This book review is part of a TLC Book Tour.
The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life
by Jonathan F. P. Rose
In The Well-Tempered City, real estate developer Jonathan F. P. Rose offers a sweeping history of cities and equally grandiose policy proposals to improve urban outcomes. In the vein of Jane Jacobs and F.A. Hayek, Rose identifies that cities are “wicked” problems rather than engineering problems that policymakers can solve through tinkering. In spite of this recognition of the complexity of cities’ interrelated systems, Rose asserts that cities need visionaries to address problems from obesity to climate change from the top down.
Rose leads with the most interesting section of his book on the origins of early cities. In support of his theory that great cities are built by visionaries, he focuses on ancient cities that were founded around religious sites, including Uruk and Teotihuacan, downplaying the path of great cities emerged organically from trading posts, like Venice or Rotterdam. He advocates for the benefits of orderly urban layouts like Hippodamian plan or the magic square that ancient Chinese cities followed.
A theme running throughout the book is that American urban planning has embraced the Western values of individualism and free will while giving short shrift to the Eastern value of harmony, such as the unification that comes from top-down urban design. In support of more cohesive plans, Rose downplays the incredible progress that has been possible through decentralized urban and economic development.
Throughout the book, Rose argues that American cities are suffering from a lack of vision from their planners. Unlike ancient leaders who built grand temples and imposing walls, today’s planners focus on enforcing rules rather than defining a city’s aesthetics. He writes:
It turns out that a city can pick any overarching set of compassionate goals for humans and for nature, and achieve a better outcome by realizing it. As long as those goals have deeply altruistic intentions and the city commits to have those intentions profoundly influence every decision . . . the the city will continuously evolve toward harmony — human and natural.
This is a nice and inspiring sentiment, but it ignores the ugly history of urban planning. Cities can’t “commit” to anything, only people can. People who have advanced inhumane policies, including city planners, architects, and housing advocates have often done so under the banner of humane goals. Robert Moses began his long career in New York City proclaiming that he would make the outdoors accessible to urban children. Le Corbusier had a vision for creating accessible and decent housing for low-income people living in slums. Both of these reformers’ plans led to devastating results in spite of the positive visions they painted.
Without going into many specifics for land-use regulation reform, Rose advocates Smart Growth and New Urbanism, but he doesn’t provide a discussion of the tradeoffs that these planning schemes entail for the low-income people he is focused on helping. For example, he advocates preserving farmland without talking about how urban growth boundaries increase housing prices. He puts forward several other environmental regulations that would increase housing costs for low-income people, including the elimination of volatile organic chemicals that are common in construction and furnishing materials. VOC’s may pose health risks, but restricting them would involve risk-risk tradeoffs. A low-income family struggling to afford rent, transportation, and healthy food likely faces opportunities to reduce more risk at a lower cost than choosing to pay for expensive building materials and furnishings.
Rose explains that his focus on improving health and environmental outcomes stems from a focus on well-being rather than economic efficiency. Gross Domestic Product has been rightly critiqued by economists across the political spectrum as an insufficient metric for comparing the success of jurisdictions against one another. Rose likewise dismisses GDP for its inability to measure people’s happiness. In lieu of measuring quality of life with a single financial metric, Rose advocates his own metric which factors in economic output, survey data on well-being, and equality. According to his index, San Jose and Washington, DC are the two best metropolitan areas in the United States. He makes no mention of the challenges that living in either of these cities entails for low-income people that he purports to be concerned with helping. While GDP certainly has its deficiencies, it’s far from clear that seeking to maximize equality and well-being at the local level would actually improve opportunities for low-income people.
Rose’s simplistic take on transportation illustrate his general failure to critically examine the costs and unintended consequences of the policies he advocates. His book offers boosterism for American streetcars in spite of their very high construction costs and their poor design relative to more successful light rail systems around the world. He cites China as a model for infrastructure investment in spite of the fact that it’s amassing crippling debt to build ghost cities. Urban scholars from Ed Glaeser to Chuck Marohn have pointed out the problems with over-investment in public infrastructure, but Rose only focuses on the benefits of top-down plans.
The Well-Tempered City puts forth a compelling narrative on the complexity of cities and their many interrelated systems. While Rose acknowledges that a city is not an engineering problem, he proceeds to recommend that policy makers pull various levers to improve urban outcomes. He clearly has the best of intentions, but his failure to critically analyze the failures of progressive reformers before him leads him to advocate for repeating their mistakes that devastated the communities they purported to help.