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Book Review of “The Well-Tempered City” by Jonathan F.P....

Book Review of “The Well-Tempered City” by Jonathan F.P. Rose

Cities of the future will almost certainly play an increasingly central role in solving some of humanity’s most pressing issues. In “The Well-Tempered City,” author Jonathan F.P. Rose states that “the twenty-first century is more complex and volatile; its cities are far larger and influenced by a much wider array of forces and trends.” Throughout

by Colin Poff February 27, 2018
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Cities of the future will almost certainly play an increasingly central role in solving some of humanity’s most pressing issues. In “The Well-Tempered City,” author Jonathan F.P. Rose states that “the twenty-first century is more complex and volatile; its cities are far larger and influenced by a much wider array of forces and trends.” Throughout this book, he boldly approaches this daunting prospect, urging us to move toward a “well-tempered city.”

Jonathan Rose is a real estate developer from New York with a masters degree in regional planning. He is the founder of Jonathan Rose Companies, whose mission statement is “To build communities of opportunity for all that enhance people’s lives in better balance with nature.” He is also a musician and founder of jazz label Gramavision Records. A brief look at the author’s profile seems to mirror his writing style: ambitious, well-rounded, and focused on finesse. It seems the term “well-tempered” is a phrase that captures Rose’s approach and perspective in his professional life. Toward the end of the book, we find that the title is derived from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” written in 1742. Bach wrote music in all 24 minor and major keys, proving a new tuning system that could make all keys sound in tune, whereas certain keys would sound slightly out of tune using the old tuning system. He challenged the scientific rational mindset at the time, and Rose argues that “his greatest works resonate with us to this day because they integrate harmonic genius with a deep spiritual aspiration....” The famous classical work inspired Rose to deliver an overarching message that we could fine-tune our cities to work better with human nature and with the environment, in order to achieve harmony.

But for the more practical-minded, what does “well-tempered” mean? Rose states that “it integrates five qualities of temperament to increase urban adaptability in a way that balances prosperity and well-being with efficiency and equity, ever moving toward wholeness.” This being such a broad set-up, the reader is both intrigued but also questioning what mental bandwidth will be needed to consume the book’s main points in a succinct way. Fortunately, Rose lists these five qualities as coherence, circularity, resilience, community, and compassion, then dedicates large portions of the book to explaining each quality. In doing so, each quality is related to historical anecdote, science, economics, or simple observation. In fact, little goes without consideration in how it relates to how cities function, but the author would argue that this broad understanding is essential if we are going to build productive and healthy cities. It is similar to reading Jane Jacobs, where the holistic approach to understanding how cities naturally work is more important than narrowly conceived technological solutions to fix them.  

The Well-Tempered City by Jonathan F.P. Rose

Take, for example, the quality of “coherence.” This is the foremost of the five qualities that Rose describes because it refers to how each component of a city works together toward the whole. A city that is fragmented physically, through a dull subdivision code, or through a separation between transportation and land use planning, is not coherent. Similarly, a vision for a city is only effective when tied to the needs of a larger region, and only legitimate if it involves residents, community leaders, developers, and businesses. Coherence is met through the integration of various parts and at various scales, which is essentially the role of urban planning.

Directly related to coherence, is the idea of balance, or as Rose calls it “the dynamically balancing city.” Trends of the future, such as big data, or “smart cities,” could provide a sort of adaptive self-governance. He argues that “by squeezing out inefficiencies, smart cities could use resources far more efficiently, reducing their environmental impact while increasing the availability and quality of services.” But these innovations will not provide better outcomes without a clear vision, a useful set of indicators, and metrics to measure results. Without good leaders, community involvement, or effective governance, technology will fall short of producing better, healthier cities. The author is excited about the prospect of cities becoming more efficient, but only if the gains in efficiency are tempered by coherence and balance.

