A City without Limits

Envision a city where community, business, and nature are no longer at odds—where all, in fact, can thrive together. Mindful talks with Jonathan Rose, visionary urban planner and cofounder of one of the world’s leading retreat centers, the Garrison Institute.

Illustrations by Whooli Chen

Jonathan Rose has spent a lifetime thinking about how to make urban communities better. It’s no small task, as he outlined in his sweeping treatise on the history and potential of urbanism, The Well-Tempered City, a book that Ford Foundation president Darren Walker called “mandatory reading” for anyone who cares about the cities of the world. The guiding mission of Jonathan Rose Companies—the firm he founded in 1989—is to develop green, affordable, mixed-use housing, and, through its real estate fund, to acquire and preserve affordable housing throughout the country.

Mindful spoke with this native New Yorker, son of a developer, passionate environmentalist, and longtime student of Buddhist and Jewish contemplative traditions about his work, the need for equitable solutions for many of our social ills, and the healing power of great urban design.

Mindful: You’ve been meditating since you were a teenager. How would you say that your contemplative practice has informed the work you do and your dedication to “greening the built environment”?

Jonathan Rose: I’ve been interested in environmental science since I was a small child, and have considered myself an environmentalist all my life. But through my contemplative practice, I began to see the environment as an extraordinarily beautiful, interconnected, co-evolving, growing realm of life—a life infused with sentience of which humans are only one part, even though we think we have an outsized role. It’s given me a much deeper capacity to connect to an understanding of the science while maintaining a sense of sacredness and awesomeness and making a pledge every day to protect it or help it.

I don’t view green building as a choice, then. It’s not optional. It’s an inherent responsibility.

You’ve said, “Truly great urban places have the potential to be the most environmentally benign form of human settlement and are at the heart of a sustainable future.” You’ve also said they can be places of healing. How?

First of all, by integrating nature. We’re seeing this in cities around the world. Singapore is a leader in this regard. They’re increasing density: having taller buildings that house more people so they can free up more space for nature—and nature is a great healer.

Secondly, we can recognize that the mission of human culture is to enhance our own well-being and the well-being of nature. We’re seeing little bits of models where healthcare systems are evolving from just providing medicine to being purveyors of well-being, and there are school systems that are beginning to do that. We’re about to develop a new project in East Harlem that hopes to be a model of this. We see this community as very active and engaged, integrating housing and health, education, environmental protection, and healthy food. There are also contemplative spaces being built within it. And we’re not the only ones doing these kinds of things.

These types of integrated developments sound promising. But affordability is such an issue in American cities, particularly in cities that are thriving. How do you solve for that?

There are 20 million American families today that spend more than 50% of their income on housing, and that’s because the housing is so expensive and their incomes are so low. There’s not one single county in America where if you work full-time in a minimum wage job you can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. There are only 16 counties in America where you can afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment. So we have both an income problem—which is only going to get worse with automation—and we have a housing-expense problem.

On the housing-expense side, we need more subsidies. Many other nations do a much better job of supporting a larger range of affordable housing than we do.

But not everything has to be done with subsidies. I’ll give you an example. In the 1990s, my firm developed a project called Highlands Garden Village in Denver. We turned 26 acres—formerly an amusement park—into a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood, and all the rental housing there has a portion of affordability built into it. There’s co-housing on that site. Also it not only has single-family housing, but many of the homes come with accessory apartments. They’re usually rented or given to a friend, or somebody’s granny lives there, or after one parent dies, the other one moves in so the kids can take care of them. In that way, they can enrich the fabric of a family. We’re also now seeing older people moving into their own accessory apartment and renting out the main house and using that as income support. There are fairly invisible ways to double the density of a community and increase affordability.

Am I correct in thinking that these higher-density, mixed-income, urban housing solutions can actually bring down costs overall, for example by making them more energy efficient?

The greening absolutely makes sense, and we have a standard in the company: We’ll do anything that has a five-year payback or better. And a five-year payback represents a 20% annual return on investment. It doesn’t matter if there’s a recession or inflation, or whatever, you get that 20% return. It’s a pretty amazing investment to be making.

We also think that there are health-systems benefits. When we build buildings with non-toxic environments that have extra-size rooms for families, with healthy food accessible on site, and so on, we believe—and there’s a lot of data to support our belief—healthcare costs are reduced. Just as we can reap the returns of green-building investments, one of the things we’d like to start exploring is whether we can create a system whereby people who are providing yoga or meditation or exercise classes, or running community gardens, can share in the economic benefit of the well-being enhancement.

