"Cities Are the Answer "
Jonathan Rose Sees Cities as Key to Sustainability
by Michael Mack
Posted April 21, 2010
Developer Jonathan Rose is on a mission – and he'd be the first to say it. As President of the Jonathan Rose Companies, he became a prophet of the sustainability movement long before green was cool – putting into practice the "triple bottom line" of people, planet, and profit as far back as the 1980s.
Rose has been widely cited in media outlets such as CNN, PBS, and the New York Times for his views on cities as the key to a sustainable future.
He brought this message to the MIT Center for Real Estate (MIT/CRE) on Friday, April 2, 2010, as part of the Center's 25th Anniversary Leaders in Real Estate Series. Speaking to Center students, faculty, and staff, Rose stressed the vital roles of city developers and planners in addressing the global environmental challenges.
Rose opened his talk by encouraging every Center student to define a mission for themselves that can guide and focus their lives. "Whether you work at a mission-based company like ours or not, I strongly recommend that you find your own mission – something you believe in, something that can serve as a pathway through life even as it changes and evolves."
When it comes to mission, Rose walks his talk. A third-generation developer, and the son of the late Frederick P. Rose, a New York City builder and philanthropist, Rose has a mission that is reflected in his company – a mission-based organization whose stated goal is "to repair the fabric of communities."
This company ethos of sustainable development reflects Rose's own – combining principles from spirituality, philosophy, psychology, biology, sociology, jazz – but ultimately, neighborhood health. It's a mission rooted in the idea that sustainable development and planning are not only essential to the future of our planet, but are also practical and profitable.
Rose believes that that most important key to global sustainability and efficiency is density – the density found in cities. Urban areas are vastly more energy efficient because of the proximity of goods and services and because of their more fully realized mass transit systems.
The numbers back him up. "Let's say you build a sustainable single family home in the suburbs, and the family that moves in has a green energy-efficient car," he said. "Their energy use would be about 1/3 of the suburban average."
"But if you move that same house to Brooklyn or Cambridge," Rose said, "the energy use would be cut by 2/3." As it turns out, residents of New York City – even those in luxurious penthouses – "are responsible for only about 25% of the energy use and greenhouse emissions of residents in other cities, largely because they drive very little and use an excellent mass transit system," Rose said.
Bringing the matter close to home, Rose said that residents of Boston – "which does have a good mass transit system" – spend about 30% of their income on transportation. In New York City, that number drops to 9%.
Rose suggested that a helpful way to think of how increased density increases efficiency is by thinking of how a subway operates. "You can't profitably run a subway – or even break even – if the density of ridership is too low," he said.
From a national policy perspective, then, Rose believes that urban areas are where most development must go. "Cities are the economic engines of our country," he said. "Eighty percent of GDP comes from top 100 metropolitan regions."
Rose stressed that if we want more energy security, want to reduce our carbon footprint, and want economic efficiency, then cities are the answer. "They have the highest economic activity, the highest job creation, the best access to education, and the greatest opportunities for improving peoples' opportunities and lifestyles – especially in developing regions of the world."
But according to Rose, we must begin thinking about cities differently. "To understand the economic and ecological efficiencies they offer," he said, "we must see cities as complex, interconnected, and dynamic systems. And like any living systems, they need to be adaptive."
They need to be, in a word, resilient. "We must design urban infrastructure that is both fixed and adaptive – hard and soft – that looks at behavior and energy use to create more lifelike, flexible systems."
This resiliency will be important to meeting long-term global challenges. "As our petroleum-based economies face dwindling oil supplies, future gasoline shortages will be inevitable," Rose said. Climate change also will bring reduced resources – because of changing weather patterns, draughts, floods, melting glaciers, and polar ice caps – which will lead to greater conflict and population migrations.
"Projections suggest that over the next half century, 50 million climate refugees will migrate to Europe," Rose said. "Our infrastructure will have to be flexible enough to accommodate that kind of change."
Mass migrations to cities have already been happening for decades. In fact, the world just reached a historical tipping point. As of 2009, more of the world's population lives in urban areas rather than rural, a migration that coincides with the growth of megacities.
Rose said that as populations move from rural to urban settings, nature will have the opportunity to heal and rebuild. And human beings will have the opportunity to take advantage of the efficiencies created by greater population densities, and to rethink the way we use infrastructure.
Rose believes that infrastructure investment brings more value in cities because of the density of urban regions. And the infrastructure that has the greatest impact is the system of roads and buildings. The relationship between roads and buildings is intimate and profound. "Every building, no matter where it is, has some sort of road leading to it," Rose said.
It's a relationship with important consequences. "Buildings are responsible for 43% of the world's greenhouse gases. Transportation is responsible for 32%. What's important here is that the system is responsible for 75% of greenhouse gases."
