Designing with and for vital soil in urban areas

Vital soil, as a living entity, plays a crucial role in supporting ecosystems, regulating climate, and sustaining life on Earth. It serves as the foundation upon which our cities are built, and designing with and for this essential resource is vital for achieving a sustainable future. However, as designers, we are not (yet) accustomed to incorporating the underground realm in our designs, models and representations of streets, parks, buildings. The urban designer’s gaze towards the soil has been unidimensional, as a plane of transformation - something that could be transformed to support cities above. To move beyond this technical approach, we have developed a practical guide aimed at urban designers and other professionals in the built environment who wish to design circular and regenerative public spaces that can support rather than exploit vital soil. This research was made possible by the Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industrie.

A nature-based approach

There is a growing awareness of the importance of designing with nature in the context of the climate crisis. Stakeholders in spatial planning, from designers and policy makers to developers and end users, are increasingly recognising the limitations of the idea of 'buildability' of our cities in the fragile delta we call home. A major turning point has been the central government's policy document 'Water and soil guiding' (25-11-2022), which establishes the needs of water and soil as guiding principles in spatial planning.

A fundamental part of designing with nature is the opportunities and constraints offered by soil. Here we explore how vital soil can guide the design of public spaces. A vital soil is one that is an integral part of ecosystems and has the necessary regenerative properties to provide ecosystem services for years to come. How to design for vital soil is not only an exploration of how to design ideal conditions for vital soil as a product, but also for vital soil as a process.


Integral process

As working with and for vital soil is relatively new in the field of urban planning, understanding how to design with and for vital soil requires a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach, involving close collaboration with experts in relevant fields such as soil science, hydrology, ecology and landscape architecture. This research would not have been possible without the insights of various experts and policy makers. You can experience this integrated approach during a Designing with and for Soil workshop, see the brochure below. 

View the brochure (NL)

Case: Westblaak

To anchor our research within the practical constraints of the real world, we used the transformation of Westblaak as our test case. Rotterdam is currently developing eight city projects that are part of its plans to become climate adaptive and effectively address extreme heat and rainfall. These projects emphasize nature-based approaches, and the transformation of Westblaak is one of these initiatives.

The future ambition for Westblaak is to transform it into ‘Blaakpark’, a recreational space that also serves as a climate mitigation measure. Currently, the area is mostly paved, with only 12.5%  of green space. The existing vegetation does not significantly contribute to mitigating heat stress, and there is surface flooding during extreme precipitation. The subsurface of Westblaak is also occupied by numerous cables and pipes.

In addition, there are various competing ambitions and goals at both the city and the project levels that need to be negotiated. In order to elucidate these differing ambitions and to get a holistic understanding of the optimal conditions required for the different ecosystem services provided by the soil, we framed three extreme scenarios.


From left to right we see three different scenarios for Westblaak. The first, maximising climate adaptation, introduces permeable surfaces, a water buffer and underground water storage to withstand heavy rainfall and heat caused by climate change. The second scenario focuses on maximising biodiversity, with measures to increase biodiversity both below and above ground. The third scenario, maximising circularity, includes design explorations that increase Westblaak's ecosystem and preserve existing elements.

Representation of soil

In current design drawings, the ground is often omitted: a white space under a black line. New drawing techniques are needed to properly represent the vital soil and 'participate' in the battle for space. The image on the right is an experiment with new drawing techniques. From top to bottom, the image moves between different perspectives - from a bird's eye view, to a longitudinal section, to an underground map, to a perspective section - to show the soil from different angles. Through this approach the design for Westblaak, based on and benefiting from the vital soil, comes to life.

Impact of actions

The latest version of this handbook was published online in English and Dutch in May 2024. In order to prioritise the right measures in a context where every square metre counts, the research has been extended to include the quantifiable impact of measures. Which measures deliver the most for the different transitions (climate, biodiversity, circularity), with the interests of vital soils at the forefront? This has led to an enrichment of our handbook, in which design measures have been given an impact score and a selection tool has been added. In addition, the measures with the highest impact have been elaborated in more detail.


Next phase

Meanwhile, we continue to work on the third phase of the study, again with the support of the Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industrie and the Gemeente Rotterdam. This phase will be about reaching a wider audience and expanding the application of the measures in different public space typologies. We foresee three activities: testing the measures from the previous phases with technical experts, applying the measures in different public space typologies and expanding the measures with more attention to the deeper subsurface.

The handbook is our contribution to the design discourse, where vital soil is the guiding principle. It captures our learning process. We hope that readers will be able to apply, enrich and improve the lessons learned. In this way we will work together towards more circular and regenerative public spaces in Rotterdam, the Netherlands and beyond!