Urbanist Alain Bertaud joins Michael Hendrix to discuss how urban planners and economists can improve city management.
Bertaud’s book Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities argues that markets provide the indispensable mechanism for cities’ growth. The book is a summation of what Bertaud has learned in a lifetime spent as an urban planner, including a stint at the World Bank, where he advised local and national governments on urban-development policies.
Previously, Bertaud worked as a resident urban planner in a number of cities around the world: Bangkok, San Salvador, Port Au Prince, Sana’a, New York, Paris, Tlemcen, and Chandigarh. He is currently a senior research scholar at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management.
Seth Barron: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Seth Barron, associate editor of City Journal. Coming up on the show today, we have an interview with Alain Bertaud. Bertaud served as an urban planner in cities across the globe, and his latest book, Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities, is the culmination of a lifetime working in the field. He was interviewed by our colleague, Michael Hendrix, Director of State & Local policy at the Manhattan Institute, who will formally introduce our guest, after the break. You can head over to the City Journal website to check out new articles from the spring issue and more. Last week, we released essays by Andrew Klavan on Christianity and Western civilization and Shepard Barbash on violence and institutional corruption in Mexico. The conversation between Michael Hendrix and Alain Bertaud begins after this.
Michael Hendrix: Welcome to the 10 Blocks podcast, the official podcast of City Journal. I'm Michael Hendrix, the director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute. Cities are like people, each with their own personalities, and our guest today has gotten to know cities on a very deep level. Alain Bertaud serves as a senior research scholar at the NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management, program led by the Nobel Prize winner Paul Romer. Over a career spanning five decades and much of the globe, Bertaud has worked as a resident urban planner in seven cities and consulted with more than 50 cities ranging from Bangkok to New York. He has also worked as a principal urban planner for the World Bank, giving him an even deeper global understanding of how cities grow. In short, he's something like the Indiana Jones of urban planners, and his new book "Order without Design" is largely based on his personal experience as an urban planner and what he has learned from urban economists on the job. In his book, Bertaud suggests that we should look toward markets to create bottom-up solutions to urban problems, as well as the design of everything from regulations to infrastructure. I should also note we are honored by the presence of his wife Marie-Agnès, who serves as a visiting scholar at NYU Marron Institute. She is an urbanist, specializing in GIS and I should note his book "Order without Design" is dedicated to his wife. It's an honor to have you here.
Marie-Agnès: Thank you, very much.
Michael Hendrix: All right. I'm going to start out with a question that every podcast asks someone who's written a book. Which is, why did you write a book?
Alain Bertaud: Yes, that's a question I've asked myself sometimes when I was writing-- it took a long time. I think at a certain time, you look back at your work, you know, I am basically an operational person. I am not an academic. My job has always been to work in cities and try to see results. And suddenly there is a time where you realize people are always making the same mistakes, that things that were well known 20 years ago, get forgotten and that maybe it's time to put it down together so you can refer to it rather than just repeating it all the time. So that's why I decided to write this book. I also wanted to dispel the notion that there are such thing as cities in rich country and cities in developing countries. Those cities are like people, they have the same physiology. They have different history, different culture, they react differently. So you probably have to find solutions which are different, but there are no such cities as poor cities or rich cities, they are just cities.
Michael Hendrix: So, if you were to try to distill the thesis of your book, how would you do that? Imagine you're speaking to somebody who lives in the city, lives in New York City where we're recording this podcast, loves their city and maybe gets that there are planners out there, that there are mayors out there, that there are people who make decisions about the nature of a city. What would you say your thesis is to that sort of person?
Alain Bertaud: Well, the first thing is to acknowledge that it's the people themselves who are making the city. It's not the mayor, it's not the engineers who develop the transport system. The city is there because of the talent of the people who are there. So those people are doing things their own way. Sometimes we find this way disturbing and we have to understand why they are doing it. So that's where regulations are introduced usually, and regulations most of the time are introduced to prevent changes. Some changes are maybe not useful in the long run. Most changes are absolutely indispensable for a city to survive.
Michael Hendrix: City evolves, it changes.
Alain Bertaud: Evolves constantly. It's a living thing. Again, a city, that's the title of my book, a city is not designed, a city is a self-organizing principle
Michael Hendrix: And this is the kind of tension you lay out, between design
Alain Bertaud: Right.
