Book Notes: Soft City

The architect David Sim has managed to compile a manifesto on how livable cities ought to be designed. One of his main arguments is to soften the harsh form of built-up density by explicitly designing for as many exposures as possible. Exposing people to their fellow neighbours, be that the immediate neighbours living under the same roof, or further out in the same block or neighbourhood. And exposure to people’s immediate natural surroundings, be that potted plants or small gardens, parks, or even the weather and climate.

Sim based his philosophy on nine principles to make a city livable, or soft:

  1. Diversity of Built Form
  2. Diversity of Outdoor Spaces
  3. Flexibility
  4. Human Scale
  5. Walkability
  6. Sense of Control and Identity
  7. A Pleasant Microclimate
  8. Smaller Carbon Footprint
  9. Greater Biodiversity

Over the past handful of years, I found an interest in urbanism, movement, and transit, especially from the angle of bikeable cities. This book was a great opportunity to take this interest to the next level and in addition to streets think about how buildings, their preferably mixed and flexible use, and ultimately blocks and neighbourhoods contribute to the quality of urban life. Walkability is in fact one of the most important factors given that almost every activity starts with walking. From dropping your household trash, and going to your local café, to even just the path between getting your bicycle and cycling off on a bike lane.

While Berlin is definitely not as badly designed as some suburban hell hole outside of your typical major North American city, my partner and I are slowly reaching an impasse that got accentuated more over the last few years. Some of it is due to us learning about how well-planned cities can be. But we feel that especially since the pandemic our society has become more individualistic, and people’s level of entitlement has shot through the roof. Combine this with a generally car-friendly Germany, and it quickly becomes evident that we need to make a choice. On one side, we can pick up activism but need to pair it with the necessary patience to see even just modest change. Or, more likely for us, we can call ourselves very lucky to have the ability and privilege to pick belongings and move.
As we are looking for other places to move within continental Europe I feel this book has given us a good set of items to put on a checklist and rate other cities against.


The Nordic approach of embracing reality rather than trying to escape it might improve our lives. We can learn to celebrate the everyday rather than lament it, to live with the weather, live within our means, and live with the neighbors we have.

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.

The arcades are a significant hybrid space, softening the relationship between life inside and life outside.

Specifically about the arcades in Berne, Switzerland, but an appropriate description of arcades everywhere.

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 infrastructur, public and private services, as well as recreational and cultural activities. At the same time, this is also a scale that responds to the particular need and aspirations of the individual. This balance of common good an personal fulfillment might allow buildings blocks to build resilience.

One is about stuff, and the other is about experience. Rather than finding ways of affording and accommodating more things into our lives, we might instead consider solutions to give us better ways of spending our precious time, lightening our load in life rather than burdening it, and helping change the daily stresses and conflicts of working, raising children, staying fit, shopping, running a home, and dealing with neighbors into everyday pleasures.

Sim writes about the difference between standard of living and quality of life.

This is the human dimension in 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.

In London, Copenhagen, and other cities, walking is prioritized by designing the sidewalk as a continuous surface, to stretch over side streets. This effectively transforms several smaller blocks of side walk into a single, long block. Turning cars have to carefully negotiate their way across the sidewalk, observing and respecting the pedestrians, and always yielding to them.

Redesigned side-street crossings that prioritize the pedestrian alter the balance of who has the right-of-way in traffic. People on foot are favored because motorists come as guests in the pedestrian realm. The crossings are a simple change, but make a huge difference for pedestrians in terms of level of access, comfort, and safety on the sidewalk.

I really think that not having continuous sidewalks is one of the biggest contributing factors to car drivers’ entitlement in Berlin. It’s very common for car drivers to not even yield to pedestrians when they turn but the pedestrian continues along the same street.

Mobility is about getting about, getting on with each other, and getting on with our lives.

What is fascinating when looking at old city plans, especially the ones we describe as “organic”, is the response to climate and topography and the diversity of places created. Superficially messy, their apparent disorder is, in fact, a richer, more subtle order that responds to climate and the diverse needs of a society that spent more time outdoors.

To make a better habitat for ourselves, we need to deal with challenges around us; and to deal with those challenges, we need to embrace them. We need to be better connected to the world around us. Building walls doesn’t solve the challenge of what is on the other side. In many ways, it only accentuates the problem. Instead, we need to build relationships. As we face climate change, segregation, congestion, and rapid urbanization, we need to build better relationships with the planet, with people, and with place. Building stand-alone, air-conditioned buildings up in the sky or in gated communities, or building more roads and having autonomous cars won’t connect us to the global challenges or to each other, so that we can ultimately deal with them together.

A livable, resilient, high-density area should have: a diversity of built form and of outdoor spaces, flexibility, a human scale, walkability, a sense of control and identity, a pleasant microclimate, a smaller carbon footprint, and greater biodiversity.