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Jonathan F.P. Rose talks about the future of cities

Eye on Real Estate: His book, “The Well-Tempered City,” calls altruism a key to urban survival

September 28, 2016 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Developer and urban planner Jonathan F.P. Rose is the author of a newly published book, “The Well-Tempered City.” Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
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By the end of this century, 85 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. The future of civilization depends on whether cities can survive an array of looming threats ranging from climate change to terrorism.

And you thought urban planning was a dull, wonky occupation.

Jonathan F.P. Rose, founder of the investment, development and urban planning firm Jonathan Rose Companies, has written a big, bold book. It’s called “The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life.”

It draws insights from the history of the world’s earliest cities, from the failures and successes of modern cities and from scientific disciplines such as genetics and neuroscience.

The Well-Tempered City” was published on Sept. 13 by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Rose, who has a BA in psychology and philosophy from Yale and a master’s degree in regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania, works with cities and not-for-profits to plan and build affordable and mixed-income housing and cultural, health and educational centers. His firm has two development projects underway in Brooklyn.

Rose’s work has won him awards from organizations including the Urban Land Institute, the American Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

His family name is a familiar one to New Yorkers. His father, the late Frederick P. Rose, was a philanthropically-minded developer who oversaw the construction of the Rose Center for Earth and Space, which houses the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium.  

The Brooklyn Eagle sat down recently with Jonathan F.P. Rose in his company’s Midtown Manhattan office to talk about the problems and promise of the modern metropolis. Here is our interview, edited for space considerations:


News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

Q: You identify altruism as an essential force needed for making our cities whole. What can be done in America to encourage altruism among the people with the power and the money?

A: So first of all, why altruism?

The book often looks at cities from an ecological point of view and uses ecological analogies.

Natural systems heal themselves by connecting their parts. And the ones that thrive the most are the ones with the greatest adaptive capacity. When we look at systems, what we learn is that those that have the most interconnections are ones that are the healthiest.

Altruism is a positive adaptive capacity that actually goes back to the beginning of the success of human beings.

E.O. Wilson wrote a book called “The Social Conquest of Earth.” What he proposes is that it was humans’ ability to collaborate as a tribe that led to us being able to out-compete any other species.

It was our ability to work as a larger social group, which means we had to give up our individual maximization for the group optimization that led to our success.

And that power of community is part of what built the barns across America, that is the basis of the New England town meeting. It’s what brought neighborhoods such as the South Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant back from the destruction of the ’70s and the ’80s.

There’s another book, called “A Paradise Built in Hell,” written by Rebecca Solnit, in which she describes many disasters and how out of those disasters, people would spontaneously come together.

We had that in New York in 2001 [after the 9/11 terrorist attacks], when everybody was there to help everybody else.

And we know that in times of stress, selfishness leads to a degradation of society, and this great sense of mutuality helps us.

John Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

And that is the answer. You asked, So what do we do? And it takes leadership. It takes leadership at all levels. But I believe it takes leadership at the highest level.

I have a blog up now called “The Bell Curve of Human Nature.”

And what I say is that on one side, we have people like Mother Teresa, total altruistic saints. And on the other side, we have the most greedy and selfish amongst us. I believe that with our human nature, we fall into a bell curve of who’s in between.

And I believe that what leadership is all about is shifting where we fall in the bell curve. And that great leadership can bring us to be more altruistic.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says that there are two kinds of politics — the three S’s and the three C’s. The three S’s are that we are separate, selfish and scared. The three C’s are that we’re connected, compassionate and courageous.

And leadership can tell us that we are all in this together, which is true. That we’re connected. That we need to be compassionate. And we need to be courageous.

Leadership can put us in one of those two directions.

And Schneiderman says that we have the politics today of the three S’s and we need to create the politics of the three C’s.

I think leaders can only move us 20 percent in one direction or another. And they can’t take us all the way there.

But they can shift us more that way. [Rose points at the altruistic end of a bell-curve chart.] And I think that makes a huge difference as to how society functions.

It has happened many times throughout history. We need to recall it again today. We have to do it.


Q: Your book tells fascinating stories about the world’s first cities. What lessons can be learned from these ancient places?

A: What’s really amazing to me was the first settlement, which is Göbekli Tepe [located in what is now southeastern Turkey]. It’s astounding.

So this thing is humungous. It’s built with these stones that are tons big, that had to be carried. And every single one of them is carved with incredible symbols of humans and mythic animals. So there was obviously a very complex religion.

Remember, they didn’t even have villages yet. And yet they built this place.

Our initial impulse to build, to create settlements, was centered around these temples. There’s a line in the book: “First came the temple, then the city,” from the archaeologist [Klaus Schmidt, who headed excavations at Göbekli Tepe].  

We were nomads until the temples are what fixed us to place. And the reason why is that the temples were places where people felt that humans and nature could come into harmony. That was their purpose.

And here’s what was so amazing. There were the eight crops that fueled civilization. And they’re spread all over the earth. When you do DNA analysis and you trace them back, they come within 20 miles of Göbekli Tepe.