Rose stressed what he called the most important idea that students in the audience could take away from his talk. "We must move from object thinking – how to build a building – to systems thinking – how to build a building that fits within a larger system." He noted that MIT is engaged in the world's leading systems theory research, and that the Center's MSRED students have a unique opportunity to take advantage of it.
Rose said that his company always considers how local roads and buildings interact before taking on a project. In fact, all of the Jonathan Rose Company’s development work is near mass transit. "I'm pro-choice," he said. "If you develop close to transportation, you give people more choices in their lives," while also reducing the consumption of greenhouse fuels.
He believes that real estate located near mass transit will not only be part of the solution to environmental and climate problems, but also will be better positioned to withstand economic ups and downs.
Inside the Rose Companies
Answering the question of how to run a real estate company, Rose offered an inside look at his own. The Jonathan Rose Companies is a green real estate policy, planning, development, owner's representative and investment firm that currently manages over $1.5 billion of work – much of it in close collaboration with not-for-profits, towns, and cities. The company manages developments in New York City, Westchester, Stamford, New Haven, Denver, Albuquerque, Seattle, and elsewhere.
"There's a very interesting thing that comes out of systems theory called self-similarity across scale," Rose said. "When something is true at the level of the cell, for example, it's true at the level of the entire organism. We truly believe in this. The matrix by which our company is designed looks at all development levels – from the building, the neighborhood, and the city to the region and nation," he said.
Rose also stressed that real estate professionals should practice the multidisciplinary nature of their craft. "I believe that if you're going to be involved in real estate, you should know how to caulk a window, you should know how to manage an apartment – the details of what makes real estate work."
He also emphasized one of his company's guiding principles – "integrated design," a holistic approach to the design of buildings. "An igloo is the greenest building in the world," he said, "because it's a perfect example of integrated design," he said.
An igloo's materials are resourced locally, of course, and are easily returned to the environment. And the walls are thick enough to maintain an inside temperature of 40 degrees simply by using the heat generated by the humans inside. This temperature keeps whale and seal blubber – a staple – cold enough to be preserved, but warm enough to eat.
Rose shared the development details of a number of his company's integrated design projects, one of them being New York City's David and Joyce Dinkins Gardens – the first green affordable housing project in Harlem.
"Affordable housing projects come with very tight budgets," he said. "There just isn't extra money to spend. Even so, we found we could make the building green with an increased cost of only a 1%. Integrated design helps us do that – on time, and on budget."
For example, he noted that boilers are historically installed in basements "because a century or two ago, coal was most efficiently shoveled down. But we don't have to do that anymore," he said. "We put our gas-fired boiler on the roof." The boiler doesn't have to heat the flues for the building, thus making its operation 3% more efficient.
According to Rose, that innovation also eliminated the capital costs of having a flue on each floor. At $10,000 per floor, that savings added up to $90,000. The flue, which would have been about the size of a walk-in closet, could be given to the apartments. "We cut both operating costs and capital costs by thinking more wisely," Rose said. "That's how to get to greener buildings."
The apartments are sealed completely from each other and individually ventilated. The result is units that are quieter, and not subject to the problems of vermin or secondhand cigarette smoke passing from apartment to apartment. The sunshades over each window not only add aesthetics, but also create shade in the summer, substantially reducing air conditioning costs. And $300,000 of solar paneling has dramatically reduced the cost of electricity.
"The density of the building is high, but there's lots of green space on the roof and around the building," Rose said. He stressed that as cities densify, they need more green and open spaces, parks and gardens. "We must plan both densification and access to nature," Rose said. "It sounds contradictory, but doesn't have to be if they are planned together." For example, cities are often organized around rivers – "fingers of nature," he said. "We must restore these green spaces and reconnect them with people."
"Why Do Cities Die?"
As cities become the centers of gravity for the world's population, an understanding of what characterizes a healthy city is crucial. The question that Rose often asks himself is, "Why do cities die?"
He believes that the answer lies in a lack of resiliency. "In good times, cities boom to the very limit of their resources," Rose said. "In bad times – whether because of draught in ancient times or economic crises now – they exhaust their primary resources, which don't have extra capacity or diversity built in."
The mission of cities – like the mission of organisms – is to survive, and the way to survival is through flexibility and adaptation. "Our cities and communities need extra capacity built in, and that comes from having multiple systems in place," he said. "Transportation, for example, should support for a healthy diversity of modes – walking, biking, and mass transit, in addition to cars."
Rose offered an example of a city that has been successful both in ancient times and in modern – the palace built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Constructed around the year 300, the palace is a massive structure located in what is now Split, Croatia.
It was built to house about 10,000 people, but its aqueduct system was built to serve 175,000.
With so much capacity built into the system, that water supply network still serves the city's current population of 138,000 today! The city's resiliency helped to assure its survival for millennia. "As developers and planners," Rose said, "We must design for the space left. It's the space left that is key to the health and survival of cities." And for that matter, the world.