Michael Hendrix: Which is more top down,
Alain Bertaud: Top down, it has to be top down
Michael Hendrix: Versus the bottom up, growth and change, that happens in a city naturally, right?
Alain Bertaud: Yes, absolutely. So certain things, I recognize certain things have to be top down. You cannot design a sewer system, just relying on the individual initiative. You know, you have to at a certain point. But this a sewer system has to reflect the current city structure, not the city structure that the urban planner or the mayor or whoever decides should be desirable in the future. It should, the system you have designed, should serve the people where they are, at the income they have. And that's the criteria I will use.
Michael Hendrix: Yes. Right. Now let's step back one more time and say what is a city? How do you view a city and why does that matter?
Alain Bertaud: I get back to... a city is a labor market
Michael Hendrix: The city is a labor market. What does that mean?
Alain Bertaud: The city is a labor market. This is very shocking for a lot of people, especially people like probably you and me who absolutely love cities and we consider cities much more than just going to work in the morning and going back home in the evening. Now, we have to recognize that this city, all things we like in this city, meeting friends in a cafe, going to the theater, shopping, going to a concert,
Michael Hendrix: This sounds like Paris, by the way.
Alain Bertaud: Yes. Well New York is not bad for that either. All this is possible only if the labor market is working well. As soon as the labor market collapses, and we have seen that for instance in cities which are depending on only one industry, you have that in the rustbelt for instance in the US, suddenly a city which is very affluent, that works very well, which is pleasant, suddenly the labor market collapses, everything else collapses. You know, a city like Detroit, which had one of the most beautiful art museums in the world collapsed. They were thinking at the same time to just disperse the correction for paying the bills.
Michael Hendrix: You note that if you think of the city as a labor market, that should inform how you think about questions of mobility, housing . . . Unpack that a little bit more.
Alain Bertaud: Yes. You see, if it is a labor market, and let us understand what I mean by labor market. I don't mean necessarily that you will be matched, next to your house, you'll have your job. It means that when you live in a large city like New York, you have a choice between a thousand and maybe a million jobs and you will be able at any time during your career to change up and to look for a job, which is more in your qualifications, or you prefer, maybe because you have friends working in the company, it could be as trivial as that. But this choice among many jobs, this is what is important. And for your employer, it's protocol. The employer comes to New York where it's expensive, more difficult to operate, but precisely because he has a choice among 20 million workers there. And if the employer needs to change his workforce slightly, he knows or she knows that she will find the right people even if they are extremely specialized. So that's what a labor market is, it's this ability to change jobs. In the pre-reform China, many state-owned enterprises had their own housing and there was no labor market. As soon as you got out of either college or high school, you were assigned a job, and you would probably stay there your whole life. That's not a labor market. People were fully employed but not a labor market
Michael Hendrix: If you're trying to connect employers and employees or potential employees and employers, then the ability to get to work matters a lot. So if you have a transit system or an infrastructure system that is in disrepair and falling apart, could that hurt the labor market and therefore the city as a whole?
Alain Bertaud: Yes.
Michael Hendrix: And prevent, hurt its ability to scale as a city?
Alain Bertaud: Absolutely. We see a lot of cities actually, a city like Mexico City or even New York metropolitan area as in fact civil fragmented labor markets because the transport system does not work the way it should. My criteria to see if it works will be that from any part of the metropolitan area, in New York for instance, you could go to the other part, geometrically opposite, in less than one hour.
Michael Hendrix: One hour, that's an indicator?
Alain Bertaud: One hour one way. Yeah. And that's a bit arbitrary. Some people will argue for 40 minutes. If you cannot do that, if you spend more than two hours commuting a day, I think that affects your life.
Michael Hendrix: How are we doing in New York City by that metric?
Alain Bertaud: In New York City the average, if I remember well, I think is 38 minutes. So that means that some people of course add more, but you're qualitatively not so bad. But that's not my criteria. That's the commuting to current jobs. So that means that there may be people, for instance living in New Jersey, who will find a wonderful job in Long Island, but decide not to take it because it will take them two hours.
Michael Hendrix: So there are a lot of people not commuting to a job that would have been preferable, and if there's a lot of people, that could potentially hurt the ability of the city to grow, for you to grow your career, and you decrease productivity.
Alain Bertaud: Exactly. So you decrease the welfare of the people.
