October 24, 2016 - From the October, 2016 issue

'The Well-Tempered City' Author Jonathan F.P. Rose Asks: Can it Actually Be Built?

Jonathan Rose joins TPR to discuss his new book, The Well-Tempered City, which offers a transformative blueprint for modern cities to become resilient, sustainable, and functional in a rapidly changing, increasingly complex world. President of Jonathan Rose Companies LLC and co-founder of the Garrison Institute, Rose offers case studies of cities around the globe and throughout history that have embraced long-range planning and “big goals” to astounding results, distilling their success into an adaptable five-point model. Emphasizing the need for cities to learn from one another, the Urban Land Institute trustee draws on his experience as a developer of green and affordable multi-family housing in New York to find visionary, yet practical solutions to the problems facing cities today.

Jonathan F.P. Rose

“Our aspiration should also be to find a great harmony and sense of purpose for our cities. And to get there, we, too, have to break down the silos that keep all the different strategies, agencies, and funding apart, and figure out how to integrate them into a fantastic, harmonious whole. Just as temperament unleashed Bach, I hope it unleashes us.” - Jonathan F.P. Rose

Your new book literally begins with a flashback to 1968, when your father took you to a weedy, trash-filled landscape—now called Roosevelt Island—and asked you, “What would you do with this?” Is that what inspired The Well-Tempered City?

Jonathan Rose: It was certainly a seminal moment in my life. I can still see that scene very clearly. It posed a big question: What do you do with a big site in a dynamic city?

Ever since I was a small child, I sought to combine my fascination with real-estate development—which I was exposed to through my father—with my love of nature, and my concern for  issues of civil rights and social justice that I was exposed to through my mother.

That began a lifelong search for me of how one can integrate all those things. In my late teens, I began to study the many issues related to the wellbeing of humans and nature,  and then to build a career around it. 

Elaborate on your experiences logged in pursuit of integrating an interest in real estate with a passion for the natural environment, civic rights and social justice?

In 1976, started out working for my family’s real-estate development business in New York City. With the encouragement of my father, I also worked for the Educational Alliance, a not-for-profit community development organization, where I helped them build affordable housing, early childhood centers, drug treatment centers and other places to serve the very low-income peoples in New York. As the ’80s went along, I really wanted to integrate my for-profit and not-for-profit work.

In 1989, I left my family company with just my secretary and started a two-person mission focused, for-profit real estate development and consulting firm with to build affordable and mixed-income housing, community health centers, libraries, schools and the other elements of healthy communities, and do it in an environmentally responsible way. We now have 70 employees and four offices and have  built almost $2 billion worth of projects around the United States, so the idea worked.

My book aims to be visionary, but also informed by my experience of what it takes to get things done. Although its ideas are highly aspirational, I hold each of them to what I call the “development test,” which is simply this: Can it actually be approved, financed and built? 

The Well-Tempered City draws on the musical concept of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Talk about the nexus between Bach’s work in the 18th Century and your work in the 21st  Century.

Before temperament, which is a way of tuning musical scales, each scale was tuned individually according to the Pythagorean Theory. They sounded great alone, but they did not align with one another. You couldn’t move from key to key in a single piece. This represents how much the silos of government agencies and funding constrain us from having better and more effective cities.

Temperament adjusted the tuning of all the keys just slightly so that they could be integrated. With Temperament,  a composer or musician could easily move from one key to another. With such a system, Bach was unleashed. Indeed, every note on the keyboard able to be played together.

Bach was a religious man, and he composed for the Church. He brought a  purpose to his compositions: to capture the architecture of the universe, which he felt was created by God and reflected perfection, and to manifest that perfection here on Earth, through music.

We, too, need big aspirations to solve the issues we are facing. Like Bach, we should seek harmony and sense of purpose for our cities. And to get there, we have to break down the silos that keep the different strategies, agencies, and funding apart, and figure out how to integrate them into a fantastic, harmonious whole. Just as temperament unleashed Bach, I hope it unleashes us to make better cities. 

