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The Well-Tempered City

What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of
Urban Life

Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health
December 5, 2016

Photo collage from the cover of The Well-Tempered City. Image: Courtesy of Jonathan Rose Companies


How do you describe the soul of a city?

For Jonathan Rose, author of The Well-Tempered City, the musical analogy that stirs his reading of great cities through the arc of civilization is Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which allows harmony between keys, not just within them. This complexity holds space for the essential soul, or principle, of the composition.

At a discussion moderated by Jack Spengler, a Harvard Department of Environmental Health professor, Rose was joined by Rebecca Henderson of Harvard Business School and NPR’s Living on Earth host Steve Curwood. Rose laid out the qualities of a well-tempered city but posited that we lack the will to make equitable cities. Such a city has qualities we want for our inner selves: cognition, cooperation, culture, calories, connectivity, commerce, control, complexity, and concentration. If these operate in harmony, society achieves its highest purpose of taking care of its people. The ancient city of Uruk, in Mesopotamia, exemplified the integration of the “nine C’s” and created a precedent that allowed art, culture, music, and literature to flourish. When these elements are out of balance — in the case of extreme income inequality, resource consumption, greed, or lack of purpose — the needs of citizens are no longer amply met.

Curwood suggested that our problem is “not technological or financial” but agreed that we lack the will. If we assume there is enough money to house everyone, enough schools to educate everyone, and enough food to feed everyone, why are we excluding some from being housed, educated, and nourished?

Where do our cities fall — or rise — in the scheme of the nation’s future? Can our cities be the kind of places where we aspire to create well-being for all citizens? Rose suggested that yes, we have the means to make this vision a reality, but what we lack is trust. Investing in a shared sense of purpose — “we-ness,” in his words — will allow us to develop the types of compassionate cities we crave.