Or consider “community.” He says that “transformation cannot just be brought to communities, it must also grow from communities, harnessing the power of mutual aid.” He consistently de-emphasizes the top-down role of decision-making and instead explains notions of trust, social norms, and neighborhoods. One idea that stood out was that of collective efficacy, or “the shared belief that a social network or group can get things done for the benefit of the community.” It could be argued that prerequisites of collective efficacy are dense and healthy neighborhoods. Rose argues in this section that a culture shift might be necessary since the western world values individual, rational decision-making over collective decision-making. This chapter of the book is as much a primer in sociology as anything, yet readers would quickly see how it all relates to the bigger picture.  

The Well-Tempered City by Jonathan F.P. Rose

Another quality of temperament used in the book is “resilience.” In a departure from the originality in other sections of the book, resilience is definitely a buzzword in planning dialogues today. But it is too relevant to omit. Basically, resilience refers to a city’s ability to adapt, or to “bounce forward” after a major event, and in the complex, fast-paced world that Rose describes, it is fundamental. Volatility is inevitable, but cities can have surprising endurance and adaptability when designed correctly. Highly specialized, mono-functioning areas will likely not stand the test of time, while complex, well-integrated areas will. Take, for example, the threat of climate change, where integrating human-made engineered systems with the environment will be key. Rose argues that this is not necessarily a high-cost endeavor, and many cities are already doing it. He points out, “as climate change accelerates, cities are increasingly turning to innovative combinations of technical and natural infrastructure to solve urban environmental issues in affordable ways.”

Although the book is geared toward contemporary urban issues, it often describes ancient civilizations to bring home a point. Rose states that “in order to understand cities, I had to understand their history.” He describes the first codes from Babylon and their emphasis on the underlying order or nature and their focus on places of worship. He evaluates the urban form in ancient China, where a “nine square system” found a balance between a central palace, food systems, and a marketplace. Numerous examples are used from the ancient world, particularly in the east, in order to show how community, spirituality, and culture were integrated. It seems that the author enjoys delving into legends and myths of ancient cities to attempt to captivate the reader, at times he seems to take liberties by straying off topic but then brings it quickly back to the main point. And the point is well taken: “modern life is filled with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. We have achieved little of the harmony that the ancients sought. Contemporary cities are only beginning to ask what is true well-being, and how we can achieve it.” These examples are presented to make a contrast to the more fragmented, rule-based system of the modern Western World.

Even with all of the history and context provided by the book, the author implores us to look forward. Rose writes that “the city-planning tools of the twentieth century were not designed to deal with climate change, population growth, resource depletion, and other megatrends.” Take, for example, the zoning code, which is how our collective vision is supposed to be implemented. Zoning codes are written to regulate development on private lots with use restrictions and setbacks, while the public realm is typically left to the streets that surround the lots. The Standard Zoning Enabling Act was passed under Herbert Hoover, who firmly believed that city planning could contribute to the quality of life and improve the social fabric in America. While a standardized legal framework is necessary to regulate development, zoning alone hardly has the ability to solve the myriad of urban issues we face today. Arguably, zoning had more impact in solving pressing issues of overcrowding and public health when it was first developed in the late 19th century. It could be said that much of our environmental legislation was passed in the same spirit, but the original intent has largely been usurped by process and constraints. Of course, these laws are extremely important, but the author would argue that reliance on our current way of doing things will not meet the challenges we face.

Over the last century, there is quite a bit of misguided planning full of unintended consequences that support the author’s skepticism of modern systems and approaches. The National Housing Act was passed to make single-family homes more affordable via low-cost loans. However, it led to red-lining. Urban renewal and housing programs of the late 1940s and early 1950s aimed to help troubled communities, yet led to cheaper mortgages for tract housing, while mixed-use, diverse urban neighborhoods were neglected. Federal funded highways, VA loans, and the FHA continued to create modern American suburbia, at the expense of both American cities and their surrounding farmlands. Much of this was done under the guise of capitalism, but one could argue that the modern American landscape was a product of government intervention. Planning in America in past decades is an example of heavy-handed solutions to problems, that led to more problems due to a lack of respect for what cities require to function properly. Rose would argue for a more context-sensitive, broadly conceived, bottom-up approach to urban policy or urban development.  