Your exhaustive look at cities past and present includes a five-pronged model for designing cities, with the goal of equalizing the landscape of opportunity. Elaborate on this blueprint for a reimagined city.

The model has drawn on five characteristics of well temperament: coherence, circularity, resilience, community, and compassion.

Coherence comes from integrating a vision, planning and feedback systems to move from static planning to dynamic planning and implementation systems. 98 percent of the material, water, and energy that enters a city leaves as waste. With a population of 10 Billion people, this is not sustainable. Cities need circular infrastructure such as recycling systems, and micro grids, to recycle resources, and create more local jobs.

These need to be connected to green buildings, which reduce energy, water and material demands through conservation, focused designs. Buildings and infrastructure need to function as a dynamic, resilient, integrated system. And they need to have the adaptive capacity of nature. One way to achieve that is weave-nature throughout the city. With climate change impacts rising, these circular and green approaches will make cities more resilient.

Cities also need resilient social systems, which equitably distribute the elements of opportunity to all. We now know from extensive zip code studies that opportunity varies enormously, depending on where one lives. Communities that promote opportunity have affordable housing, superb schools, neighborhood based health care, many transportation options, parks and open space, sufficient retail, arts and culture and centers of spiritual life and service. In well-tempered cities, every neighborhood is a neighborhood in which its residents have the opportunity to thrive.

This requires cities and their regions to recognize that we are all in it together, that our fates our deeply intertwined. This recognition can only arise with  compassion. When these five characteristics are entwined in a city, it will be able to thrive amidst the complexity and volatility  of the coming century. 

You write that “cities are tasked with planning for an uncertain future—for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity,” and that there are “changes, or megatrends, [that] require us to think differently.” How differently?

There are some global megatrends that are bigger than any one city can control. For example, the world’s population is projected to grow to 10 billion people by 2050. The world is rapidly urbanizing, and the world is rapidly globalizing.

We live in a globally interconnected world where there are no simple solutions. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity make it much harder to plan. But they also tell us that as much as we need specific practical solutions—energy strategies, affordable housing, higher-density communities—even more, we need to increase the adaptive capacity of our cities. That will determine which cities thrive and which decline. 

TPR is publishing a series of commentaries and interviews  this year with US and global mayors and urban leaders. In this issue, former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy addresses the tendency of cities to be overly transactional with developers rather, as you suggest, to think larger and in a tempered way—aligning development opportunities with obvious megatrends. Could you speak to how cities ought to address that challenge of urban development?


I read that piece, and I agree with Tom. Cities are doing their best. They’re not ignoring their issues; they’re really trying. But the problems facing cities today are daunting, and we have not imagined solutions at the scale necessary to solve them.

For example, on the ballot this year in LA is Proposition HHH, an initiative to fund a homeless housing program. It’s an important initiative, and I deeply hope it passes. It will build 10,000 new supportive housing units in the city of Los Angeles. But today, there are 47,000 homeless people in LA. It only deals with a fifth of the problem.

There are cities that are doing more to fully meet their challenges—for example, Singapore. Singapore gets most of its water from Malaysia. If they ever had a conflict, Malaysia could cut off their water and destroy the city.

Singapore set a goal of becoming water-independent by 2080. They began by implementing an extensive water conservation plan. People shower every day; they drink water and make coffee and do all the things we do—quite well—but they consume a third of the water of the typical American. 

A key element of Singapore’s water independence requires a more extensive reservoir system, but to do so they need more natural land. Recognizing that 12 percent of their land area was taken by roads they realized that by building mixed-use, mixed-income, high-density, and walkable neighborhoods, they could reduce their road area to 6 or 8 percent and use more land for reservoirs—some in the form of parks.

They’ve tied all these pieces together. They have a big vision driving them, and it is helping them achieve better air quality, better transportation, better quality of life, and even the creation of more affordable housing. 

Could you share other instructive examples from North America that could offer city leaders a sense of how City Building in being executed in a well-tempered way?

I’m not sure there’s any American city that’s perfect, but many cities are doing at least one piece very well.

