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Book Review: The Well-Tempered City

The I was born in 1952, when the world’s population was 2.6 billion. Since then it has almost tripled in size. In 1952, only 30 percent of the world’s people lived in cities, but now more than half do, and by the end of the twenty-first century, that number will grow to 85 percent. The quality and character of its cities will determine the temperament o human civilization. (p. 1)

I am participating in the TLC Book Tour for 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.  I received a review copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions herein are my own.

My background, as many of you will remember, is in social and political philosophy. When I had the chance to review a book tracing the history of the city and predicting what the future of living in urban settings holds, I jumped at it. Not only has the topic of city planning been of recent interest to me, but the ideas that we need a way to make our cities more sustainable and conducive to communal living has been one floating around in my head. I love the architecture and history of cities, and the idea that there’s a book out there that studies this really intrigued me. 

Reviewing The Well-Tempered City

Rose’s The Well Tempered City has twelve chapters broken into five parts: Coherence, Circularity, Resilience, Community, and Compassion. Rose really did his research for the book, and the details he presents are fascinating. He bases his book on Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, and like Bach did for music, Rose suggests that a new system replace the existing system for structuring cities. 

The foray into ancient architecture and city planning was fascinating to me. He even gets into the differences between Eastern and Western thought and the traditions’ impact upon city planning. He writes:

Western planning has long-struggled with balancing individual rights and freedom with collective responsibility, because it sees these as two forces in opposition. The Eastern world’s integrative world-view led to the development of city plans as maps of the forces of the universe. The result was a deeply pleasing order with little room for variation, lest the harmony it sought to maintain be disturbed. (pp. 76-77)

The western plan focused on making land profitable. While the Eastern plan had the palace at the center and the city around it, the Eastern model had a street grid to make lots capable of being bought and sold easily – as individual units. Naturally, there were strengths and weaknesses to both the approaches of the Greeks and the approaches of the Chinese. Rose continues to discuss the history of city planning and talks about the Islamic City as well as the uniqueness of the city of Amsterdam. Then, he discusses how all of these influences converged to influence contemporary city planning trends. 

Rose also treats the problem of subprime construction and urban sprawl, focusing especially during the 2000s. As a previous owner of a home built in 1998 by a builder who received a slap on the wrist (2 years in prison) for mortgage fraud, I found this section of note. In addition to talking about the harms done during this mad rush to build houses and get anyone into a house that could be approved for a loan – regardless of whether the individual could afford the loan payments or not, Rose also talks about the role that suburbs play, as a whole, in the well-being of the city and the rise of “New Urbanism,” which sought to correct the problems of suburban planning design and worked to create city centers that were more conducive to well-functioning centers for living.

There are many other topics covered in the book – water and cities, natural infrastructure of cities and the importance of urban parks, green buildings and affordable housing solutions, the problems of overcrowding, and the relationship between city design and general well-being. In all, his treatment of the city – past, present, and future – is thorough, well-written, and insightful.

The Well-Tempered City coverAbout The Well-Tempered City

• Hardcover: 480 pages
• Publisher: Harper Wave (September 13, 2016)

In the vein of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, Jonathan F. P. Rose—a visionary in urban development and renewal—champions the role of cities in addressing the environmental, economic, and social challenges of the twenty-first century.

Cities are birthplaces of civilization; centers of culture, trade, and progress; cauldrons of opportunity—and by 2080 will be home to 80 percent of the world’s population. As the twenty-first century progresses, metropolitan areas will bear the brunt of global megatrends such as climate change, natural resource depletion, population growth, income inequality, mass migration, and education and health disparity, among many others.

In The Well-Tempered City, Jonathan F. P. Rose—the man who “repairs the fabric of cities”—distills a lifetime of interdisciplinary research and firsthand experience into a five-pronged model for designing and reshaping cities with the goal of equalizing their landscape of opportunity. Drawing from the musical concept of “temperament,” Rose argues that well-tempered cities can be infused with systems that bend the arc of their development toward equality, resilience, adaptability, and well-being, to achieve ever-unfolding harmony between civilization and nature. While these goals may never be fully attained, if we at least aspire to them, and approach every plan and constructive step with this intention, our cities will be richer and happier.

A celebration of the city and an impassioned argument for its role in addressing important issues in these volatile times, The Well-Tempered City is a well-reasoned, hopeful blueprint for a thriving metropolis—and the future.

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Photo by Peter Buckley

Photo by Peter Buckley

About Jonathan F. P. Rose

JONATHAN F. P. ROSE works with cities and not-for-profits to plan and build affordable and mixed-income housing and cultural, health, and educational centers. Recognized for creating communities that literally heal both residents and neighborhoods, Rose is one of the nation’s leading thinkers on the integration of environmental, social, and economic solutions to issues facing cities today.

For his work as founder of the investment, development, and urban planning firm Jonathan Rose Companies, he has received awards from the Urban Land Institute, the American Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, among many others. With Diana Calthorpe Rose, he is cofounder of the Garrison Institute and the creator of its Climate Mind and Behavior program.

Find out more about Rose and The Well-Tempered City at

Tour Stops

Tuesday, September 13th: Laura’s Reviews


Monday, September 19th: Antiplanner

Tuesday, September 20th: Wining Wife

Wednesday, September 21st: Andrew Alexander Price

Monday, September 26th: Tina Says…

Tuesday, September 27th: 100 Pages a Day…Stephanie’s Book Reviews

Thursday, September 29th: Ronald Rovers

Monday, October 3rd: The Plaza Perspective

Tuesday, October 4th: Joe Urban

Wednesday, October 5th: Goodspeed Update

Thursday, October 6th: myurbanist

Thursday, October 6th: Market Urbanism

Monday, October 10th: The Corner Side Yard

TBD: Rebuiliding Place in the Urban Space

TBD: west north

1 Comment

  1. I’ve always been a fan of the suburbs, but that is mostly because the city seems to me to be so difficult to live in. I think I’d appreciated a well-planned city that allowed me to get to the places I need to go in an efficient and easy way. This sounds like a fascinating read that would open my eyes to the possibilities inherent in city life! Thanks for being a part of the tour.

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