In his 2016 book, The Well-Tempered City, socially active developer Jonathan Rose makes a compelling case that cities will survive in our “VUCA times” (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) by tapping the innovation gene that can be found in Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier which modernized music. Bach’s circle of fifths tuning method is an example for cities.
By applying a circular mentality to the use of resources, cities will fulfill their mission, not only as economic centers, but as centers of biocomplexity, Rose writes. A city, like an ecosystem, has a circular “metabolism” where all of the people, cars, homes and institutions act as the “proteins,” the building blocks. The trick is to design cities to maximize the use of those proteins, like nature does, by not wasting a thing. If we maximize the potential of people and resources, cities are more likely to become healthy, equitable places.
“The ancients recognized that achieving harmony (between the function of a city and the generative power of nature) was their responsibility,” writes Rose who has degrees in philosophy and studied ancient civilizations at Yale University and regional planning from University of Pennsylvania (in other words, he’s not your typical developer).
The purpose of cities is to integrate and reflect our cultural priorities. Ancient cities like Uruk, an agrarian community in Mesopotamia, set the pattern. Houses were almost all the same size, reflecting what Rose calls an equitable design approach. When the Roman Coliseum was built, it took hundreds of acres of farmland out of production to feed workers for a showpiece of a building. Conservation means recognizing priorities. Its role is in preserving the balance of the energy it requires to build and keep a city and a nation from falling apart which happened in Rome, Maya, and throughout history.
Rose weaves together the story of urban development throughout human history, and draws out lessons for VUCA times. Cities that have taken the hard conceptual leap from “me”- to “we” thinking especially in the redesign of systems of energy, building, food, and education are thriving and reinventing themselves.
Like Medellin, Columbia which turned itself from “world’s most dangerous” to “most innovative” city. Its focus on collective change led to targeted investments in protective forces, public transit (cable cars, a metro) that links neighborhoods to economic opportunity, and a regional green belt to avoid the resource depletion of sprawl.
Cooperation drove Louisville, Kentucky’s decision to merge school systems with its suburbs after the federal Civil Rights Act ruled that segregated school were illegal. Eventually, that led to its city and county merging governments. Finding that elusive cultural coherence that spurred Louisville’s regionalism or Chicago to preserve its lakefront access for public use is undeniably difficult in times like these, but it is a must.
“Creating a healthy city is a collective activity,” writes Rose parting with another example in Curitiba, Brazil where its Mayor Jamie Lerner famously decided to not tear up the city for cars and invested in a system of bus-rapid transit that had schools at the stations, tripled the city’s green space, and expanded recycling into an art.
There’s a lot to undo in American urban planning to achieve that level of equity. Most communities are still using “monoculture” zoning (instead of inclusive zoning) left over from the 19th century (which came about to separate factories from residential neighborhoods).
“It became a significant contributor to the 20th century problems of suburban sprawl, traffic jams, few live-work-play communities, inefficient land use and extraordinary environmental degradation,” Rose writes.
But, even middle America has found a way to shed fear and innovate. Rose’s brother-in-law, the famous smart growth developer, Peter Calthorpe, led the Sustainable Communities process (similar to Northeast Ohio’s Vibrant NEO 2040 Plan) in Salt Lake City, Utah. Rose comments that it succeeded (Salt Lake City ranks #7 on the Gini Index, a measure of prosperity, well-being and equality, for U.S. Cities) because “no longer did metro regions have to choose between rampant growth and no growth; there was an alternative. They could apply intelligence to their growth.”
Rose shares examples of how technology, social networks, or an equity lens can unblock good ideas (what Lerner calls “urban acupuncture”) or challenge notions of what cities, regions, states or nations can do.
- Curitiba’s “garbage that is not garbage” program collects and recycles more than 70 percent of its waste, and puts funds from selling recyclables into social services. Recyclers are paid for garbage with transit tokens. Even through Brazil’s economy has stalled, 72 percent of people think their future will be better.
- In 2011, 62 percent of Louisville’s fourth-grade students scored at or above basic levels for math (twice as high as the percentage of Detroit students).
- Singapore’s 2014 Master Plan recognizes the past mistakes of sprawl by dividing the region into six areas each with a dense downtown core, with health and education facilities, open spaces, civic services and superb mass-transit connecting them.
- Redlining and Lead paint stacked the deck against Freddie Gray in Baltimore, who died in police custody, setting off a wave of riots. Inequities cost Maryland, or Michigan (Flint) more than if it had invested in a lost generation of Freddie Grays.
- Comparing Allentown to Youngstown after the steel industry collapse, MIT researcher Sean Safford discovered that Youngstown’s leaders were inward looking while Allentown took a risk and invited young leaders into their turnaround effort. Allentown is the fastest growing city in Pennsylvania.
- Minneapolis’s University Avenue District wants to become an Ecodistrict that would integrate hospital, university, housing authority, power company and private builders under one system of power, heat, cooling, open space, storm water, parking and other metabolisms.
- Placing Ecodistricts and Microgrids—which are local, interconnected sources of reliable, renewable power—within reach are LEED-Gold buildings and the first Living Building Challenge buildings like the Bullitt Foundation office tower in Seattle which produces 60 percent more power than its occupants use.
- Rose’s company, with input from residents, produced a green mixed-use, mixed-income building in the South Bronx, called Via Verde, which has a gym, yoga, a rooftop garden, on-site health facility, and natural, energy efficient designs.
- The “Grown in Detroit” brand reflects an investment in recycling vacant land into 1,200 community gardens, more per capita than any other city in America.
- Baltimore’s CityStat was a publicly accessible city data system designed to make government more accountable. One example, it posted employees who hadn’t shown up to work and why. Absenteeism and overtime dropped by 40 percent.