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:
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Social distancing is becoming the new normal, at least for those of us who are heeding the Center for Disease Control’s warnings and guidelines. But if you don’t have reliable, high-speed broadband, it is impossible to engage in what is now the world’s largest telecommunity. As many schools and universities around the world (including those of my kids) are shut down, these institutions are optimistically converting to online and digital learning. However, with our current broadband layout, this movement will certainly leave many Americans behind.
Accenture analysts recently released a report calling for cities to take the lead in creating coordinated, “orchestrated” mobility ecosystems. Limiting shared services to routes that connect people with mass transit would be one way to deploy human-driven services now and to prepare for driverless service in the future. Services and schedules can be linked at the backend, and operators can, for example, automatically send more shared vehicles to a train station when the train has more passengers than usual, or tell the shared vehicles to wait for a train that is running late.
Managing urban congestion and mobility comes down to the matter of managing space. Cities are characterized by defined and restricted residential, commercial, and transportation spaces. Private autos are the most inefficient use of transportation space, and mass transit represents the most efficient use of transportation space. Getting more people out of private cars, and into shared feeder routes to and from mass transit modes is the most promising way to reduce auto traffic. Computer models show that it can be done, and we don’t need autonomous vehicles to realize the benefits of shared mobility.
The role of government, and the planning community, is perhaps to facilitate these kinds of partnerships and make it easier for serendipity to occur. While many cities mandate a portion of the development budget toward art, this will not necessarily result in an ongoing benefit to the arts community as in most cases the budget is used for public art projects versus creating opportunities for cultural programming.
Rather than relying solely on this mandate, planners might want to consider educating developers with examples and case studies about the myriad ways that artists can participate in the development process. Likewise, outreach and education for the arts community about what role they can play in projects may stimulate a dialogue that can yield great results. In this sense, the planning community can be an invaluable translator in helping all parties to discover a richer, more inspiring, common language.