Michael Hendrix: Now, this also matters for housing too, right? One of my favorite sections is your section on public housing. Particularly in communist countries, an example before the switch-over from the Soviet Union to present day Russia, how you used to provide houses for thousands of people and the state could say, 'look, we've provided housing, aren't you happy?' But it's, say, miles and miles away with a tremendously long commute. And somehow, even though you're providing that housing, you're not actually satisfying the goal of the city, of connecting people to their jobs and helping the city functions as a labor market. You're actually debilitating the city. Is that right?
Alain Bertaud: Absolutely that's right. Because for a house it's not to have a roof and running water in your house. It's a place from where you are going to go to work. And usually when government, not only the Soviet Union, even the US, when they think of affordable housing or public housing, they think only of housing: a roof, running water, a bathroom and that's it. And this is a terrible mistake. It is also a location. It's access to a job. If you are in an area which is badly served by transport, to get access to the, to the labor market, public housing becomes a poverty trap, where you have possibly a comfortable house in the best cases, but you cannot have access to a job.
Michael Hendrix: And that's a mistake that we've made in New York City as well?
Alain Bertaud: Yes, definitely. I think that the trade-off between the size of a building, its quality, and its location, has to be made by the user himself or herself, the household. It is not something that a government can decide. In a way there are some programs now, vouchers, which allow this flexibility. But for the voucher program you have a long waiting list, which, to me, if you have a waiting list in a social housing program, it is not serious. By the way, the Soviet Union was like that. I remember at the time there was so much inflation, we calculated in packs of cigarettes. So the average rent for an apartment in Moscow was about five packs of cigarettes, which was very cheap, wonderful. Except that people were on a waiting list for 20 years. So, that means that you were still living with your parents when you were 40 years old, but you were on the waiting list. So, again, if you have a waiting list, this is not serious.
Michael Hendrix: I'd actually like to read you two quotes and ask you which one is from an American politician and which one is from communist China. Are you ready for this?
Alain Bertaud: Yes.
Michael Hendrix: All right. So the first quote is "The basic economic system should evolve on the decisive role of the market in resource allocation," quote one. Quote two, "If I had my druthers, the city government would determine every single plot of land and how development would proceed." Which one is which? American politician or communist China.
Alain Bertaud: Well, the first one on markets is communist China, and the second one, is a mayor from New York City.
Michael Hendrix: Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Alain Bertaud: Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Michael Hendrix: Now, clearly, I go these quotes from you, but I'm giving you these quotes because I'm curious, what does it tell us about a politician's relationship to markets and design and the importance of things like property rights?
Alain Bertaud: Right. I think that in his quotation, Mayor de Blasio, I don't think he's contemplating a Marxist thing.
Michael Hendrix: Right.
Alain Bertaud: I found this type of statement very often among many urban planners who think that a city can be designed the way you design a smart phone, or a car and just leave it to engineers and they will eventually create something which performs extremely well. A city is not like that at all because a city does not have an explicit objective the way a smart phone or a car has, that you can summarize in two or three numbers. So a city is made by people, by the people who live in the city. So you have to listen to what they do, observe what they do, and try to manage the cities so that they can, again, be as productive as possible.
Michael Hendrix: Are you managing spontaneous order? Is that a way you look at it?
Alain Bertaud: In a way supporting, you have to support spontaneous order with infrastructure. A city infrastructure is not provided by spontaneous order, but the way, people or firms make trade-offs between distance to the center of the city, how much land or floor space they want to consume, distance to your employer or distance to the school you select for your children, or for something else, is better done by the individual, by individual households, or by firms. And then, when they have made this choice, you have to support this choice with the infrastructure which will serve them the best.
Michael Hendrix: Is there a difference between supporting the order that occurs, and the behavior that occurs in a rapidly growing city versus one that is stagnant or declining?
Alain Bertaud: Yes, it is different because in some cities of Asia, which at time were growing at 5, 6, 7-- Shenzhen had been growing at times 7- 8% a year, so that's been more than doubling every 10 years, you have to make projections in order to anticipate where to put infrastructure in advance. But what is important is when you make a projection to realize that it is a projection. It is not a regulation. That's a difference. When you make a projection and you say the city, let's say the people are likely to expand more to the west and south for instance, and therefore you develop more infrastructure in this area, you monitor what is happening, you monitor prices, you monitor consumption in this area,
Michael Hendrix: These are key indicators.