What would it take to get more subsidies to be doing these kinds of projects, or more buy-in from developers that healthy and green and affordable is the way to go?

The buy-in is happening. We’re not the only developer doing this integrated-community strategy. I’m seeing amazing work being done all over the country. The affordable-housing-development community is a very innovative and mission-focused community. The issue is more resources.

The Denver City Council passed a bill to allocate some of its tax income for an affordable-housing fund, and we’re seeing that happen in a variety of places across the country. We really need more support at the federal level, though.

As I said, there’s an affordable housing crisis now and I think we’re going to see it rise. There’s ongoing income inequality, and people are getting frustrated from working harder and just not getting ahead. My hope is that leaders will begin to see that we need to be funding more. There are many, many people in a variety of different places who are starting to say so. My sense is there is a rising movement.

Do you ever get discouraged?

I’m an optimist, and there are things that are definitely frustrating, but rarely am I stuck on the frustration. I note it, and my mind instantly goes to What’s the solution, what’s the option, and Where can we move?

But I deeply recognize how quickly we have to move, how dysfunctional things have become—from an ecological point of view and from the point of view of human suffering and well-being. Our current systems are failing or are insufficient to the challenges ahead of us.

You’ve been doing this work for almost 40 years. How has it changed for you? Have you had to adjust your vision from what you were you thinking when you started out?

My vision has continued growing much stronger over time, and I’ve learned a lot more and a lot more is possible. I first tried to develop a green building in 1979, the American Thread Building in Tribeca. Back then I would go to a lumberyard and say, “I would like a sustainably harvested wood,” or “Did this wood come from a rain forest?” And they’d respond, “I don’t know where the wood came from; it came from the supply at the wholesaler!” They were basically saying, “Leave me alone!”

Perhaps I would want paint that doesn’t have toxic chemicals and they’d say, “What are you talking about?” There were no standards back then for how you measured environmental health. There were no standards for the green-ness of a product. They didn’t exist. Things like passive-house design were something a bunch of hippies in New Mexico would do, but it was very unlikely that the green-building initiatives of the day were going to scale up to large apartment buildings in major cities. Now they have. The building-science knowledge we have now, and the availability of the green materials, is so much greater, and that makes it much, much easier.

What do you see as possible now that you couldn’t even imagine back then?

I’ve seen fantastic growth in the world of data and connectivity. It has its drawbacks, but it also has enormous benefits. We can now sense what’s going on in our built systems in real time in ways we never could before, and can create much more dynamically adaptive communities than I thought were possible when I started.

Also, bringing together housing and health and education—I didn’t start out with a vision for it, but the vision has really grown over time.

You cofounded the Garrison Institute with your wife, Diana, and one of its signature programs, “Climate, Mind, and Behavior,” hosts symposia on topics including “Climate, Cities, and Behavior” and “Climate, Buildings, and Behavior.” At the core of these topics, according to the Garrison website, is the belief that “contemplative wisdom and practices have a powerful positive impact on environmental thinking and behavior.” You’ve described your own journey as an environmentalist and how your meditation practice influences this. But can you speak to this in a wider, even more global way? 

The Chinese have a concept called Ecological Civilization, which is a vision for how you can have a civilization that’s in harmony with nature, which really goes back to the very earliest elements of Chinese culture. They say that they know they’re terrible polluters now, but they’re going to clean it all up. In 2050 when they’re the dominant country, the goodness they’re going to bring to the world will be an ecological civilization. That’s their aspiration.

We don’t have that aspiration. Our current ecological and economic system is a linear-consumptive system and rewards many things that are destructive to humans and nature.

We need an entirely different mindset. We need one that can marry humans and nature. We need a shift into systems thinking and pervasive altruism, which is thinking for the whole rather than the parts, thinking for all of us rather than just for me. And the most effective, rapidly disseminating tool for achieving altruism, understanding whole systems, and finding balance between humans and nature, I think, is contemplative practice.

How do you get that message out to a wider audience?

That is the easiest answer of this whole interview. The answer is they subscribe to Mindful magazine! And I don’t mean that facetiously. We actually have to shift cultural norms and need media like Mindful to help accomplish that. It’s a critical piece of the transformation.

We also need the programs that are happening at the Garrison Institute. But there is always some danger of preaching to the choir, right? How do you get this information and wisdom to others, to people who aren’t already thinking about this or actively seeking it out?

