Anyone who has been to Copenhagen has likely witnessed the streams of cyclists pulsing along the city’s main traffic arteries. It is an inspiring sight, and part of the remaking of the city’s identity as a world leader in green urbanism, envisioning human focused solutions for city living, often referred to in short-hand as ‘Copenhagensation’. If there is one person who has been critical to this urban transformation, it is Jan Gehl, an urban designer who has put people at the heart of this city story, inspiring many with his ‘first life, then spaces, and buildings’ approach, including several waves of architects, urban designers and city planners.
One of these is David Sim, creative director at Gehl’s international urban design studio, who has written a wholly accessible guide to the Gehl philosophy. Over Soft City’s three core sections, this modest, engaging book outlines why smaller is beautiful for the urban realm. Sim shows why and how low- and medium-rise city blocks are so much more human-oriented than slab block high-rises. He looks at people-friendly transport – cycling of course, though also the walkability advantages of staircases over elevators, and the conviviality of pavement level street life. And he concludes by demonstrating how drawing nature back into the urban grain makes for a less harried populace, and provides soft measures that help reduce weather and climate challenges.
Soft City is a passionate polemic against high-rise versions of the future, as much as a paean to low- and medium-rise cities, and their social, sustainable and technical advantages and merits. Much of the approach begins with environmental psychology, where solutions are straightforward, intelligently simple, and often easily grasped. Faced with innumerable challenges, Gehl’s human-centric approach is increasingly influencing city design across the planet and is near to becoming a part of 21st century orthodoxy, or at least aspiration. With Soft City, further followers will surely be won over.
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