For example, Louisville is doing wonderful things in its education system. They also set a goal of being a compassionate city. New York City is using data and measurement well. The city has worked on its affordable-housing needs for over 30 years, rebuilding neighborhoods such as the South Bronx and Harlem, and continues to expand its goals. Oklahoma City has done an amazing job investing in its downtown, and converting itself from a car-oriented city to a more walkable one.

The Denver Metro Region has built an extensive regional rail system and zoned the lots around it for higher density, and a local land trust has been buying land there for future affordability. There are a lot of lessons to learn city by city, and cities are also very open to learning from each other. When I look at the issues ahead, it’s at the city level that I am most optimistic. 

You previously worked under Governor Cuomo on the issue of resilient infrastructure. Speak to how government and leadership have evolved to best address resilience.

After Superstorm Sandy, the Obama administration proposed that the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut  communities hit by the storm rebuild in a more resilient way with its Rebuild By Design program. New York State, under Governor Cuomo’s leadership recognized that it needed a new set of resilient strategies for its infrastructure. And when Colorado suffered from massive floods in 2013, Governor Hickenlooper recognized that it needed to rebuild in a more resilient way. It's unfortunate that it seems to take a disaster for communities to focus on resiliency— it would be better if they could plan in advance. Unfortunately, we don’t have funding sources for resilient adaptation before storms, only for resilient reconstruction after disaster strikes. We need a national fund to assist vulnerable cities to become resilient in advance of the threats that they face.

You reference Vitruvius’s 10 books on architecture and the ancient concept of “meh”. Address the continuing importance of the latterMeh in realizing the potential of Cities?

The earliest cities believed in an activating energy—a spirit of life—called mehMeh is a code of ethics, a social structure, a relationship, an aspiration, spirituality—all those things that enliven cities.

In the history of cities, there was a powerful proto-city called Eridu. It is said that a goddess stole the meh from the temple of Eridu and took it to Uruk. The transference of this meh energy was what gave Uruk that extra oomph to go from an almost-city to the world’s first city.

To me, meh is a combination of operating systems, social networks, morality, and the vision and leadership of a government, integrated and functioning together. We think a lot about the physical infrastructure of cities, but we often think less about our social and political leadership infrastructure, and even our value systems.

In the early cities, justice was an extremely important value. Justice is a key part of meh. Today, when we look at the Black/ White wealth gap, we’re seeing that our systems have not been imbued with justice in the way it should be. I think we need to discover and create the meh of the 21st Century to lead our cities forward. 

Given your lifelong interest in Cities, could you share with our readers the professional value of your on-going work with the Urban Land Institute, and with your wife at the Garrison Institute in up-state New York.

About 15 years ago, my wife and I were given a monastery in the Hudson River, about an hour north of New York City. We asked ourselves: What is the monastery of the 21st Century? We thought it should be a place of deep reflection, which takes the wisdom from many of the older traditions of the world and applies it to the issues of civil-society and the environment today. It became  the Garrison Institute, which combines science, contemplation and focused areas of professional concern to generate transformational, yet practical solutions. For example, our Climate, Mind and Behavior program  has studied the nature of our minds to arrive at a series of best practices to shifting our behaviors to reducing climate impacts.

The Urban Land Institute is the world’s leading network of developers, urban planners, financiers and thinkers addressing how to make better human settlements. I joined it over 30 years ago, and have learned an enormous amount from its programs and members. And I have developed my closest professional friendships through ULI.

ULI is an extraordinary distribution system for new ideas. In fact, it helped spread many of the solutions that came out of the Climate Mind and Behavior program. I have been speaking at many of its local chapters on my book and I will be keynoting its national conference in Dallas.

I’ve worked with many institutions, and I find not-for-profit institutions to be a key element in creating some of the solutions that we need for the 21st Century and disseminating them And that, perhaps is my final thought- cities grew from the interaction of many towns, linked together in networks. When cities isolate, they wither. There are many not-for-profit networks such as ULI, Enterprise Community Partners, USGBC, C-40, and publications such as the Planning Report that connect cities with the flow of ideas and resources. These are vitally needed if cities are to thrive in the 21st century.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.