Alain Bertaud: Key indicators, and if you see that your projection is not quite realized, that for some reason people are moving in a different direction, then you have to amend your investment and adjust it rather than say, 'ah, I developed my infrastructure to the north, therefore I'm going to have a regulation which forbids people to go to the south,' which is what most plans are doing by the way.
Michael Hendrix: And this, this gets back to the two quotes that we had. Those quotes reveal certain underlying assumptions about how cities should be managed, planned, led, and the underlying assumptions of the role of the market and the role of government.
Alain Bertaud: Right. Yes. So, again, I don't want to underplay the role of government. The role of government is absolutely essential to support the spontaneous order.
Michael Hendrix: The role of government is to support the spontaneous order of a city. This seems important.
Alain Bertaud: It's very important. Yeah. But it's, it's extremely important because the spontaneous order, let's say at a very large scale, let's say we take 20 million people in the New York metropolitan area, cannot support itself. It can be really very messy. If you are thinking of New York City as a unified labor market, this will not happen without very sophisticated infrastructure and a lot of measurement, a lot of monitoring of what is happening, monitoring of prices, monitoring of commuting time, monitoring of everything. You have to have numbers to guide yourself. You cannot use just slogans.
Michael Hendrix: What if you're a policy maker and you say 'fine, we're supposed to support the spontaneous order, but I don't like the order that is spontaneously arising'?
Alain Bertaud: Well, you have to give a reason for it. So let's say that you have areas which are periodically flooded and for some reason people do not believe so, or they are, they are convinced by maybe a real estate agent that there is no flood there, and you have a lot of people decide to live there because it's relatively cheap, and they don't take flood insurance or, even worse, flood insurance is subsidized by the government, which happens sometimes. So this is obviously not a desirable thing. The best thing the city can do is probably remove all the subsidy, advertise, again, markets work well when you have a symmetry of information. So maybe part of the role of government in markets is to be sure that there's a symmetry of information. That's why I put the emphasis of free choice on things the consumer can see right away: the amount of floor space, the amount of land, whether it's a high rise, the person who buys a house or an apartment can know that, and location, of course. But there are certain other things that the government should provide information on. For instance, making sure that fire hazards, are taken care of, making sure that the building code, is followed. You don't want a concrete beam to collapse on your head or something like that. But anything which can be seen directly by the consumer should be the consumer choice. And if you look at most our land use regulations, you will see that they regulate things that the consumer can see, but they regulate them very drastically. In terms of floor space, minimum floor space, location, number of floors, and things like that.
Michael Hendrix: Well, I'm actually curious about this, why do we regulate land use to the extent that we do in America? What's going on?
Alain Bertaud: It's an interesting story. It started, I think, with the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution introduced to cities new activities, which had what economists call negative externalities, creating enormous amounts of pollution, noise, smell, and so it appears that, because those were developing so fast, it was necessarily to establish some regulations to say 'you cannot build a lead smelter next to people, you have to put them downwind' and 'you cannot have a tannery in the middle of a residential area.' So those were completely legitimate regulations because they were based on what I would call good neighbor policy. Those good neighbor policies existed in the Middle Ages and at the time of the Roman Empire. There were regulations like you could not, for instance, have water flowing from one private plot to another. The water from the roof or for your sewers had to flow in a gutter in the road. A long tradition of regulating what I call good neighbor policy. So those externalities, obvious externalities, are in fact good neighbor policy.
Michael Hendrix: But the regulation didn't stop there.
Alain Bertaud: Yeah, that's right. Then came the skyscraper in New York, and the skyscraper suddenly created big shadows, especially in the Wall Street area where the streets are relatively narrow, at the time lighting and ventilation were very difficult. Lighting was expensive, either gas, or first candles, but then gas and electricity were extremely expensive,
Michael Hendrix: And there was no air conditioning.
Alain Bertaud: There was no air conditioning, not even fans. So blocking ventilation and light to a building was a serious externality, so the city started having regulations to ask for setbacks. If the building was going higher, it would have to set back from the street so that it would not completely avoid shadows, but at least decrease them a lot. So again, there was a geometric thing to it. You could measure it. You could even measure how much it cost, at 3 o'clock, having to use gas lights in order to be able to read a book. So that was real externalities. And then little by little, planners or mayors or whoever managed the cities-- I don't want to blame planners; planners are only the executors, they are not the ones who really make all the regulations-- so suddenly they decided that they could use regulation to shape the city the way they wanted. And they were those those prophets starting at the 19th century or in the beginning of the 20th century like Le Corbusier. But before that Ebeneezer Howard,
Michael Hendrix: Who all had very radical designs for the order of cities.
