Publications

- February 1, 2022: Vol. 9, Number 2

5 Questions: Building cities to create opportunities for all

by Mike Consol with Jonathan Rose

As far back as the early 1980s when much of the industry was prioritizing suburban development, Jonathan Rose, founder and president of New York-based Jonathan Rose Cos., proposed mixed-use, mixed-income, green transit-oriented urban development. His 2017 book, The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life, has informed urban planning thinking from Sao Paolo to Bhutan, where he is helping to guide the nation’s regional and urban planning.

The Urban Land Institute recently dubbed him one of the housing industry’s most respected practitioners of green, affordable and mixed-income community development, as well as the winner of its 22nd annual ULI Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development.

What does your organization’s “communities of opportunities” program encompass?

For generations, the aspiration of the United States to be a land of opportunity for all has been a core value of our nation. However, millions of low-income families live in communities disconnected from opportunity, where their financial status, race and zip code determine their access to education, jobs, food and many other essential services. Research increasingly highlights that poor housing and neighborhood conditions have detrimental effects on a wide range of life outcomes including health, education, employment and lifetime earnings. The goal of our community of opportunity program is to develop a range of affordable strategies that can enhance the connections between people and the pathways to opportunity, improve the health of the buildings in which they live, result in better life outcomes, and potentially spark a ripple effect in surrounding neighborhoods.

You have long advocated mixed-income urban projects, while most others prioritized suburban development. What did you see that others did not?

Since I was quite young, I wanted to bring together the creative community-building capability of real estate development with environmental solutions and social justice, so I may have been more attuned to such solutions than others. Many of the elements of mixed-use, mixed-income, green transit-oriented urban development have enriched communities for decades. Many of our most treasured communities have had vibrant mixes of incomes and people, as well as mixes of uses. The issue was that not only did the development community ignore these solutions, but the environmental and social justice nongovernmental organizations also opposed them. The social justice activists looked at the rise in homelessness and opposed mixing incomes because they felt every dollar spent creating the middle-income portion of mixed-income housing should be spent creating housing for the very poor. And government regulators had been raised on the thesis that the separation of uses was more “modern.” It was not yet a time in which there was much support to integrate these issues.

What is working in affordable housing for both residents and investors?

For investors, affordable housing has the benefit of very stable income and high occupancy as there is such a supply/demand mismatch in most communities. Thus, affordable housing produces very reliable cash flow, with reduced market risks. It also is a social good, which is of interest to impact investors. When we add our work to reduce the environmental impacts of the housing, and to increase social services, market-rate returns and multiples, the category becomes very compelling.

You talk of “mission-driven real estate development.” Put some flesh on the bones of that concept.

Our company was founded with the mission to regenerate communities. Every element of what we do is grounded in our environmental, social and economic missions. I have been taking these ideas further recently by asking, “How can a business not only be a force for regeneration, but also be a regenerative business.” These thoughts are reflected in an article recently published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. (See article at this link: https://bit.ly/3qlm7TI)

How do you see cities changing?

We can see signs of the future already. Cities will be denser, but their density will be matched with increased green space. The best will be biodiverse and form connected corridors along rivers and other natural elements. We can see this in a wide range of cities, from Singapore to New York City’s Hudson River waterfront. Cities are making significant pledges to be fossil fuel free. To get there, they will have to invest in the electrification of all of their buildings, cars, busses and trains. As a result, they will be quieter and cleaner. Many of the world’s cities already are extremely diverse, the best will develop the educational and social systems to more equally distribute opportunity. They will generate new forms of cultural production, while maintaining the more traditional ones — and many people will want to live in them.

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