A Great Recording

Ambitious “Well-Tempered City” explains what makes cities work, from ancient Mesopotamia to Lagos and New York City

City Terrain International Review Urbanism
Ambitious
Ambitious "Well-Tempered City" explains what makes cities work, from ancient Mesopotamia to Lagos and New York City. (Courtesy Harper Wave)

As a certain New York real estate figure thrusts a set of unpalatable values down the national throat, another local developer’s ideas are entering public discourse for better reasons. Jonathan Rose is, in important senses, the Antidrumpf: a developer who views the building of communities as an ethically consequential profession. He applies knowledge from nature and intercultural history to benefit entire populations. He advocates resilient development in sane, mature, well-evidenced, and convincing terms.

One finishes The Well-Tempered City with respect for a substantial contribution to the urbanist literature—and with the impression that in an administration dedicated to planetary and institutional stewardship, not plunder and bluster, Rose would merit a cabinet-level appointment. (Interior? HUD? Energy? A polymath like Rose could lead any of these departments.) The Well-Tempered City stands alongside works by Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, and Christopher Alexander, deserving influence and implementation.

The enduring fivefold path

With ambitious scope and explanatory clarity, Rose offers a unified theory of urban history grounded in five core concepts: coherence, circularity, resilience, community, and compassion. He also identifies nine variables critical to the rise of ancient cities: cognition, cooperation, culture, calories (energy), connectivity, commerce, control, complexity, and concentration.

The alliterations may imply a professorial top-down scheme, but Rose infers the nine C-concepts from historical studies before elucidating how stagnation or resilience depends on “urban operating systems” promoting the five principles. Cities that manage resource flows efficiently, generate socially beneficial incentives, and respond to shocks have thrived (e.g., today’s Copenhagen or Singapore, the altitude-adaptive village of Shey, Tibet, or the flexibly organized cities of Islam’s golden age). Wasteful, dis- or over-organized, militaristic, and parasitic cities (e.g., imperial Rome) have ossified and decayed.

Jonathan F. P. Rose. (Courtesy Rick Knief)

Rose distinguishes complication from complexity: the former merely reflects scale, while the latter describes volatile conditions where small inputs trigger large outputs. The acronym VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), he contends, describes urban as well as biological systems. Design suited to a VUCA environment will avoid the oversimplifications of 19th– and 20th-century planning by incorporating feedback phenomena and by continually adjusting incentives, technologies, balances among market and public-sector mechanisms, and other determinants of civic well-being. Ecosystems’ cyclical resource metabolisms are particularly important, avoiding linear extract-and-discard economies.



Déjà vu will kick in for readers of Jacobs, whose Death and Life chapter “The Kind of Problem a City Is” drew on Warren Weaver’s observations about “problems in organized complexity.” To this foundation Rose adds a broad familiarity with global cultural practices, evolutionary biology, archaeology, cognitive science, and network theory: He has the intellectual discipline to be usefully interdisciplinary.

Discussing how the efficiency metric of energy return on investment (the ratio of usable energy generated to energy spent creating it) correlates with civilizations’ rise and fall, he notes how China’s recent agricultural practices resemble those that doomed Rome for a thousand years; how New York, Detroit, Lagos, and Baltimore have benefited from
better data collection; and how a Big Mac takes seven times as much energy to produce as it provides to its consumer. 
One strong chapter, “The Cognitive Ecology of Opportunity,” links the neurohormonal threat response of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to environments that traumatize children, exacerbated by exposure to neurotoxins such as lead, producing vicious cycles of maladaptation and social isolation. Tragic cases like Freddie Gray’s death in a struggle with Baltimore police illuminate interwoven civic and individual pathologies.

(Courtesy Harper Wave)

Taking the polis in for a tune-up

Rose’s master metaphor is the tuning system popularized by Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, an advance beyond Pythagorean “just intonation” (grounded in astronomic-mathematical ratios and generating beautiful scales within each key, but unable to change keys without discord). Music from the baroque through bebop is inconceivable without it. Bach didn’t invent equal tempering; Rose scrupulously credits the discovery to Ming prince Zhu Zaiyu’s Fusion of Music and Calendar (1580), brought to Europe by a traveling monk and incorporated into German music theory by Andreas Werckmeister (1687), then into practice, gloriously, by Bach.

Conceiving harmony broadly, Rose looks to Mesopotamia for another key (if unfortunately named) concept. The societal codes that the Ubaid civilization (5500-4000 BCE) considered divinely ordained, known in Sumerian as meh, are the archetype for subsequent codes found across world history. Rose finds similar operating-system principles in Chinese nine-square geometric urban forms, Lübeck Law regulating trade in the Hanseatic League, and contemporary Smart Growth codes. Conversely, when civilizations embrace a poorly designed code—as when the Federal Housing Administration incorporated racist residential legislation into redlining, or when Chicago School economics ignores environmental externalities or network-scale Nash equilibria, in which choices maximizing individual benefits produce worse outcomes than coordinated choices do—disharmonies are inevitable: congestion, impoverishment, waste, and disease.

Socioeconomic reharmonization requires a comprehension of how codes handle inputs and outputs. Humanity’s mandate is thus to approximate nature’s advanced harmonies. Rose’s spiritually oriented conclusion points out how the Hebrew concept tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) has cognates across cultures. Humanity, he finds, has “evolved with an innate metacode” in which “altruism flows through every bit of a city’s interdependent social and cognitive ecologies, and is embedded in the morality of its systems.”

The audience that needs Rose’s analysis most drastically may be the least prepared for it. “Meh” in current parlance also names the shoulder-shrugging indifference of the incurious to anything beyond their truncated attention spans. Recent electoral results inspire little confidence that American society can decode principles observable in Uruk, Göbekli Tepe, and Chengzhou, and act on them purposefully. In his November 9 AIANY book talk, Rose emphasized how increasing immiseration in poorly built cities requires more comprehension of history and the sciences than partisan politics could muster: “I don’t believe either side of the election had the intellectual capital to deal with this.”

If Rose’s tempering theory omits anything vital, it may be a recognition of evil: Another synonym for the civic distempers flowing from greed and fear. Yet in accentuating the positive, the connectedness that has outlived such distempers, he reinforces our sense of harmony even in out-of-tune times.

The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life
Jonathan F. P. Rose
Harper Wave, 2016, $29.99

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