Alain Bertaud: Radical designs for the order of cities, and based on morality. It was not externality, it was more,
Michael Hendrix: A belief in right and wrong.
Alain Bertaud: That's right. And everybody should have relatively equal consumption and things like that.
Michael Hendrix: A vision of the good life, what flourishing looks like in the city.
Alain Bertaud: A vision of the good life, but based on virtues. So they were more like prophets, which is fine, if you found their religion, but those were urban planners. If you live in a city you are not joining a cult or a guru, you are just going to the city for a job. So the role of the mayor or the city planner is not to be a moral leader. It's just to muddle through to answer to the demand of the people and their creativity. This is the way it evolved. And eventually, if you look at the New York City Planning Department website, they explicitly say now that the zoning is used to shape the city. So again, when you shape the city, you say, 'well, what is the objective function of a city?' If you shape the city, if you shape an airplane, you want it to,
Michael Hendrix: What are you shaping for?
Alain Bertaud: What are you shaping for? You know exactly. Or even a car, you can shape it for, you have two or three criteria for, for shaping a car, but a city, what is it? And so at the end, it's just the whim of urban planners.
Michael Hendrix: Well, and this is something you get to in the book about the difference between vision and indicators, you talk about the use of certain words like 'livability' as a goal that city leaders and urban planners have, but that aren't necessarily tied to anything concrete. Talk to us about that.
Alain Bertaud: Yes. Livability. Everybody wants to live in a livable city,
Michael Hendrix: Or resilience, or whatever it is. We all want this.
Alain Bertaud: Right. But, if you notice, these are never linked to specific indicators. For instance, livability. Does it mean that everybody should have at least 10 square feet of sidewalk when you go for lunch in Midtown? What is it? As soon as you try to link it to indicators, you realize the fatalities. You could say, 'we have some pedestrian accident in midtown because the sidewalk is overcrowded, and we are going to do a study to find how to palliate that.' And maybe widening the sidewalk, or, on the contrary having the building recessible to leave more space on the ground floor, that's possible. But you have to be quantitative about it, to say, well we have 10,000 people on the sidewalk at lunch on 5th Avenue, and we want to allow them to have that. We don't want to forbid people to go to lunch, therefore we are going to do that. But unless you are quantitative about it, and of course what is true in Midtown is not true in Queens.
Michael Hendrix: And maybe the decision of some regulator to shape the city for a certain vision may not be a vision that is shared widely within the city, or maybe is something where there's a disconnection between the vision and the indicators actually being used. So it seems like we're not actually querying enough, not only whether or not we should have someone shaping the city toward their own end of rational design, but we're also not even inquerying what sort of indicators we have as to whether or not we're achieving those goals.
Alain Bertaud: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. And sometime frankly, all these slogans like, livability, sustainability, nonquantitative qualifiers, are just to cover up for whatever we like as a manager: we like to do that, or there is fashion.
Michael Hendrix: There's a lot of these terms out there today,
Alain Bertaud: Right, and they change.
Michael Hendrix: Gentrification is a big term now, equity, inclusion. . . These are all meaningful terms, but, I wonder how much meaning they have.
Alain Bertaud: They are all desirable until you try to measure them. What do you consider success? If you say equitable, what will be the success of an equitable city? Is it that everybody has the same income? Everybody has the same consumption? No, probably not. So, then, what is it? It could be, for instance, in very poor cities, cities of South Asia for instance, I think that ensuring a minimum consumption of water supply, sewer, garbage removal to everybody in the city is a good objective. But you have to, again, measure it and say, 'we would like everybody in the city to consume at least, say, 50 liters per capita, per day of safe drinking water.' That would be a goal.
Michael Hendrix: You're not saying livability is bad or resilience is bad.
Alain Bertaud: Yes, so if you consider that equitable, I'm fine with equitable, but unless you define it, then it's just a cover up for whatever you do.
