An enlightened developer’s view on the future of cities

New York developer and author of "The Well-Tempered City" Jonathan F.P. Rose

Across the world, real estate developers are often criticized for having narrow vision — claiming grand things about the livability, design, and convenience of their projects, but in reality just plotting maximum returns on their investments.

There are notable exceptions, however. Among them is Jonathan Rose, a New York City-based developer with a long record of socially sensitive projects and civic involvement. For example, his Via Verde project in the once-ravaged South Bronx turned a remediated brownfield site into high-rise apartments, 151 of which are reserved for low-income residents. The certified green building is designed for beauty and the health of residents, with rooftop gardens, fitness and health centers, and a design that maximizes circulation of fresh air.

Now, in his new book — The Well-Tempered City, published by HarperCollins — Rose lays out a case that cities are not just birthplaces of civilization. Rather, he argues, cities are the critical arenas challenged to provide work, shelter, sustenance and sanitation for an astounding 80 percent of mankind by late in this century.

Rose believes deeply in cities’ capacity to invent, adapt and cope on their own as they grapple with the task of handling all this growth.  He cites ancient Alexandria’s thirst for and use of knowledge that enabled it to thrive for centuries. The cities of the Islamic world rose on the buoyancy of diverse religions and cultures. The Hanseatic League developed organically and flexibly because the partner cities could define their own practices — and eventually agree on rules of trade.

But ongoing success is never assured. Modern Alexandria, for example, remains a key trading city for Egypt but has sprawled widely along the Mediterranean coast, filling delicate marshlands with development and cutting off its lovely sand beach from the city with an eight-lane freeway. One result: The sea floor adjacent to the roadway is eroding and making the city vulnerable to storm surges.

Yet across the world, Rose observes, formulas for sound city futures are developing. One was the long-range vision Michael Bloomberg put forth in New York, known as PlaNYC. The process analyzed current conditions and challenges, and then laid out 127 initiatives on issues ranging from housing, parks, solid waste and brownfields to air quality and water supply.

Another example Rose cites is Singapore. Plagued by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions at its founding in the 1960s, the island city-state now is a global symbol of political stability and urban quality. And increasingly its focus is on biodiversity — moving from an historic monoculture of palm trees to a startling array of diverse greenery, encouraging new species of birds and other wildlife, and seeing those things as important to the city’s livability and economic competitiveness.

[Read: How Singapore makes biodiversity an important part of urban life]

Rose is an avowed enemy of what he describes as “the terrible environmental costs of sprawling development.” The “well-tempered,” sustainable city-region he espouses will avoid senseless sprawl and the heavy auto use it encourages by instead fostering multiple “downtowns” — mixed-income, walkable town centers built on a formula of “concentration, complexity and connection.” Rose also suggests the well-tempered city will recycle and reuse as much of its waste as possible.

Those high ideals are an ocean away — figuratively and physically — from some of the globe’s most seriously challenged cities. Rose notes that Lagos, the megacity and financial capital of Nigeria, doesn’t even know how many inhabitants it has — even as it keeps swallowing smaller cities on its periphery.

But there’s a moral to Rose’s story: A degree of progress, even in the most challenged cities, is always possible.

In 1999, Lagos was collecting taxes worth just 600 million naira, or US$3.7 million, a month. But after outsourcing its tax collection, Lagos was able to increase its revenue flow to more than US$125 million a month by 2013 — without raising tax rates. The new funding enabled the city to start investing in bus-rapid transit and a soon-to-open light-rail system.

In 2014, Lagos collected only 40 percent of its waste, without means to reach the rapidly expanding slums on its periphery. Then a social enterprise began offering households incentives to separate their recyclable trash, and employing collectors to bicycle door-to-door to collect it and sell it to waste processing plants. The reduced refuse on neighborhood streets means fewer clogged drains and less standing water in which malaria-carrying mosquitoes can breed.

So what’s the most vital ingredient for city success today? Rose mentions tools ranging from data collection to basic zoning, building codes to critical infrastructure investments. But across the globe, he suggests, nothing may be more critical than three tough-to-quantify but essential qualities:

First, strong city leadership — whether that comes from a mayor or a wise group of leaders, it also has to come with genuine citizen input from longtime residents and recent immigrants alike.

Second, the readiness of city leaders to nurture the capacity of their city to adapt creatively to changing circumstances.

And third — sufficient empowerment by their national, state or regional governments to act.

The formula, in short, is clear. To cope effectively with the urban world’s pressing issues, city  leaders must cultivate a culture that spans three critical imperatives: experimentation,  efficiency, and inclusion.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Neal Peirce is the founder and editor-in-chief of Citiscope. Full bio

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.