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Cities As Labor Markets

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Cities As Labor Markets

In his brilliant new book, Alain Bertaud offers a new vision for urban planners. May 6, 2019
Cities
Economy, finance, and budgets

Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities, by Alain Bertaud (The MIT Press, 432 pp., $40)

Crack open your city’s comprehensive plan—intended as a broad vision for municipalities over the course of five to ten years—and you’ll find a document that reads like a timeshare brochure. With invocations of “livability” and “sustainability,” you’ll be led to believe that your town, however humdrum, could transform into a veritable utopia. Policy talk is light, important data are conspicuously limited, and target metrics are altogether absent. Pull up your town’s zoning ordinance and you’ll find the opposite: a maze of rules and regulations with little rhyme or reason. Exhortations about sustainability yield to pseudoscientific requirements for off-street parking; appeals to housing affordability take a back seat to zoning for McMansions. Is there a better way?

In his new book, Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities, Alain Bertaud draws on over a half-century of planning experience—including a stint as the World Bank’s principal urban planner—to establish a new approach to city planning. Bertaud argues that city planners have much to learn from urban economics, and vice versa.

Take Bertaud’s idea of cities as labor markets. They’re loud, crowded, and expensive, yet people often want to live in them. The reason: specialization, employment opportunities, and knowledge spillovers. The productivity gains work both ways: for all the high costs and added hurdles, firms depend on cities as well—tech needs to be in the Bay Area as finance needs to be in New York. Increasingly, the economy’s key players depend on massive labor markets, along with networks of institutional knowledge, to find specialized workers.

Though considered obvious among urban economists, the idea of cities as labor markets has enormous implications for the work of city planners. Take urban form: current city planners aspire to nudge residents into self-contained urban villages. But if we recognize productivity, and its resulting wealth, as a function of access to large labor markets, we’ll know that people will always travel well outside their local neighborhoods for work. Once city planners acknowledge this basic reality, they can get on with the work of supporting, rather than resisting, natural urban patterns—Bertaud wants planners to respect the natural choices of city dwellers.

Bertaud offers striking reassessments of existing planning ideas. In one chapter, he reframes the problem of mobility as a question of how we allocate scarce right-of-way space to reduce commute times. He also tackles housing affordability, believing that high-quality building standards may hurt their intended beneficiaries by pricing them out of the formal housing market. Across all planning matters, Bertaud reiterates the need for clear goals, solid data, and transparent policymaking.

Order without Design is no rote economics tract. Its rich illustrations and colorful stories keep Bertaud’s analysis interesting and accessible to any intelligent observer of urban life. Bertaud’s many stories uphold his well-earned reputation as the “Indiana Jones of urban planning.” Tales of surveying with Yemeni farmers are used to elucidate concepts of street design; reflections on working in a liberalizing China, in 1983, humanize explanations of how land markets work.

The book has one blind spot: the politics of city planning. But it makes sense for Bertaud to avoid the subject—his target audience, after all, is the professional city planner, who is politically disempowered in a post-Robert Moses world. Bertaud ultimately sees the city planner’s job as one of advising, not imposing. Planners should deliver the facts and explain the tradeoffs; the electorate, in turn, makes the decisions. In the case of New York City zoning, Bertaud reluctantly suggests that voters desire a system that slows change. And maybe he’s right.

In fact, a complicated game shapes planning policy, and in New York especially, it’s a far cry from the abstract ideal of planners explaining, residents listening and voting, and elected officials executing their will. A more apt characterization might be a battle royale of special interests, sometimes disguised as local NIMBYs, but often exposed in fights over hotel special permits or subway automation. Planners inspired by Bertaud’s reimagined city planning will require an equally thoughtful strategy for responding to the political status quo.

Order without Design is a work with a clear vision for urban policy—a magnum opus from one of the twenty-first century’s great city planners. Similar to Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of the Great American City, Bertaud’s book manages to weave together theory and practice in a way that will be eye-opening to the curious urbanite and enriching to the practicing professional. If city planning has a future, its contours can almost certainly be found here.

Photo: Art Wager/iStock

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