Michael Hendrix: Now, just a slight pivot, but I think it connects to some of the conversation we've been having. Talk to us about international role models for a city like New York City. For instance, you spend a lot of time in the book talking about a place like Japan, Tokyo, particularly as it relates to housing. Unpack that. Where should we be looking abroad, maybe even within this country, as New Yorkers or even someone living in San Francisco or Los Angeles, as role models for the kind of vision you're laying out?
Alain Bertaud: I would be reluctant to use role models, because, again, the market represents culture. Cultures are very deep, sometimes not even expressed by different groups. I still think it's useful to look at other cities, not necessarily to copy them as all models, but to say, 'ah, the outcome is not so bad.' For instance, in Tokyo you have an extreme tolerance for very different land uses next to each other, including individual housing next to five- or six- floor apartment buildings. And if you look at it, the outcome is not so bad. It's different from the cities we are used to in terms of aesthetics, but if you walk around this extreme variation in land use, you find an art gallery next to a restaurant and a pub at the end of a little alley, and a barber shop, and then the department store just one block from it. And this variety is in fact extremely attractive. So I would like planners not to say 'let us look at Tokyo and copy their regulations, but look at the outcome and see if this outcome, or part of it, will be acceptable in our own city.
Michael Hendrix: Because there are some studies that say, 'look, we have a lot of history that we desire to preserve.' Is that a bad thing?
Alain Bertaud: No, I think that's completely legitimate if the regulations are doing exactly the preservation which is the objective.
Michael Hendrix: That seems like an important point, though.
Alain Bertaud: Yes.
Michael Hendrix: Some would charge that historic preservation laws, especially particularly in New York City, have gone too far.
Alain Bertaud: Yes. That should be submitted to a democracy. The choice to keep historical buildings-- personally, that's my own PREFERENCE; I think historical buildings or buildings which have survived the test of history, the Chrysler Building, for instance, or the Woolworth Building that I like very much in New York, I think those buildings should be preserved for history. They are part of the inheritance and heritage of New Yorkers and they should be preserved. And I have no problem having a regulation which says these have to be preserved, provided people who live in it or rent in it are free to transform the inside to modernize them. The maintenance of those building is more expensive, so you have to give those buildings to the highest bidders. And usually those buildings are prestigious, so you'll always find people who want to live in them, provided you let them put the number of bathrooms they want in it, and air conditioning,
Michael Hendrix: So it almost sounds like you're maintaining this tension between a sense of yes, preservation, appreciating history, a shared legacy, while also encouraging the dynamism of a city and the energy and vitality and variety of a city that we should also desire.
Alain Bertaud: Right. Cities are always submitted to external shocks, and they have to resist those external shocks. I like the, the motto of Paris. In Latin it is 'fluctuat nec mergitur,' which could be translated as 'I go up and down, but I don't sink.' And I think it's a wonderful motto for a city.
Michael Hendrix: You go up and down, but you do not sink.
Alain Bertaud: You do not sink, yeah. And I think it's a wonderful motto for a city. A city is always subjected to external shocks. Either it could be the price of commodities or, in the case of New York, the port was the most important thing for New York, the Ohio Canal. Suddenly it's not important, railways become more important. They always survive. Cities like, say, Philadelphia or Baltimore survive much less well, although culturally they were probably above New York. At the beginning they were maybe even better managed. So you see surviving by adapting to external shocks was. . . In the city of Mumbai, for instance, the enormous cotton mills inside the city were created during the American civil war, you know, again, an external shock, because the cotton from the South, the American South could not go to Liverpool, to Manchester and Liverpool anymore. So they had to look for other sources of cotton, and suddenly it created an opportunity for Mumbai. Unfortunately, when the cotton mills were not anymore viable inside Mumbai, they tried to freeze those mills and say, 'we still want to maintain those mills,' although they were losing money, and that was to their detriment.
Michael Hendrix: So it's not just in historic preservation, but just generally-- imagine you're the mayor of a city-- you're going to have to balance the demands of people that want no change, let's say on one end, and those that want new jobs, new housing and the like. How should you maintain that balance? Or is there a balance?
