Book Review: The Well-Tempered City

the-well-tempered-city-coverThe complexity of cities have posed a challenge to all who choose to write about them in a comprehensive way. On the one hand, this can result in lengthy books which draw their authors across a vast intellectual terrain. Patrick Geddes’s Cities in Evolution exceeds 400 pages, and the paperback edition of Lewis Mumford’s magnum opus The City in History runs well over 600 pages. On the other hand, there are authors who simplify, and in doing so risk losing grasp of their subject. One such example might be Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, which while usefully synthesizes his insights as a leading urban economist, results in (in the words of an Amazon reviewer) a whole that seemed “less than the sum of the parts.” Glaeser’s definition of a city as “absence of space between people and firms” may work for economists, but it is inadequate for most of the rest of us. Geddes and Mumford would reject such a narrow view; for them cities were the physical manifestation of a civilization in all of its dimensions: social, economic, environmental, even spiritual.

Jonathan F.P. Rose’s new book The Well-Tempered City is definitely in the first camp. Early on, Rose, a successful New York real estate developer, admits the book is a continuation of inquiry begun as a graduate student, and one gets the impression that Rose isn’t planning another book. The book’s figures alone illustrate its eclectic and expansive scope: on one page, the Venus of Willendorf, on another, houses along South Korea’s Cheonggyecheon River in 1946, and on another, a bar chart illustrating national per capita health spending. Rose takes a vaguely systems view of cities, and provides a meandering tour through world urbanism, touching on topics such as sprawl and smart growth, urban water, green buildings, and social well-being. Throughout, he seeks to link the topics to his larger thesis that successful cities exemplify five qualities derived from his interest in musical harmony: coherence, circularity, resilience, community, and compassion.

While his perspective helpfully encompasses a broader, humanistic perspective which is a needed antidote to reductive and instrumental views of urban life, it ultimately fails as a scholarly work. The book reads more like a collection of blog posts than a polished monograph, and takes far too many digressions. While many are fascinating and I found myself noting some of the citations, the result is meandering and unsatisfying.

Content aside, we may draw one final conclusion from the work. In capitalist societies, the public sector, private real estate developers, and various interests must cooperate to build cities. Developers can easily lose sight of the broader context in which they work, resulting in drab and unsustainable landscapes which are the result of inattention to the long-term effects of their designs. However there have always been developers with loftier ambitious, whom we might call community builders. One notable example is James Rouse, whose company build downtown marketplaces and whom engaged in extensive philanthropy in his later years. This spirit lives on within organizations like the Urban Land Institute and many regional developers. Such companies bid on complex redevelopment projects, nurture independent businesses as tenants, and willingly navigate byzantine affordable housing subsidies. Of course, they still seek profits, and criticism of their choices and the power they wield is healthy. Not having studied his company, I don’t know the impact of Rose’s projects on the cities where they are located or the reputation he has earned. However, the book makes clear that for Rose, cities are not merely the absence of space between buildings (to adapt Glaeser slightly), but a collective achievement of dazzling complexity. At a time when the dealmaking school of real estate is on prominent display in the media, the book serves as a timely reminder of another school of thought in real estate, attuned to the myriad effects every new building has on the cityscape.

The Well-Tempered City [Amazon]

Author: Rob Goodspeed

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  1. Pingback: Jonathan F. P. Rose, author of The Well-Tempered City, on tour September 2016 | TLC Book Tours

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