Nolan Gray is a research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a professional city planner.
Urban planner Alain Bertaud’s new book, Order Without Design, argues that cities are really shaped by market forces, not visionaries.
Since first crisscrossing the urbanizing outskirts of Sana'a—one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities—by Land Rover in 1970, Alain Bertaud has gained a reputation as a “real-life Indiana Jones of urban planning.”
But there’s also a Forrest Gump-like quality to Bertaud’s lengthy resume. His work at organizations like New York City’s Department of City Planning and the World Bank places him at key moments in recent urban history. He can tell you about organizing East Harlem outreach with the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, working with planners in Beijing as the People’s Republic of China began to open up in the early 1980s, and creating brand-new urban land markets in post-Soviet St. Petersburg and Moscow in the early 1990s.
Today, Bertaud is a senior research scholar at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Development. His new book, Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities (MIT Press), argues that urban planners and urban economists have a lot to learn from each other. I recently sat down with Bertaud to discuss the role of markets in shaping cities, what San Francisco can learn about housing affordability from Jakarta, and how an urban planner might tackle the Paris fuel tax protests. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Early in the book, there’s a great picture of you working as an urban planner in Yemen in the 1970s. What was that like?
Beginning in 1970, I worked for three years as an urban planner in Yemen. I was based in Sana'a and my official job was to advise the government and write reports for the UN. But Sana'a at the time was growing 7 percent per year. My real job quickly turned into helping to plan and trace on the ground enough streets so that as the city expanded, people could have easy access to the city.
I’d ride out to a site in my Land Rover and talk to landowners on the edge of town. We would discuss where the streets would go such that everyone had access to the broader street network, typically following property lines. A key part of the discussion involved street widths. The wider the streets, the more land they would lose. On the other hand, they knew that wider streets would give their land more value. So we would talk as I sketched and laid out markers on the ground. Within an hour, we would reach a decision, and a street was planned and traced directly across fields.
That was, by far, the most useful thing I did in Yemen: Increasing the supply of land in a way that would allow the labor market of Sana'a to work. This would allow more people to access any part of the city in the shortest time possible.
You frame cities as labor markets. What do you mean by that?
Sometimes when I read the papers of my fellow urban planners, I get the sense that they think cities are Disneyland or Club Med. Cities are labor markets. People go to cities to find a good job. Firms move to cities, which are expensive, because they are more likely to find the staff and specialists that they need. If a city’s attractive, that’s a bonus. But basically, they come to get a job.
This is one of the lessons I learned when I worked in China in the early 1980s, when it was still very much a command economy. There were no labor markets. People would get a job in a state factory, and they would stay there for life. The factory would provide housing next door. Similarly, state factories were stuck where they were, with the workers they had. There was an enormous mismatch between employees and employers and everyone was worse off.
Some of the most interesting stories you tell fall in these times of transition, as command economies like the Soviet Union, China, and Vietnam transitioned to market economies. What was it like working as an urban planner in those cities?
In a way, the dream of every urban planner or architect is to not be constrained by the market. You believe, as an architect or as a planner, that you alone could efficiently allocate land uses and densities, just like designing a house.
I quickly realized that if you do not have prices to guide you, you end up relying on arbitrary norms. For example, in China, the central government decided that every home must have one full hour of sunshine each day. So you would plug in the height, latitude, and angle of the sun at winter solstice for your site, and that would formulaically spit out the permitted density of housing.
This was not an entirely silly idea! If you don’t have prices to show how land should be used, you must fall back on strange heuristics like this. You try to find something that sounds scientific. The angle of the sun in Beijing at winter solstice is completely scientific. What’s not scientific is setting sunlight standards for the housing of an entire country.
It was similar in the Soviet Union. State production methods decided density. They would have cranes going along a line, and the span of the crane decided the distance between buildings. As the Soviet Union’s economy improved, they started building with elevators, so buildings grew taller. The tall buildings did not reflect high demand—only the technology of the moment. This is why in the Soviet Union, tall buildings and high densities were found in the suburbs and shorter buildings were in the center.
Without prices, they could never accurately predict need. Residents did not pay market rents, meaning that state builders lacked the resources and signals to build more. We used to roughly approximate rents for housing in terms of packs of cigarettes! As a response to these shortages, you ended up with apartments that were subdivided, one family per room, with four or five families sharing a bathroom and a kitchen. That’s certainly not what planners intended.
