Jonathan Rose Calls for National Housing Policy to Turn to Resilience

Event: Samuel Ratensky Lecture: Green Urban Solutions
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.03.08
Speakers: Jonathan F. P. Rose — Jonathan Rose Companies; Carmi Bee, FAIA — Principal, RKT&B Architects (introduction)
Organizers: AIANY Housing Committee

Dattner Architects

David and Joyce Dinkins Gardens by Dattner Architects.

One night before American voters turned a historical corner, Jonathan Rose of Jonathan Rose Companies laid out a set of principles and achievements that might serve as a blueprint for a progressive national housing policy. Since the 1980s, when his advocacy of green urbanism was ahead of its time, Rose’s firms have prospered by offering affordable urban residences close to transit, constructed to maximize people’s exposure to nature; with the Rose Companies’ four services (planning, development, owner’s representation, and a green real estate investment fund) now in demand, he chooses projects according to whether they advance certain essential principles on a broader scale.

Rose prefers “resilience,” with its clearer sense of systemic dynamics, to “sustainability.” The greening strategies that characterize his firms’ projects — dense urban infill, support for human-powered and public transportation, win/win synergies in resource-management technologies, and pervasively biophilic design (bringing humans close to nature) — are all aimed at helping communities “adapt like living systems to change,” Rose says. One of his recurrent approaches is derived from igloos: “get the skin right and the rest follows.” On the single-building scale or in a wider master plan, he is convinced that current environmental and economic conditions call for development strategies that replace mere “transactional” priorities with those that catalyze transformations.

“Much of real estate investment is about buying and selling and buying and selling,” Rose says. “We’re about buying and keeping.” Treating the fabric of communities as a value in itself, not a rapidly alienable commodity, isn’t utopian; for Rose and colleagues, it’s good business. He offered evidence that efforts to reduce climatic impact are fully compatible with healthy returns on investments: comparing the cost/benefit ratios of a range of approaches to climate change, he pointed out that apart from increased vehicular fuel efficiency, all the steps whose benefits outweigh their costs lie in the building sector. He has supported ambitious greening strategies by a range of architects nationwide, including Harry Teague Architects’ high-density complex in Aspen, CO, a mixed-use master plan with Calthorpe Associates and Claudio Vigil Architects in Albuquerque, NM, Dattner Architects’ David and Joyce Dinkins Gardens in Harlem, and the South Bronx’s award-winning Via Verde with Dattner, Grimshaw, and the Phipps Houses.

As in an individual organism, a building, or a community, Rose believes, the critical principle determining national directions is the interconnection of all variables and the inseparability of environmental conditions from economics. The current foreclosure problem, he says, is largely a sprawl problem. The well-intended National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, which led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), created a legal framework that actually encouraged developers to create more sprawl — a proliferation of small plots falls below the radar of the EPA, whereas a single multi-unit urban development would be held up for five years by impact-statement regulations. It’s no surprise which housing typology became more widespread. Around the same time, Congress rejected infrastructural planning legislation in favor of a regulatory framework that’s easier to dodge. In Rose’s view, it’s time to recognize that careful national planning can prevent such unintended consequences and drive development toward greener, denser urban forms.

The upcoming transition in Washington provides an opportunity for the national rediscovery of integrated planning, as Theodore Liebman, FAIA, suggested during the Q&A period. Rose’s response expressed a belief that our future is in our metropolitan regions, and we need a cabinet-level national planner who can coordinate the work of the housing, environmental, transportation, agricultural, and other relevant agencies.