The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations and Human Behavior Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life


As the 21st century progresses, our metropolitan regions will increasingly be impacted by a series of global megatrends: climate change with attendant droughts and heat waves, income inequality, educational and health disparities, aging, housing insecurity, migrations, and many more. All of these will be accompanied by a heightened sense of volatility and uncertainty. The financial volatility of the interconnected global economy will only make many regions more vulnerable.

By the end of the 21st century, over 80% of the world’s population will be living in cities, which will bear the brunt of these megatrends. Cities are cauldrons of opportunity and innovation, the places that the solutions to the megatrends are most likely to arise, and can be most effectively implemented.

Book Synopsis

The urban development book begins by exploring the evolution of cities, from the first emergence of human culture around 50,000 B.C., identifying the key characteristics that were necessary for the evolution of humans and the places that they built to give rise to urban life. The conditions that were necessary for cities to emerge so long ago are also necessary for cities to thrive today.

There are five characteristics that cities and metropolitan regions can develop to not only help prepare for these megatrends, but to prosper. These are all based in systems thinking, guiding us to move from 20th century approaches to 21st century ones.

These five steps are inspired by an amazing musical achievement, The Well-Tempered Clavier, which Johann Sebastian Bach wrote in two sections, or books, in 1722 and 1742, providing an extraordinary map of counterpoint, an instruction manual for composers and performers organized into patterns of unearthly beauty, a vast integration that demonstrates both the perfection of the whole and the role of the individual within it. Using a new tuning system called temperament and a new technology, the clavier (a forerunner of the piano), Bach’s music flowed across keys in ways that no one had ever explored before. The Well-Tempered Clavier was composed to align our highest human aspirations with the sublime harmony of nature. It is a model of the task we have today in designing and reshaping our cities.

The first characteristic is coherence—moving from siloed strategies to integrated ones. Too often, we encounter agencies whose data doesn’t connect, whose policies don’t work together, and whose isolated funding streams make systemic outcomes hard to achieve. But superb examples of regional vision setting, integrated planning, aligned governance, and evidence-based solutions are rising, aimed at achieving effective, collective impact on their communities. The key that ties them together is coherence.

The second characteristic is circularity—moving from linear systems to connected ones. Cities are reducing the stress of droughts by purifying and recycling waste water back into drinking water supplies, and resource constraints by recycling their solid wastes into compost, new construction materials, etc. Cities are connecting their energy and information systems into micro-grids that recycle waste heat, and integrate renewables, storage, generators, and base power systems to be much more resilient to power outages. A circular economy will help a region protect itself from global economic volatility.

The third characteristic is resilience—integrating climate resilience and cognitive resilience. On the climate side, resilience begins with greener buildings, adding trees, parks, and gardens to use nature to cool our cities, absorbing storm water and our tensions. On the cognitive side, our cities need refuges from the onslaught of stress and trauma our residents endure. Resilient strategies increase cities physical and cognitive ecologies’ capacity to adapt to change, and to heal under stress.

The fourth characteristic is community—recent science shows that the neighborhoods in which we live have an outsized effect on the quality of our lives, and the future of our children. Neighborhoods that integrate a range of safe affordable housing, excellent cradle-to-grave education and health care, transportation options, parks and open spaces, and access to jobs enhance their residents’ well-being. Add in vibrant social networks, and a commitment to equality, and all of our neighborhoods can become communities of opportunity.

The fifth characteristic is compassion—when individuals try to maximize their own benefits, systems collapse. When individuals are committed to optimizing their communities, they thrive. This requires a worldview that understands that all of life is part of an interdependent system, and only when we infuse that system with compassion for all of life will it progress through the megatrends. We cannot succeed alone. Our neighborhoods, cities, regions, and nations must all recognize that we are all in this together. Altruism is our greatest defense.

Today’s cities are technical marvels, reflecting civilization’s enormous scientific strides. Human creativity has generated unimagined power and prosperity, although that prosperity is not equally distributed. Yet most of our cities have lost their original higher purpose. The goal of this book is to knit these threads—our technical and social potential and the generative power of nature—back together, towards a higher purpose for cities.

In a time of increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, the well-tempered city has systems that can help it evolve toward a more even temperament, one that balances prosperity and well-being with efficiency and equality in ways that continually restore the city’s social and natural capital. Many of these qualities are already at work today in cities around the world. The purpose of this city planning book is to show how they might come together.

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