Jonathan F.P. Rose is a man of many interests and talents. A developer, Rose builds affordable housing and mixed-income community centers. He is a jazz aficionado and – as suggested by the title of his newest book – a classical music devotee. Rose is also an interdisciplinary scholar and writer. In The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life, Rose brings those talents and interests together in a wide-ranging and thoughtful look at the past – and future – of the places where 80% of the world’s population will live by 2080.
(Full disclosure: My employer – the National Trust for Historic Preservation – has recognized Jonathan’s work with a Preservation Honor Award, and I have worked with him through his role as an advisor to a couple of our projects.)
The Well-Tempered City is a book that reflects a lifetime of work and thought about how cities best serve people. Early in the book, Rose notes that,
“Since the founding of the very first cities, governance and culture have been use to balance ‘me’ and ‘we.’ Governance provides the protection, structure, regulations, roles, and responsibilities necessary to allocate resources and maintain coherence among a large and often diverse population. Culture provides society with an operating system informed by the collective memory of its most effective strategies, guided by a morality that speaks for the whole. Healthy cities must have both strong, adaptable governance and a culture of collective responsibility and compassion.”
Balance and systems are a key to Rose’s view of cities. As a framework, Rose calls upon Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, a groundbreaking work that sought to prove a new system of music which – as Rose explains – “demonstrates both the perfection of the whole and the role of the individual within it.” In urban areas, Rose’s goal seeks to knit the threads of “technical and social potential and the generative power of nature back together, toward a higher purpose for cities.”
There are five qualities that – in Rose’s view – make up the well-tempered city: coherence, circularity, resilience, community, and compassion. He moves through these five qualities in detail, calling on many different disciplines and experiences to weave together his call for cities that balance prosperity with equity and efficiency.
There is much to absorb and like in this work, and I highly recommend it. There are also a couple of times when I wanted to question the assumptions. In Rose’s segments on the environment and resilience, he barely mentions reuse of older buildings and promotes – somewhat inadvertently – the “we can build our way to sustainability” argument. In fact, while he speaks extensively about the need for beauty in our cities, the role of the existing built environment in providing that beauty is rarely raised. Finally, this work has a strong bias towards New Urbanism, where I take a grain of salt approach to some tenants of New Urbanist thought.
But those are quibbles in what is a fine addition to the bookshelf on the current state and future of urbanism. Near the end of this work, Rose writes,
“Technology has produced cities that would have been unimaginable in Bach’s time, advancing in waves from the tower of Jericho to the megacities of today. But the essence of humans and nature has not changed. We still feel a great sense of peace and joy when our minds are bounded by the synchrony of music, beauty, truth, dignity, love, and compassion. Our cities today contain many of the technical achievements that Frederick the Great would have been so pleased by, but little of the harmony that Bach and the original makers of cities sought.
The purpose of our cities must be to integrate the science sought by the Enlightenment with the harmony of Bach, to compose the conditions of fitness of their people, their neighborhoods, and nature.”
Enjoy a bit of The Well-Tempered Clavier as you contemplate the Well-Tempered City.
More to come…