• What would a soft city feel like?

    Gardens by the Bay futuristic park in Singapore
    Singapore softens space in its Gardens by the Bay (Photo by Carles Rabada)

    What if soft were good?

    It is if we are talking about pillows or grass, but what if we’re talking about a soft city? What if we’re talking about the politicians who run them? Do they like to be seen as soft? Do we like our cities soft?

    Well, in fact we do — in spirit. Cities that are ideological soft — soft on difference, soft on people who stand out, who think differently, who look different, who act differently — are the most sought after on Earth. And if they couple that with some soft nature — green space, clean air, clean water — even better.

    What we know is that the 21st century will be urban. Not only is industrialisation making that unstoppable (the urban population of the planet exceeded the rural in the late 2000s), but ecologically it is actually necessary (the carbon footprint of a city dweller was calculated as on average lower than that of a rural dweller by the International Institute for Environment and Development, a London think-tank, in 2009).

    So maybe we need to think even softer?

    What if we reconceived the city entirely? What if concrete jungles, so famously hard physically and mentally, were made soft? Made to match our actual human need? What if the fabric of our cities became soft, replicating the way we once lived as rural dwellers — softer building materials, softer pathway and pavement materials, softer edges everywhere?

    We know that hard landscaping our gardens is bad news for the environment, but what about making our pavements and roads more porous? The technology is there to create substances that are not only durable but also porous. And what effect might a more porous surface have on our bodies, giving us a more natural walking gait, less pressure on bone joints and freer movement? Even our homes and offices could become less permanent, more malleable.

    What would the city of tomorrow feel like if it were as soft physically as the best cities of today are soft ideologically? Would that be refreshing?

    While we’re on the subject: read my blog on why we build cities where we do here

  • Where we build our cities

    Astana - the capital of Kazakhstan
    Kazakhstan’s shiny new capital, Astana (Photo by Azamat Kinzhitaev on Unsplash)

    This week, the 20th anniversary of the city of Astana — the new capital of Kazakhstan — coincided with me reading the opening chapters of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, about his journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul in the 1930s.

    As he ascended the Rhine, I was struck by how the main urban centres of a highly industrialised Germany were still all strung along its great rivers. These natural arteries had shaped the design of human settlement. It was at striking odds with the 20th century practice of creating modern capitals.

    Astana is only one of the most recent of a slew of capitals that were inaugurated in the century — Canberra in Australia, Brasilia in Brazil, Ankara in Turkey, Islamabad in Pakistan. What is odd about these places is that, after centuries of settlement defined principally by natural geography, these cities are located primarily based on political geography.

    It is true that, in some cases — such as Astana and Ankara — a sizeable settlement already existed that was expanded upon, but the primary drive was political. These cities were either placed as close to the geographical centre of the state as possible, or (as in the case of Canberra) equidistant between rival claimants to capital status (Sydney and Melbourne).

    What a strange occurrence, after natural geography’s long dominance — from the Rhineland cities to the great sea ports, the cities where the mountains meet the plains, the river mouth cities, the cities on a hill and the cities next to lakes.

    Maybe cities were founded pre-20th century with scant regard for natural geography, but I can’t think of any. Can you?