildings are separated by windowless firewalls creating a series of conjoined individual structures and calling attention to the different sizes and dimensions of each building. Individual buildings developed and designed individually as a part of the “enclosed” structure allow for architectural diversity and mixed usages creating beautiful structural juxtapositions and a strengthened urban aesthetic.
The sole and true uniter of this enclosed structure is that each individual building must provide access to both the street and courtyard independently. This allows for multiple access points for residents to leave and exit at their own ease and comfort further adding to the quintessential “softness” of the enclosed method. Building diversity adds variety to the block, but there also exists spatial diversities within the buildings themselves.
Layering and stacking are two distinct and contrary forms of assembling a structure that enables dramatically different usages and lifestyles. Stacking is the practice of stacking identical floor layouts atop one another creating an almost cloned building that offers identical functions and accommodations. Layering, on the other hand, allows for a variety of floor plans and layouts to be present within the same building allowing for the implementation of different functions or accommodations and creating an array of space distinctions within the same building. The method chosen will greatly affect the use and purpose of the two most vital floors of any building or structure; the ground floor and the top floor.
The ground floor allows for the greatest variety of uses, It supports and accommodates density, diversity and active working environments. The ground floor can be shops, retail, workspaces and public services. The ground floor is a perpetual wheel of mixed usages. As the ground is the most diverse, the top floor is the most customizable. Top floors, particularly in layered structures, have unrestricted floor plans, have direct access to the roof surface, receive more natural light and have better ventilation. The top floor makes up twenty to twenty-five percent of the building on average and is completely “free-form”, it is an individual entity to the rest of the building. Ground floors are diverse, top floors are individual and customizable, courtyards are sanctuaries of privacy.
What does any of this have to do with “soft” city buildings or spatial experiences? These create spatial diversity - the amount or number of distinct and differentiated spaces offered by a structure. High spatial diversity keeps us intrigued, and makes our environments interesting and human all while offering various uses and aesthetics. These layered, enclosed buildings are an example of structures with very high spatial diversity while the freestanding, stacked buildings offer very low spatial diversity and hence offer little intrigue or use to the tenant.
Large Elements and Human Scale
We who occupy are the center of attention, the basis for the built environment, the vehicles of change and the foundation of society. We must make living locally and in a community possible for ourselves through our own initiative and social reasoning.
Employment is probably the most important function in making living locally a possibility. In order to thrive, neighborhoods must provide a range of employment opportunities. Avenues such as retail, healthcare, education, entertainment and religious institutions, are all realistic and implementable paths of employment that should be present in all urban environments.
The overall system must facilitate the local environment. Large buildings and activities should be integrated into the streetscape without interrupting the small-scale, human rhythms of day to day life. A sense of humility is essential to the provision of the “human scale”. It is by offering a broad range of goods and services through the maintenance of small businesses and local enterprises that a broad segment of the population may be attracted to a “soft” urban area. The wide range of jobs provided by this diverse local economy acts as a magnet for people to circulate through and live in a central, walkable, “soft” city creating a perpetual “loop of enclosure”.