The Well Tempered City
September 20, 2016

For the past several weeks I have been reading The Well Tempered City by Jonathan F. O. Rose. The title is based on the concept of well temperament - a system of musical temperament that allowed multiple notes to be played in harmony. A well tempered city is one where all of the components work in harmony as part of the greater composition of a city. The book is divided so that each chapter refers to one of the components.

The book was an easy and smooth read, and opens with a history of human civilization. As humans improved their EROI (energy return on investment), we no longer needed to focus all of our energy on hunting and gathering. The higher our EROI, the more idle time we had to pursue other tasks, so the more layers of complexity we added to society. When our EROI declined, these layers unraveled. Examples were given over and over again throughout the book. At some point, you begin to realize that all of the economic problems we face today aren't unique. For example, during periods of decline, virtually all societies have a tendency to tighten their control, which only hastens their decline.

Ruins on ruins… Where is the senate? Where the people? All the pomp of secular dignities have been destroyed… And we, the few that we are who remain, every day we are menaced by scourges and innumerable trials.
— Pope Gregory the Great, circa 570 AD after Rome's population fell from a peak of 1.65 million centuries earlier to only 50,000.

A reoccurring theme throughout the book is that cities tend to accomplish their goals when they have a "master plan" guiding their future. Not rigid plans that become obsolete and can't adapt to changing circumstances, but guiding visions that encourage (both government and non-government) agencies to break outside of their silos and work together towards common goals. PlanNYC and Envision Utah are mentioned as examples.

Cities are organisms, and like any organism they have a metabolism with inputs (food, water, oil, electricity, consumer products, building materials) and outputs (waste, greenhouse gases, manufactured goods.) In order to become resilient against volatile resource prices and to reduce our environmental impact, our cities (and regions) should do their best to create a circular metabolism - feeding outputs to inputs.

An interesting concept mentioned in the book is ecodistricts. In traditional development, buildings are thought of as consumers - they consume energy, water, materials, food, etc. In 'green' development, buildings are thought of as isolated systems that should be as self-sufficient as possible - they try to generate their own electricity and they reuse their own waste water and excess heat. But, funding and designing these buildings have shown to lead to expensive, distant-owned, coarse-grained, mega-projects. Ecodistricts are presented as a third alternative - where each building is thought of not as a consumer, but as part of an ecosystem. In nature, no organism lives in isolation but contributes to the ecosystem, so a building should not be expected to exist in isolation, but as an organism that takes a little and contributes a little to the ecosystem of the neighborhood. By connecting together neighbourhood-scale heating, cooling, smart grids, urban farms, waste treatment, recycling, etc. the ecodistrict can benefit from having a mostly circular metabolism, without placing the burden on each individual building. I would love to see this idea experimented with more in our cities.

A large portion of The Well Tempered City is dedicated to talking not about the physical form of the city but the society itself. In example after example, we see that cities that close themselves off to new ideas, segregate their citizens, or otherwise focus on maintaining the status quo — although this may benefit a few individuals in the short term — end up falling behind their peers, and being worse for everyone - including the wealthy. The book goes on to show examples of cities that have benefited by connecting their citizens to opportunity, and discusses the link between the economy and happiness. In the end, we see altruism and we-ness pay off more in the long run than selfishness.

I enjoyed The Well Tempered City. It is not filled with the normal urbanist stuff you expect a book on cities to have; it didn't go into detail about zoning, transit, highways and public housing (beyond the societal benefits of connecting people with opportunities and providing safe and stable homes.) But, I would recommend the book if you are interested in seeing how cities are interlinked with society and history and how we can work on building prosperous and happy cities.