Urban Futures Road Map: It Finally Arrives in Your Bookstore
Review of “The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life”, by Jonathan F. P. Rose
Roadmaps are sometimes hard to read. But you can be sure that they’re always much harder to create. I kept that thought in mind during my enjoyable read through a new and important book, “The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life”, by Jonathan F. P. Rose. It does a superb job for city-focused readers like me.
Rose provides much more than just a list of the elements needed for any city to become both a ‘smart-city’ and a ‘just-city’. His book provides something of far greater value: the map itself. This differentiates “The Well-Tempered City” from the multiple city-of-the-future titles flooding the book market. It helps to define this book’s “difference that makes a difference”.
Rose avoids giving mere lip service to powerful forces at work inside our cities, but he starts by truly getting to the core of these trends: democratization and citizen engagement; inclusion at both the social and economic levels.
From a stage in Alpbach, Austria during the European Forum Alpbach 2016, Rose said that “only by seeing the whole can we heal the whole.” Rose argues that the emergence of a whole-systems approach— informed by up-to-date research on brain science and human behavior – is an approach which sees the whole city greater than sum of the parts.
But, you’ll want to ask, ‘exactly how do the pieces fit together?’ This is where “The Well-Tempered City” shows its true colors. Rose offers critical guidance which city leaders need, whether a public sector leader (an elected or appointed), a private sector leader, or an independent sector leader (in NGOs, academia, etc.).
Rose leaves out the extraordinary story of his company and the pioneering work with affordable housing upgrades, and the parallel upgrading of the surrounding urban systems and urban services. Readers will want to do some research and read this extraordinary investment track record; you’ll find it a worthwhile story to review. Readers will understand better how Rose’s principles work themselves out in the real world where a profit-centered organization innovates within the constraints of low-income housing.
Some of Rose’s big insights are drawn from the latest science research. One of these could be quite important for our cities: Affordable housing in essential, but it’s certainly not sufficient to make a sustainable and nurturing community. Public housing is a living lab, and it’s been such since the days of Charles Abrams and his “City as Frontier”. Rose’s aim here is not to equalize every human being, but to equalize all opportunities. He sees the city, and most especially the housing in each city, as a system situated at the crux of that challenge. Where Rose is going with this is something he calls “communities of opportunity”. As he defines and develops the concept, this is a new way of framing the conversation. Rose is focused on those citizens who, all too often, are situated outside the mainstream of urban opportunities.
Rose is anxious to emphasize something else drawn from science that we readily forget: Nature has an amazing restorative capacity, and urban ecosystems are no exception. Thus, Rose shows the importance of getting out of the way in cities, such that biodiversity can flourish. Actions informed by a whole-systems approach are making it possible for city ecosystems to recover from the damage done since the Industrial Revolution.
What are some of this book’s big take-aways? There are too many to list here, but consider just a few of them:
- Some pioneers are actually making high-margin investments in our inner cities, enhancing economic return while reducing environmental impacts.
- Doing the right thing makes more economic sense. Believe it or not, as Rose shows in a dozen different ways, optimizing urban systems makes it possible to optimize shareholder value.
- Buildings actually have positive economic benefits, especially when you consider the building’s ability to capture rainwater for toilets, returning water to the ecosystem after cleaning within the building, etc.
- Rethinking the city’s ‘linear infrastructure’ comes when you consider the full systems which comprise a city’s metabolics. In a linear city, 98% of the resources which come into the city leave it as waste within 6 months. In a circular city that doesn’t happen. Regenerative systems go well beyond current urban resource–recovery systems, including recycling services of the type that San Francisco provides to (and with) her citizens. In this regard, please be sure to read through to two of Rose’s outstanding examples: the State of Virginia’s solid waste policies and Windhoek’s story of extreme wastewater. Rose puts to rest the power of linear while giving circular its rightful place at the center of our decisions.
There’s some very good news embedded inside this book: Replicating the magnificence of nature is not impossible, as Rose’s examples show us. By tying it back to the ‘cities of opportunity’ Rose enables us to drill down into each of the elements and reversing the isolation of people, families and income groups. By calling for an infusion of compassion into our urban-development agenda, Rose reminds us that the output we get from our society is a true reflection of the shared values which we infuse into the city.
Be forewarned: Our mental maps are not accustomed to applying the abstractions of systems dynamics to the mundanities associated with affordable urban housing investments.
Inside this book you’ll find some compelling symbol of human aspiration, and one of those offered by Rose is J.S. Bach, especially his truly amazing Well-Tempered Clavier. In that spirit, Rose’s urban-development business thinks that its core goal is realizing the full potential for humans, believe it or not.
To order Rose’s amazing book, buy it in your local bookstore or, if you must, via the publisher:
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1) If (or when) more workers return to traditional on-location jobs, but feel a lingering distrust of crowded spaces, people who can afford it may opt for private cars instead of using public transit for their commute. This will create a massive influx of cars on roads that were already crowded, and more financial woes for transit agencies already dealing with budget shortfalls. Krishna told me about a suite of optimization tools Cubic is deploying in places like Mexico and San Francisco to make public transit more efficient, more transparent, and, overall, more attractive to riders.
2) For the time being, though, we’re dealing with the opposite problem. How can transit agencies find ways to influence user behavior in a way that complies with social distancing and capacity requirements? How can you incentivize riders to wait for the next bus? (In a way that doesn’t alienate them forever – see #1). Cubic has deployed a loyalty/advertising program in Miami-Dade County that was originally intended to increase ridership, but is now being used to help control crowding and social distancing on transit.
3) Transportation infrastructure, in generally, was not built to accomodate 6-feet of separation between riders – or between workers. Little things like, for example, opening gates, requires workers to be closer than 6-feet to riders, and there are examples like that throughout every transit hub. Technology can help, but creating and implementing software/hardware solutions quickly and efficiently requires experience with innovation, deployment, maintenance and more. Cubic has a program called Project Rebound that shows the possibilities.
Advanced Urban Visioning offers a powerful tool for regions that are serious about achieving a major transformation in their sustainability and resilience. By clarifying what optimal transportation networks look like for a region, it can give planners and the public a better idea of what is possible. It inverts the traditional order of planning, ensuring that each mode can make the greatest possible contribution toward achieving future goals.
Advanced Urban Visioning doesn’t conflict with government-required planning processes; it precedes them. For example, the AUV process may identify the need for specialized infrastructure in a corridor, while the Alternatives Analysis process can now be used to determine the time-frame where such infrastructure becomes necessary given its role in a network.
The introduction of intelligent transportation systems, which includes a broad network of smart roads, smart cars, smart streetlights and electrification are pushing roadways to new heights. Roadways are no longer simply considered stretches of pavement; they’ve become platforms for innovation. The ability to empower roadways with intelligence and sensing capabilities will unlock extraordinary levels of safety and mobility by enabling smarter, more connected transportation systems that benefit the public and the environment.