Q: In your book, you say the collapse of the Mayan empire was caused by megatrends that threaten today’s cities. Please explain.

A: Today, the megatrends are that the population of the world is growing. By 2050, we will hit a population of 10 billion people. The world is rapidly urbanizing. By the end of the century, 85 percent of the world’s population will live in cities.

We are consuming far more natural resources. Income inequality is growing. And we’re seeing tremendous volatility that comes from the interconnection of our financial systems.

In the past, when these factors had come together, along with climate change — and the climate is drastically changing — civilizations have collapsed.

The Mayans’ population grew enormously. They consumed a great deal of resources.

They were interconnected with the Aztecs, and their economy was dependent upon this. It led to great wealth. But when the Aztec civilization started having trouble, all of a sudden trade went down. The economy went down. And that caused a recession in Maya land, which was not good.

Meanwhile, they decorated their temples and their buildings and their houses with plaster that was colored. To make the plaster, they had to burn trees.

And so even though there was a drought coming and the trees are actually what help stabilize the soils and keep the water in the ground, they kept cutting the trees because everybody had to show off with their fancy colors.

As a result, they didn’t have enough water. They couldn’t grow enough food. Because of income inequality, the rich were taken care of. The poor were not.

And the poor revolted and ended up basically burning the civilization down.

So this is a warning.

One of the great promises of the United States to the world is that we are a land of opportunity.

That’s kind of our mission statement.

And one of the things we’re seeing in politics today is that people feel like that promise no longer is vital. They feel like the opportunity in America is diminished.

My sense is that if we’re going to achieve that state of altruism which is so necessary to the survival of the cities, everybody has to feel like their opportunity is equal. That is the base condition necessary for everybody to feel like they’re all in it together.

And we know what is necessary to create the conditions of opportunity.

Affordable housing is needed. We need multiple means of mass transit. We need fantastic school systems in which every child has an equal opportunity to get a great education.

I don’t see how we can have that equal opportunity unless the access and the quality of healthcare are equal for all, unless we equally distribute parks and open space because we know how important those are to mental health and physical health and to the quality of neighborhoods.

There won’t be equal opportunity if we don’t equally distribute access to affordable, healthy food — we now know how important healthy food is for mental development.

There won’t be equal opportunity if we don’t equally distribute access to cultural resources. We know how important they are to enriching people’s lives.

I also believe we need to suffuse our neighborhoods with places of reflection and contemplation, which traditionally have been churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. And there are other places that are emerging — meditation centers and, just for example, we’re seeing many communities now building walking labyrinths in non-denominational places of reflection.

What I believe is that just as the earliest cities were founded around a temple whose purpose was to harmonize humans and nature, we need places where we can step back from the incredible busyness of our time.

We are all so jammed.  And any spare time we used to have is taken up by answering email.

We need time to step back and think about who we are and who we really want to be, in the best sense of who we want to be.

So all those elements need to be in place to create what we call communities of opportunity.

When Americans feel like they all have the opportunity to live in a neighborhood like that, and raise their children in a neighborhood like that, it’s the precondition for us truly realizing that we are all in this together. And altruism prevails.

As long as the social, physical and economic structures of our neighborhoods separate us, then they lead to us being more selfish and scared.

The more that we are connected to equal opportunity, then the more we can be compassionate and courageous.


Q: As you mentioned, 85 percent of the world’s population will live in cities by the end of this century. The future of civilization depends on whether cities can survive looming threats ranging from climate change to terrorism. What kind of pressure does this put on you and all the other urban planners out there?

A: What an amazing time to be an urban planner. It is a chance to really create solutions to some of the greatest problems on earth.

And there’s another amazing thing — the incredible lessons from cities around the world.

Paris invented the idea of bike share. It’s called the Velib’. Other cities looked at it and said, “This is fantastic. We want it, too.”

San Francisco currently recycles 80 percent of its waste. And you know what? Seattle said, “We want to even be better.” So Seattle is almost up there now, and trying to beat San Francisco.

The point is that cities learn from each other. So one of the things about being an urban planner is this amazing opportunity to learn from each other.

I’m going to give you another example: The city of Medellín, Colombia. In 1990, it was ranked the most dangerous city in the world. In 2013, it was ranked the greenest city in the world.

There was a pathway around the city where the drug dealers hung the bodies of the people they killed called the Path of Death. It now rings conservation land and community gardens. It’s called the Path of Life.

So if they can turn themselves around in 23 years, certainly we can, too. And what an amazing opportunity for urban planners and mayors.

But what it takes is leadership and collective will. It actually has to start with a vision. Often that vision doesn’t come from government.

We’re seeing independent groups like the Regional Plan Association in New York and the Municipal Art Society.

Leadership can come from many places. It can come from community groups. It can come from city councils. It can come from the mayor. It can come from the business community.

You know, Central Park was conceived of by the business community. It was actually a bunch of wealthy citizens who had been to London, who had seen Hyde Park and said, “We need one in New York.”

They commissioned the competition that led to Olmsted and Vaux being selected as the designers.

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