Denver Development

Developer Jonathan Rose on The Well-Tempered City, Testing Ideas in Denver

Cities in a rapidly urbanizing world are facing a plethora of challenges: climate change, natural-resource depletion, population growth, income inequality, and education and health disparity. By 2080, cities will be home to 80 percent of the world’s population, straining the resources of America’s urban centers even further.

In his book The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life, developer Jonathan Rose examines the challenges facing cities around the globe and examines the history of the world’s most successful cities and fallen empires in an effort to prepare for the future. “Growth in cities is primarily coming from people moving from rural areas. Cities are cauldrons of opportunity that are paired with opportunity declining in rural areas,” says Rose, a New York-based developer who has done a number of projects in Denver.

The areas Rose has researched is extensive, ranging from religion to transportation and the rise of the suburbs to climate change and how all have impacted the planning of the world’s cities.

Rose is attending a Denver City Council working session this morning that will discuss the city’s proposed affordable-housing plan. This weekend, he'll give the keynote at the Telluride Institute's Ideas Festival 2016: Housing Our Community. On Monday, he'll be back in Denver to speak at the EcoDistricts Summit 2016, a national conference dedicated to neighborhood- and district-scale sustainability, before heading to the Tattered Cover in LoDo, where he'll be joined by Governor John Hickenlooper for a discussion and book signing.

In The Well-Tempered City, Rose condenses a lifetime of research and firsthand experience into a model for designing and reshaping cities with a goal of equalizing their prospects for opportunity. “The most competitive cities have the most flat or equal landscape of opportunity,” Rose says. “We can measure all of this and make decisions to achieve these outcomes.”

His five-pronged approach includes:

• Coherence: “When a community has a vision and a plan for how to carry it out, and is able to coherently integrate its disparate elements, then it begins to be well tempered,” Rose writes. That means creating an integrated, coherent planning system where government does not operate in silos.

• Circularity: Today’s cities are organized in a linear system, with 90 percent of what enters a city leaving as waste six months later. But if we shift from a linear system to a circular system based on recycling, our cities will be more resilient. “As California has discovered, it can purify its wastewater and turn it back into drinking water; it can recycle its soda bottles by turning them into Patagonia vests, creating jobs and resource independence at the same time.”

• Resilience: The ability to bounce forward when stressed is the key to cities’ ability to adapt to the volatility of the 21st century. Climate change and volatile weather come into play here. Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy or ten feet of snow can cripple a city, but it’s how cities respond that is critical. “Responding to changing circumstances can be difficult, because it is in our nature to want to return to the status quo rather than to risk moving on to an uncertain future, even if it might be a better one.”

• Community: Because humans are social animals, happiness is not just an individual state, it’s a collective state. “When too many residents of a neighborhood suffer cognitive damage from the stresses of poverty, racism and trauma, toxins, housing instability and poor schools, their neighborhoods are less able to deal with the issues.”

• Compassion: “A key condition for restoration is compassion, which provides the connective tissue between the me and the we, and leads us to care for something larger than ourselves,” Rose writes. “Caring for others is the gateway to wholeness for ourselves and for the society of which we are part.”

Rose’s projects in Denver are illustrative of the principles in his book. The development of Highland Garden Village on the site of the old Elitch Gardens amusement park at West 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street provides healthy food (Sprouts), health care, parks and open space, and mixed-income housing. The Aria Denver project at West 52nd Avenue and Federal Boulevard, which he is partnering on with Urban Ventures, promotes healthy living with community gardens, production gardens, pocket parks and pathways for residents with a variety of income levels.

“The ideas in the book are not just abstract,” Rose says. “Denver is the first place I made them real.”

Hear Jonathan Rose talk about his ideas in The Well-Tempered City at the Tattered Cover in LoDo, 1628 16th Street, at 7 p.m. on Monday, September 12. Admission is free. For more information, go to