The Well-Tempered City

This arrived from the public library on 9/12/2017, and I finished it within a month. The subtitle is, “What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life.”

I think part of why I love the field of urban planning is that it encompasses so many other fields.

Most other careers require a fairly limited focus (engineers, paleontologists, chefs). I have always been someone whose curiosity can’t stop with a single answer. Urban planning necessarily touches on the past, present, and future of a location. It demands that you examine the anthropology, sociology, geology, meteorology, arts, education….et cetera, ad infinitum.

As a teenager, even though my education was pretty liberal-artsy, I was pushed to choose a single field of study. I had no idea how to reconcile my various interests and my firm conviction that I could not choose a single field because each topic relied upon another.

Tl;dr, this title excites me, and confirms that urban planning will be a part of my future work.

The inside cover describes the author, Jonathan F.P. Rose, as the man who “repairs the fabric of cities.” I wonder who gave him that title. While his biography and the reviewer quotes sound wonderful, as always I am suspicious of white men praising other white men. I will be keeping an eye out for the voices that are excluded from this book.

Here is a snippet:

“At the physical level, the well-tempered city increases its resilience by integrating urban technology and nature. At the operational level it increases its resilience by developing rapidly adapting systems that co-evolve in dynamic balance with megatrends, preserving the well-being of both the human and natural systems. And at the spiritual level, temperament integrates our quest for a purpose with the aspiration for wholeness.”

The book emphasizes that this is not just a dreamy vision, but that various places exemplify certain parts of this vision. No one place has it all, it seems. It provides a list of places that are succeeding — and it’s becoming my “look it up” list:

• Singapore’s social housing
• Finland’s public education
• Austin’s smart grid
• Copenhagen’s biking culture
• Hanoi’s urban food production
• Tuscany’s regional food system
• Seattle’s access to nature
• NYC’s arts and culture
• Hong Kong’s subway system
• Curitiba’s (Brazil) bus rapid transit system
• Paris’s bike-share program
• London’s congestion pricing
• San Francisco’s recycling system
• Philadelphia’s green storm-water program
• Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon River restoration project
• Windhoek’s (Namibia) wastewater recycling system
• Rotterdam’s approach to living with rising seas
• Tokyo’s health outcomes
• Sydney’s happiness
• Stockholm’s equality
• Reykjavik’s peacefulness
• Forbidden City’s harmonic form
• Casablanca’s market vitality
• Bologna’s cooperative industrialization
• Medellin’s (Colombia) innovation
• Cambridge’s universities
• Cleveland’s hospitals
• Vancouver’s livability

According to Rose, a well-tempered city has five characteristics: 1) coherence, 2) circularity, 3) resilience, 4) community, and 5) compassion.


Is a city overly rigid or chaotic? The author makes an interesting connection to mental health here.

An overly rigid city might be a centralized Soviet city of the mid-20th century, or perhaps a modern city ruled by fundamentalists. A chaotic city might be a sprawling metropolis with a government that isn’t up to the task. This section is about the history of urban planning, and how cities and suburbs can only thrive if they are incorporated into a coherent regional system.

Cognition includes: perception, discernment, apprehension, understanding, insight, reasoning, learning, and reflection. I can see that these are all important factors to consider when designing an installation or an urban project. How can we improve a human’s ability (or an animal’s) to discern, to understand, to reflect, by their built environment? How can we make it adaptable, so the understanding and discernment changes to reflect the current day and facts? And how can we account for pre-set biases (fight or flight) that come from our ancient brains, that haven’t caught up and are less relevant in today’s society, but still ever present in the minds of city dwellers? And how can we design to encourage long-term planning, which clearly our hunter-gatherer brains struggle with (see: climate change)? How do we design to counter in-group favoritism and out-group aversion?

There is a reference to a neurologic Internet of sorts, that human cognition exists in its current form because we are a we. We must design the future to nourish and capitalize on this neurologic Internet of “we.”

Apparently — and logically — the oldest known human rituals are related to death. This makes me think again of the Urban Death Project and its model for folding human death back into an urban, natural system.