An issue that you spend a lot of time on is housing affordability. It’s a huge problem in many major U.S. cities today. What can New York learn from a city like Jakarta?
In Indonesia, they have small urban enclaves, called kampungs, where local residents set minimum standards for housing. The city doesn’t interfere—they just connect up the infrastructure. In practice, most kampungs allow for a lot of small units, giving more people choice in terms of housing size and proximity to employment centers. Both are important. Residents need to earn an income and eventually find a better job. To do that, they have to have housing that they can afford in a location that is convenient to find jobs.
On the other hand, Western cities typically require a minimum level of housing consumption, requiring that apartments be so large and provide amenities like off-street parking. Those regulations are well intentioned—they see crowding and insist on larger units, for example. But unless the state can provide everyone who cannot afford this level of housing a free or subsidized unit, this only pushes people further away from job centers, making them worse off.
I compare it to food: You can’t solve a famine by simply mandating that everyone eat 2,000 calories a day. That’s absurd. You have to bring in more food. In the same way, cities like San Francisco have to increase the supply of floor area, and let consumers determine the size of units.
Later in the book, you distinguish between visions and indicators. Why do you prefer indicators?
Very often, with cities, the municipality has two or three slogans, but those slogans are not measurable. For example, you say “We are going to make the city more livable.” Now, this is fine. Everyone is for a more “livable” city! But if you do not have indicators that reflect this goal, it’s empty talk.
I’m not going to make many friends for saying this, but a mayor is essentially a glorified janitor. His or her first job is to maintain the quality of infrastructure and services as the city organically changes. This focus on “a vision” emphasizes top-down control, when the job of a mayor should really revolve around indicators that emerge from the bottom up.
One example, strangely enough, of this kind of pragmatic management is how the Chinese supported the development of the Pearl River Delta. They abandoned their monocentric way of thinking and started thinking in terms of clusters. These clusters had developed by themselves, spontaneously, as a result of the growth of high-tech and export industries. The Chinese essentially said, “This is fine; this is a new form of urbanism and we are going to support it.” Now 65 million people live in the Pearl River Delta, and urban planners are helping to support regional integration.
So if urban change should be a predominantly bottom-up phenomenon, what do you see as the role of urban planners?
Urban planning has an important role to play. With the exception of fire and safety regulation, planners should focus much less on what people do on their plot or in their apartment, and much more on the management of the public spaces, like streets and parks.
Insomuch as urban planners deal with land uses and densities, they should closely monitor trends to be aware of what’s happening. For instance, in New York, household size has plummeted over the past 30 years. Urban planners should be aware of that and address rigidities that prevent the city from accommodating those demographic changes.
An area where urban planners should play a much more active role is mobility, mainly by adapting existing systems to emerging trends. Urban mobility is the key to housing affordability. Improved urban transport makes more land available for housing and therefore allows low-income people to live in areas that are both affordable and accessible to most of the city.
You’ve been involved in planning in France. What’s the urban planning perspective on the recent Paris fuel tax protests?
When thinking of Paris, you think of the downtown historical city, which is well served by a dense subway network. The subway serves 2.5 million people. The Paris metropolitan area is 11 million people. Nearly three-quarters of the trips in this metropolitan area are from suburbs to suburbs. The suburban subway and rail system do not serve these populations—most people who work there are obliged to use a car to access their job.
Now, the rioting has been completely absurd. But I understand why people are mad. The fuel tax represents more than half of the gas price. It’s completely legitimate to have a carbon tax, but the government should have done what an urban planner should do before any decision: Ask, “Who is going to pay for this policy change? Who is going to pay the brunt of this tax?” In this case, it’s being paid by people who are earning something like $20,000 to $30,000 a year and must already spend a lot on transport.
The first reaction of this government was to say, “Oh, we will spend more on public transport!” But that doesn’t solve the problem. If you are a nurse in a rural area, going from house to house, the increase in fuel tax will take away a meaningful chunk of your income. And no public transport will solve your problem. To tap into Paris’ labor market, mostly located in the suburbs, and find a good job, many people must drive for 20 or 30 kilometers. They are very dependent on personal automobiles.
In my book, I talk a lot about income distribution curves. Every time urban planners do something, they should ask: Who is going to pay?