Urban is the answer: The life’s work of Jonathan F. P. Rose

NOW also published at https://urbanismnz2018.com 

The world of knowledge about cities that Jonathan F. P. Rose will bring to the outcome-Jon Rose linked in imagedriven Urbanism New Zealand conference next week – when he speaks about developing communities of opportunity by video-link on Tuesday morning – has been deeply explored and distilled in his 2016 book The Well-Tempered City.

Ahead of Urbanism New Zealand, Urban Design Forum member Stephen Olsen spoke recently with Rose and in this article presents an extended précis of highlights from his book.


When New York apartment-house builder Frederick P. Rose took his son, Jonathan F. P. Rose, aged 16, to a trash-filled site festooned with abandoned buildings in 1968 he asked him a question: “What would you do with this”?

Fifty years later that enduring question has lived on into Jonathan F.P. Rose’s book The Well-Tempered City, encapsulating an encyclopedic potpourri of theories about ancient civilisations, science and human nature.

In conversation Rose, an award-winning leader in the field of acquiring and developing sustainable affordable housing in the United States through Jonathan Rose Companies, acknowledges the book represents a “life’s work”.

Given the emphasis that the book places on how cities have survived and moved on from the repeated decline and fall of successive centuries it’s not surprising that Rose singles out author Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) as one of his points of inspiration.

It’s also a testament to its breadth and depth of content that reviewers have been aligning it with names like Mumford and Jane Jacobs.

A driving force for The Well-Tempered City is seeking to answer what a “common operating language” for cities might consist of as the world runs up against times that the US military denote as VUCA – vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

For Rose the rejoinder to VUCA was to structure his book around five points of a city-sustaining compass: coherence (almost half of the book), circularity, resilience, community and compassion.

Rose strongly holds to the view that he best lessons can be drawn from “the DNA of the past” and this is reflected in the way he unbundles another shorthand list of nine C’s for tracking the evolutionary path of cities: cognition, cooperation, culture, calories, connectivity, commerce, complexity, concentration, control.

In his book’s section on coherence Rose journeys back in time to revisit the social intelligence and skills that were critical to the emergence of cities, observing that every aspect of city-making is dependent on our cognition and that we need all of the pure intelligence and “large working memory” we can muster.

He gives a timely reminder that the cycles of collapse across empires and cities were often tied to a combination of climate change, income inequality and selfish governance – a combination that is “toxic to the health of cities”.

Piece by piece Rose traces the building blocks of the successive movements of sanitary reform, urban parks, garden cities, housing reform in New York and the City Beautiful movement as progressive steps for city building.

Twentieth century problems need 22nd century solutions

While recounting an inheritance from the twentieth century that has included problems of suburban sprawl, traffic jams, few live-work-play communities, inefficient land use and extraordinary environmental degradation – patterns of destruction and dysfunction – Rose also sees hopeful signs in the resurgence of mass transit initiatives and transit-oriented development and the “moral authority” gained by steps to embody better, evidence-based city thinking seen in examples such as Envision Utah, PlaNYC and Rebuild By Design.

His definition of a smart city is one that “uses digital technologies or information and communication technologies to enhance the quality and performance of urban services, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens”.

“Cities must encourage a wider range of innovation – the richer the gene pool of solutions, the greater the adaptive capacity of the city”.

Rose is an advocate for a wide array of interlinking solutions – from weaving gardens throughout urban landscapes through to better education through to more residential mixed-income integration.

A major takeaway from The Well-Tempered City is to understand cities for the complex systems that they are, and to understand that they will only thrive when they are optimised.

Rose: “A city is optimised when all of its components are thriving – the ecology in which it is nested, the metabolism that sustains it, the region that contains it, and its people and businesses. To achieve this, city leaders need to focus on optimising the whole, not the parts. Seeking wholeness, the city begins to become more naturally adaptive to the VUCA world”.

To further make the point he befittingly calls on this quote from jazz musician Wynton Marsalis: “The reason things fall apart is that people create things to celebrate themselves rather than embrace the whole”.