We absolutely must find a way to bring humans closer to nature and seasonal rhythms in a way that does not harm the environment. If every human was forced to watch their food source dry up in a drought right outside their window, I think this would be highly motivating. If we pair awareness with action — some sort of advocacy or storytelling device related to policy or other community members — that’s my solution.


Reciprocity as the foundation of morality, with the example of lifting a log that requires a desire, and the ability to communicate and persuade a friend.

I have imagined several projects that rely on reciprocity. For example, there would be peace in the Middle East if every Israeli child was bonded to a Palestinian child at birth, and everything limitation of one child was forced upon the other. This would include access to medical care, schooling, clean water, and safe home environment. Can you imagine? If only our fates were more directly, visually, and tangibly tied to the less fortune.

“We are hardwired to reject freeloaders such as the tribe member unwilling to hunt but eager to eat food provided by others…. It’s the reason phrases like “welfare cheat” and “tax dodger” are so powerful.”

How do we overcome hardwiring? I think what I am learning here is that, in my lifetime, humans will not simply evolve out of hunter-gatherer mindsets, outside-exclusion behaviors.

So the challenge is to create built environments that provide (or enforce) opportunities to make choices that overcome mental hardwiring while also providing immediate physical and mental feedback about those choices in a way that informs the individual about their choice’s impact, and also giving the community an immediate opportunity to respond.


There are 9 fundamental characteristics of Homo sapiens that were necessary for the emergence of cities: cognition, cooperation, culture, calories, connectivity, commerce, control, complexity, and concentration.

(shout out for authors who value alliteration!)


“Culture is our collective memory, a way to pass on adaptive behaviors like social organization, knowledge and communication systems, and worldviews from one generation to the next, so that they do not have to be continually rediscovered.”

Part of the problem I observe is when one generation simply inherits the worldview of a previous generation, without any original or modern input. Returning to the example of occupied Palestine, there are many Palestinians and Israelis who have never even met someone of the “other” side. Plenty of Israelis have lost someone to terrorism, and thousands more Palestinians have lost their home, their children, their livelihood, from the ongoing occupation of their homeland and from the direct violence inflicted by Israeli soldiers. But another factor — before they grow up — is that many children in the Holy Land inherit anger and fear from their parents and grandparents, before they have experienced it themselves.

How we can design to prevent mal-adaptive behaviors from being passed on? How do we design to counteract racism, nepotism, sexism, homophobia?

On the one hand, we need some sort of coherent culture in order to function. But on the other hand, there must be diversity and innovation and difference for the health of the system. How can we build a system of culture that has difference as a fundamental part of coherence?

I think language is the answer. Words. Hidden meanings of words, literal meanings, and staying in touch with the changing meanings of words across various contexts and among various sub-groups in the community.

How can I build a way for a city or community to continuously use words, and adapt words, to reflect itself presently, shape a vision for the future, and remember the past? Something like a living language exhibit, with centers in every single school or home or hospital or library. We build a massive online library / dictionary and build an app so that everyone, everyday, is prompted with a new word. School children individually express what the word means to them, or makes them think of, or selects an emotion that it makes them feel. Nurses and lawyers and actors and janitors would also make their selections and entries, and we would collectively create a living library of words. We could (blind) sort by age, gender, race, immigration status, occupation, zip code. This would provide live feedback to policymakers and educators and artists about which language to use to meet the needs of their constituents. And ideally, we would develop a way for citizens to use this information themselves as a tool for bettering their communities, without relying on distant policymakers. It would also serve as a snapshot of human culture in that instant, that future generations can look back on. And we could repeat words — do a trial of “airplane” before 9/11 and after 9/11, and the difference would be clear. It would literally map the linguistic changes of culture with a geographic component.

Noting that we would need a solution to protect again people who would mess up the algorithm for fun, but I bet a good app developer + psychologist could help with that.


“Cognitive science has now shown that the experience of awe is deeply associated with increased compassion.”


“Calories measure the energy resources of a civilization.” This is a good reminder that hunger is unacceptable if we want the earth to flourish. We must feed people, and it is possible.

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