Creating Urban Density With Reflective Spaces: A Q&A With Green Developer Jonathan Rose

Back when we were at the Greater & Greener Conference, we attended a panel by green real estate developer Jonathan Rose. Our ears perked up when he mentioned incorporating a labyrinth into one of his housing projects — as you might know about us, we love labyrinths and believe that quiet, nature-filled spaces in urban areas are necessary for residents’ mental health and for unifying a community.

Rose has a storied past — he’s led the way in developing green affordable housing and continues to focus on green building and transportation, as well as mental and phsyical health of the residents in his buildings. We sat him down for a Q&A where we discussed how to incentivize green, healthy developments; why we need more reflective spaces as urban density increases; and much more.

Open Voices: You founded your company in 1989. What moved you to address green development issues before it became a popular movement?

Jonathan Rose: Since I was a child I’ve been interested in environmental issues, and have always viewed building green communities – the rebuilding of communities as a development in environmental and social strategy. It’s all three. What moved me to address green development issues before it became popular is a deep understanding that development practices were harming the environment and we had to find a better way.

The fact is that back then development companies were just a whole development system. So, for example, in the late ’70s and early ’80s I was doing development and I would go to a lumber store and say I would like wood that’s – there was no phrase, sustainably harvested wood. There was no language. I’d say I would like to know that this wood comes from responsible forests rather than irresponsible forests. And they’d look at me like I was nuts. “We don’t know where our wood comes from, it comes from the supplier.”

So the idea of supply chain, the idea of responsible wood versus irresponsible wood, there was no system. We knew about toxicity and off-gassing then, but you couldn’t specify paints that were not off-gassing, et cetera. The only thing that was kind of clear was that florescent bulbs use less electricity than incandescent bulbs. We just didn’t have the evaluation tools, we didn’t have the rating systems, we didn’t have the supply chain knowledge, so it was very difficult. And so what has changed over the last 20 years is that all these things have come into place. You can now identify the greenest of materials. You can understand their chemical constituents. You can understand how they’re made, where they came from. Same with wood and everything. So from a material point of view, we’ve dramatically advanced.

Open Sacred: What else has changed in the past 20 years?

Jonathan Rose: The other thing is that in the ’80s I proposed that high density urban development next to mass transit was more environmentally responsible than low density suburban development, and most people disagreed with me. There was this kind of general perception that the city was dirty and evil and that more development in the city was only worse and was only more traffic creating. Now we know the higher the density, the less traffic because more people walk. So everything has changed.

Open Voices: When we were at your panel at the Greater & Greener Conference, you talked about a development of yours that incorporated a labyrinth.

Jonathan Rose: I deeply believe that as we increase the density of our cities that we also need to create the ability for people to have contemplative, reflective spaces. And so, we try and create a range of experiences for our residents that go from social and communal to more private and contemplative. And so we have two projects that have labyrinths in them, and many projects that have yoga or meditation spaces or places for more quiet reflection. We think that’s actually a key component of being able to live in more dense communities.

Open Voices: On your website, you say that “The dominant current model of growth fails to take into account economic, environmental and social externalities and long term effects.” How do we successfully move towards a new, more sustainable model of growth in the United States, in your opinion?

Jonathan Rose: We really need a new economic model that properly evaluates the positive and negative externalities of our actions. So, for example, when a manufacturer or an energy plant produces electricity at a certain cost but completely ignores the cost of the polluting of the water and the air and the mountaintop mining that may be related to coal if they’re burning it, it’s not a true economic cost. And the rest of society is bearing that. And so, we need an inclusive model so that we can really make a whole economic decision. We currently have a model in which often the lowest cost producer is the one that’s just able to shift the most externalities onto the unsuspecting public. So that’s one thing that we need to do.

What’s interesting is in the evolution of society, we have moved from linear thinking to whole systems thinking and whole systems evaluation. Our economic system has not done that. So it’s really about whole systems economics. And so there’s two pieces. Number one is sharing the costs properly. And then the second question is, is growth really the proper measurement, or is quality the proper measurement? So out of the growth model, if 90% of Americans got sick with cancer and 10% took care of them, you would actually might see the GDP of America rise because of all the huge healthcare expenditures that we all of sudden had. But it doesn’t mean that we’re better off. And so we really need to move towards a human and natural systems well-being measurement system to really be able to evaluate what our objectives are. And that may not mean growth. It may mean growth of quality of life versus the growth of quantity.

Open Voices: So how do we incentivize developers and planners to do these things that are better for our quality of life and for the environment?

Jonathan Rose: We have regulatory tools, so we need to regulate against bad things happening. So, for example, we can regulate so that materials with toxic chemicals are not used. There is no such thing as level playing field and there is no such thing as a free market. Those are illusions. Every part of our system has biases in favor and against certain things. We need to understand those biases and them shift them towards the outcomes which lead to the best social, economic and environmental outcomes. And I think those three are intertwined. I want us to have a prosperous society, but I want to have a society that’s prosperous from a whole systems point of view.

Open Voices: I had read that some of the health things you do in your developments, you work to make stairways more attractive so people will use the stairs in the buildings, for example. Can you talk about other ways that your developments work to impact human health?

Jonathan Rose: The first thing is using nontoxic material, or as low toxic as we can. Having paints and glues and kitchen cabinets and carpets that don’t off-cast really makes a difference in terms of just indoor air quality. Having larger windows, bringing in more daylight, and we focus a lot on cross-ventilation, so then you get into kind of health and energy savings. So we try and create apartments with cross-ventilation. We put in ceiling fans so that they can get fresh air and cooler air at lower cost and not having to air condition. So those are some of the things we do.

And one of our projects has a branch of Montefiore Hospital that has a health clinic on the ground floor. We’re starting another project that’s now in construction in Philadelphia called Paseo Verde that also has a health clinic in the ground floor. So that’s so we can bring health services to the residents. And also having exercise rooms is very, very important, kind of modeling the idea that one can be physically active in a project. And then we also really think the contemplative spaces like the labyrinths are part of mental health.