Garrison essentially does two things: We host retreats of amazing contemplative teachers of all different faith traditions, and that actually connects us to our deep font of existing wisdoms. We have a program called CARE for Teachers (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education) that trains teachers in how to use contemplative methods to relieve their stress in the classrooms. We’re bringing contemplative practices to refugee camps with humanitarian aid workers around the world. We, along with a Zen community, hold an end-of-life care conference every year. We’re continually looking to expand the audiences we’re reaching.

You’re a busy guy. There’s the book, all the various projects with the Rose Companies, and then the programming at Garrison Institute. What drives you to do all this?

What I have been concerned about since I was a teenager, or even younger, was the issue of opportunity. We know now that somebody who lives in the healthiest ZIP code in America has a statistical chance of living 20 years longer than somebody who lives in the least healthy ZIP code. We know that children in the best school districts in the nation have a multiple-times better chance of thriving than kids who grow up in the worst school districts. We know that there are places with much better environmental health and worse environmental health; much safer, less safe; much better-connected transit, less-connected transit, and so on. All these are functions that contribute to opportunity or lessen opportunity.

I deeply believe that opportunity needs to be equally applied and equally delivered to all. America should aspire to bring equal opportunity to every single resident. It doesn’t mean that the outcomes will be the same, but it means the opportunities are the same. Our skills and capabilities to create opportunities have become more advanced over the last 40 years. The pressing need to bring these skills to bear on our communities is much clearer.

A Playground for All of Us

Every successful city must have protective systems to secure itself in the competitive, aggressive world we live in. To thrive, however, cities must also grow their capacity for compassion. Compassion harmonizes humans and nature in a framework that gives meaning to human activities, and it provides the will to imagine and create a better future for all. Interweaving protection and compassion, cities can replace the concept of “stronger” with “better able to adapt.”

Jane Chermayeff spent much of her life advising children’s museums and planning science playgrounds. She often said that if you want to make a great city, design it to work for children. For example, a city that really worked for children would be one in which its children would live in safety. That would require safe streets, with protected areas for children to walk and bike to school and around their neighborhoods. It would mean that no child would live in fear of being shot by a stray bullet. Its children would be free from the threat of drugs, domestic violence, abuse, neglect, or other adverse childhood experiences. To achieve that, the city would need ample affordable housing, health care, and social services, and it would need to root out the epigenetic effects of endemic poverty.

For every child to have an equal opportunity to thrive, a city would need an exemplary education system, with modern, green, light-filled schools within walking distance of home—every school providing a superb education, no matter the income level of its neighborhood residents. Its teachers would receive respectable wages, lifelong training, and they too would live in safe, comfortable homes with sufficient child care and support for their families.

In order for children to thrive, their families must thrive. Such a city would need to be a cauldron of opportunity for all—the immigrant, the inventor, the coder, and the cardiologist—so that each could reach her fullest potential. A city can accomplish these goals only if it is fiscally sound, so it would need an equitable tax system sufficient to meet its needs. As we begin to follow the threads in the fabric of a city dedicated to the well-being of children, it becomes clear that to succeed, the city must dedicate itself to the well-being of all.

And what if we added the health of nature to the city’s purpose—inspiring it to restore the wetlands at its water’s edges, and weave nature into its streets. Networks of parks, trees, green roofs, and community gardens would enhance its biodiversity, feeding indigenous birds and other pollinators. Rivers would be restored, and swaths of forests and fields in the region would be protected.

It turns out that a city can pick any overarching set of compassionate goals for humans and for nature, and achieve a better outcome by realizing it. As long as those goals have deeply altruistic intentions and the city commits to have those intentions profoundly influence every decision, every project, every action that it makes, then the city will continuously evolve toward harmony—human and natural.

Altruism will be its greatest protective factor.

And compassion will be its source.

Excerpted and adapted from The Well-Tempered City by Jonathan F. P. Rose. Copyright © 2016. Reprinted by permission of HarperWave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.


Get practices, tips, and special offers delivered straight to your inbox

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
About the author

Kelle Walsh

Kelle is a contributing editor for Mindful magazine. She writes and edits from Boulder, Colorado, where she loves running trails and doing yoga, and trying to learn to ski. In the past, she served as managing editor and executive digital editor for Yoga Journal. A longtime mindfulness practitioner, she specializes in health and lifestyle journalism for publications including Rodale’s Organic Life and Experience Life.