The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life

Jonathan F.P. Rose

463 pages, HarperCollins Publishers, 2016

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Cities today express stark contradictions. Around the globe, people stream into cities, seeing them as beacons of opportunity. At the same time, the growth of vast urban areas places a heavy stress on natural and human systems and resources. Global trends, such as sea-level rise, climate change, and socioeconomic uncertainty, challenge longterm viability. City planners, elected officials, and infrastructure managers struggle just to keep pace. Private sector developers and builders, philanthropies, and community organizations stretch to fill the gaps in services.

In his new book, The Well-Tempered City, Jonathan Rose, an internationally recognized US real estate developer, urban planner, and theorist, argues that the core problem is poorly aligned planning systems and practices. Planners are focused on narrow missions and short-term outcomes. The result: urban “dissonance” that endangers the long-term viability of cities and civilization.

Rose’s solution is a new planning paradigm that aims to “harmonize” cities. As inspiration, Rose turns to Johann Sebastian Bach, the great mid-18th-century musical innovator. Prior to Bach’s time, musicians were limited to composing in just one key. There was no method to move from one key to the next without dissonance. The new idea embraced by Bach was to tune the notes in a way that “sounded pleasing when more than one key was played simultaneously.” This method, called “well-tempering,” opened up new horizons for musical composition. And Rose believes it also “could be a useful guide to composing cities that harmonize humans with each other and nature.”

But can such a high-minded, refined source of inspiration really help us build more sustainable cities? To plan a well-tempered city, Rose proposes a methodology built on five qualities: coherence, circularity, resilience, community, and compassion. Coherence results from aligning different programs, departments, and aspirations around a common vision. Circularity is a process whereby cities can mirror nature’s own processes, with the waste of one process becoming the nutrients for another. Resilience is the urban system’s ability to deal with stress and volatility, and to plan for the future. Community arises from factors that contribute to social and personal well-being, such as security, health, education, social connectivity, collective efficacy, and equitable distribution. Binding all together is compassion, which “provides the connective tissue between the me and the we, and leads us to care about something larger than ourselves.” By integrating these five qualities into the way we plan and develop our cities, Rose believes, we can make ourselves and our communities more whole.

Rose sees numerous signs of well-tempering in contemporary cities—in San Francisco’s citywide recycling system and the vitality of Casablanca’s markets, for example—that encourage optimism about the future. Through his model, he hopes to help more urban areas address the imbalance that results when our technical capacity to build outstrips our ability to create cities focused on well-being and prosperity for all.

What is missing from this perspective? First, more specific guidance on how to apply this framework to current planning challenges. Rose’s work offers imaginative high theory, but it lacks a set of practical ideas about how to achieve this vision. This is curious, because Rose, as an experienced urban planner and developer, clearly has the know-how to put theory into practice. In fact, Rose holds up his own Via Verde housing development in New York City’s South Bronx, with its 151 affordable apartments, energy-efficient systems, recycled construction materials, and ground-floor health center, as an example of a development that promotes the well-being of residents and their community.

However, he offers less direction for other planners and developers interested in exploring his new planning methodology. City planners today generally consider a standard set of urban topics, such as land use, housing, transportation, and utilities, when developing a master plan for the growth of a city or metropolitan region. The Well-Tempered City would contribute more to the field by exploring how to incorporate Rose’s five elements into this planning process. Would a bold, new kind of city take shape if we started with compassion and coherence, for instance, instead of housing, transportation, and so on, as the building blocks on which we build our master plan? This deeply thoughtful book would be enlivened by running Rose’s theory through a number of real planning scenarios.

The book also overlooks organic and spontaneous responses to urban issues. Where, in Rose’s quiet salon, is the place for all of the cacophonous forces that contribute to the raw energy of urban centers? Informal settlements, pop-ups, technological innovations and failures, even traffic congestion and suburban sprawl—we need to be attuned to these less well-tempered, more unpredictable phenomena. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, micro-units, homeless encampments, and technology-based rentals provide important data on how different groups are responding to the housing crisis. Broadening Rose’s proposed approach to include off-key and unpracticed notes could create a truly expansive new planning paradigm. And that, indeed, would be music to the ear.