An underpinning altruism

Underpinning The Well-Tempered City is a reinforcing confidence that most people are at minimum “conditional altruists” who are open to cooperation and will support a higher common good if they believe that others will reciprocate.

Although it’s not readily apparent a large part of this comes back to aspects of Rose’s life journey that gain only a few passing mentions in the book – particularly the early influences in his life such as travelling to the Himalayas, studying under Ian McHarge (author of the seminal 1969 book Design with Nature), his spiritual and Buddhist bases, his musical interests (search ‘Jog Blues’) and the notable philanthropic pursuits of his wider family through enterprises such as the Garrison Institute.

It’s easy to get a sense of the material there would be for another book by Rose that would reflect on those influences and also document more of the achievements across the sweet spot for his business life in such fundamentally important areas as the greening of affordable housing, as well as vexed areas such as public policy.

For now The Well-Tempered City serves a great Noah-like purpose in helping to inform debates about how best to bend the arc of development needed for cities to be refuges from volatility.


Selected highlights from The Well-Tempered City

Lessons from history

  • The golden age of Islamic cities were a harbinger of the key qualities of thriving cities today, by applying a flexible planning structure that balanced opportunity and pleasure with modesty, spirituality and altruism.
  • In contrast by creating easily sellable lots, Western cities became profitable real estate ventures. America’s public realm in most cases became what was left over after private development.

Things to avoid

  • Schemes that concentrate poverty, isolate residents from services and limit opportunities for small businesses.
  • Building millions of suburban homes for a false market.
  • Lack of diversity of adequate transportation options.
  • Leaving city planning to a few loud voices, NIMBY neighbours, and ceding the most influence to those who stand to gain financially.
  • Creating urban parks that lack biodiversity.

On resilience and infrastructure

  • People, buildings, communities and cities need to be designed to function when they’re disconnected. They need to be able to survive when urban systems go down.
  • Spare infrastructure capacity is essential for urban resilience.
  • As climate change progresses, every city is facing metabolic challenges. And to resolve them, cities are going to have to think, plan, build and operate their infrastructure differently.
  • If properly designed infrastructure can begin to restore the natural systems that cities so often degrade. Infrastructure systems are time shifters, providing benefits not just for the present, but for the future, too.
  • A response to globalisation is not isolation, it is infrastructure.

On housing, buildings and neighbourhoods

  • The settings have been consistently skewed to single-family home owners and away from low to moderate income rental housing.
  • It’s just no possible to build a well-tempered society on an unstable base. Safe, affordable, toxin-free housing is an essential precondition.
  • If a nation wants to become more resilient in the face of climate change, economic volatility, or potential energy shortages, the easiest place to begin is with energy-efficiency retrofits of its existing buildings.
  • The good news is that when a city focuses on improving the health, safety and well-being of a given neighbourhood, the effect of that improvement will spread by three degrees.

Applying a different lens to cities

  • Understanding the power of social networks has enormous implications for generating positive health outcomes in cities.
  • Most cities lack an integrated platform to support the growth of every child. What if a city were to follow through on the idea of being designed to work, first and foremost, for children through every project, department and plan?
  • The most vital cities have a culture of coopetition, weaving competition into a strong fabric of cooperation. As Darwin observed, groups that are internally altruistic will always outcompete non-altruistic groups.

In a nutshell

  • The current state of many of our cities is an unfit fitness. They may be sufficiently adapted for short-term growth, but they lack the adaptive capacity to thrive in the high stress environment of the future.
  • The city-planning tools of the twentieth century were not designed to deal with climate change, population growth, resource depletion and other megatrends.
  • At the physical level, the well-tempered city increases its resilience by integrating urban technology and nature. At the operational level it increases its resilience by developing rapidly adapting systems that co-evolve in dynamic balance with megatrends, preserving the well-being of both the human and natural systems. And at the spiritual level, temperament integrates our quest for a purpose with the aspiration for wholeness.
  • The best cities of the future will incorporate nature’s regenerative qualities.
  • When a city makes its environmental goals explicit and thinks through how to encourage behaviour shifts, it gets the best results.
  • We are not working at a scale that is meeting the challenges of our times. Great city-making requires leadership but also, today, much broader participation.