The Well-Tempered City by Jonathan F.P. Rose

I don’t necessarily think we need to be overly cynical about our current systems, but do appreciate the author’s optimism that there are better tools out there to grapple with increasing change and complexity. Rose claims that the “purpose of our cities and societies is well-being, not efficiency.” We need big data, but we also need good governance. We need innovators, but we also need civic participation. We need metrics, but we also need quality. To be resilient, we need to extend the focus of development beyond economic growth. We need to understand how the vitality of everything we plan for only functions when considered as part of a complex and mutually dependent system. Rose states that “actions with the most co-benefits will best serve the entire system.”

This poses a challenge for professionals in the business of city building. How can we begin to plan for “co-benefits” when we’ve considered things in isolation for so long? Where do we begin to develop indicators or metrics that can measure our success toward this goal? Rose uses the astute analysis of Rittel and Webber, which is that “planning problems are inherently wicked ... the larger issues facing cities had no clear solutions because each intervention improved circumstances for some residents, but made things worse for others. And there was no clear framework for deciding what outcomes were the most equitable, or fair.”

This is somewhat of a dismal assessment, but improvement is possible. Planners are creating new methods for better participatory planning. Cities are creating indicators that better inform decisions. Popular thought leaders, such as Susan Fainstein, are improving our understanding of dynamics of inequality and injustice in city development. Eco-districts are popping up that aim to combine goals of economic growth, affordable housing, and environmental stewardship.

Still, the flawed logic that we can always engineer our way to better futures seems to prevail. Rose asks us to step back and take an unfiltered look at how cities work before intervening. We need to understand that our focus on control is limited when faced with the effects of outside influences and trends, but we do have the ability to set up the conditions for success. He brings up examples from ancient cultures to show that the fundamentals of human civilization are still relevant, despite technological changes.

The Well-Tempered City by Jonathan F.P. Rose

One thing that will be necessary, is expanding the ability of the public in facilitating change. Rose states that “great city-making requires leadership but also, today, much broader participation.” This is two-fold. First, we need new public engagement methods and feedback mechanisms. Secondly, we need to improve the ability of people to think critically and act collectively. In a world that has become more efficient, and more intelligent, we’ve also become more fragmented. For cities to improve under Rose’s worldview, institutions and civic society need a new dialogue. Additionally, we need context and holistic thinking, or our cities are bound to make mistakes of the past.

This book is not meant for a professional looking for a fastpitch on planning, but perhaps the most valuable aspect of this book is how the language avoids jargon and is accessible to almost anyone with an interest. "The Well-Tempered City” is an apt title, because Rose intentionally chose a phrase that is outside of the common urban planning script. The reason for this is that authentic urbanism is lacking, and to really engage in placemaking, one should first develop a keen sense of how people want to live, and develop context-sensitive solutions from the ground up. In other words, Rose will not prescribe a fix for your city, but rather presents a vernacular that facilitates more productive thinking.

If your opinion is that Rose’s book has an approach that is too lofty, then consider an economic argument behind it. Well-tempered cities are ones that are dynamic and adaptive. They are better prepared to deal with existential threats of economic recession and rising sea levels. Better connected communities being more productive. Improving health outcomes now will lead to better economic outcomes later. Local, incremental investments are likely to be more effective in the long-run than big, ill-advised investments. In fact, the “well-tempered” city does not need to be expensive, just smarter. We don’t need a new urban renewal program, but maybe just a new urban outlook.

The 400-page book appears to be a long read, but it’s easy to digest because the overarching message is simple. It is enjoyable and thought-provoking, rather than technical. It tells us what we can learn from the past, and is also a call-to-action for the future. Regardless of your background, there will be something meaningful to take away.

What qualities do you think a city needs to be “well-tempered?” What practical steps can we take now toward this objective? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.

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Credits: Creative Commons images courtesy of Victor SantosAleksejs Bergmanis, Sage Ross, IDuke, and Aktron.

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Colin Poff is a recent graduate from Western Washington University where he studied Political Science and Economics. He currently interns at the City of Redmond, where he is providing research and analysis for the long-range planning department. Whi...

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