Alain Bertaud: There should be a balance, but that's where, in a way, the role of the mayor-- the mayor is a politician. Technicians can tell you 'if you do that, the price of housing is going to go up. If you do that, it's going to go down.' A technician can tell you that. But it's only a politician who can decide 'I want more housing' or 'I want a better environment or better transport.' And these objectives are in fact dependent on the history of the city, and no technician, no person like me, who is just a technocrat can decide for a mayor. I am not a substitute for a mayor. I can only advise the mayor. If the mayor tells me, 'my priority is affordable housing,' then I could tell him what to do. But I cannot tell him affordable housing is a priority if the mayor thinks that pollution is much more important, or something else.
Michael Hendrix: But you would advise a mayor if they wanted to preserve a city in amber, say, that perhaps that is an unwise direction to go in.
Alain Bertaud: Well, Paris is a good example of a city in amber, or close to amber. I have no argument against the regulations, the regulations in Paris, by the way, contrary to New York, are purely aesthetics. There are no regulations on externalities. All the land use regulations are purely aesthetics, to preserve view, vistas, from the Seine River to the Sacre Coeur there is a plan.
Michael Hendrix: So, you know what they're trying to achieve.
Alain Bertaud: You know what they are trying to achieve. And they are achieving it. Basically what they achieve is that Paris now, the municipality of Paris, is looking pretty much like it was looking at the time of the Impressionists.
Michael Hendrix: But it comes with cost.
Alain Bertaud: It comes with cost, an enormous gentrification. All those historical buildings that you preserve have a cost, and only tenants or owners who can pay a high price can maintain them.
Michael Hendrix: And you're saying politicians, and in a sense the democratic process, played some role, perhaps, in saying 'this is a goal that we want to achieve, is to maintain the visual aesthetics of Paris.'
Alain Bertaud: Right. Yes.
Michael Hendrix: Even for all the costs.
Alain Bertaud: They don't mention the costs.
Michael Hendrix: Ah.
Alain Bertaud: The role of the technician, somebody like me, is to tell them 'this is fine. I like Paris like that.' But it means that you are going to have only services in Paris and only expensive services like banks, insurance companies, high-tech headquarters, and most of the jobs are going to go in the suburbs, which is exactly what happened in Paris. Which is maybe a bit what gilets jaunes, with all their craziness and destructive attitude still represented. All those people have been, let's say, put back in the far west suburbs or in the rural areas. They absolutely require a car to get to their job. And the government is telling them to use public transport. Using public transport in Paris is wonderful, or in Manhattan, to a certain degree. But if you live in a small town in France and your job is 20 kilometers away in a sausage factory, there is no public transport which can bring you there.
Michael Hendrix: Now, I'm curious, you talked about the aesthetics of a beautiful city like Paris. Separate from planning, separate from indicators, separate from the technical work that you do, what makes you love a city when you walk through it? You, personally.
Alain Bertaud: There is the aesthetics, that means things that you do not expect, for instance,
Michael Hendrix: Serendipity, and variety.
Alain Bertaud: Yes, but there is also the views. Sometimes suddenly you turn a corner and you see something that you didn't expect. For instance, say Central Park. You are on a relatively narrow street and suddenly you stumble on Central Park. It's a very nice thing. Or from Central Park you see the skyline. This is an exceptional thing that you will not see in other cities. But at the street level, I think the variety of experiences. But again, this is my own culture.
Michael Hendrix: Sure.
Alain Bertaud: As a European, I like to see cafes, restaurants, shops. In a way, the contact between the private area, which is a lot, and the street should be a middle ground where it's a little transparent. Like the Christmas shop windows at a what was before Taylor and Saks. This was in fact a communication between the inside and the outside, which I think is very pleasant. When you have also a cafe which has a seating area outside,
Michael Hendrix: Outdoor seating.
Alain Bertaud: Outdoor seating is something which is pleasant, and again, it's a communication between the private part and the public part, which is not cut.
Michael Hendrix: Do you have more, shall we say extroverted spaces versus introverted?
Alain Bertaud: That's right. And some transparency that you see. For instance, I remember the Ford Foundation did the first inside lobby, which was accessible to the public, with an inside garden. I think this, in terms of city aesthetics is wonderful.
Michael Hendrix: Now, when you visit a city-- you travel a lot, you both travel a lot-- and when you go to a city, what do you do when you first get there? Is there a process that you have when you're getting to know a city?
Marie-Agnès: Drop your bag and walk in the city.
Michael Hendrix: Drop your bag and walk in the city?
Alain Bertaud: Right. It's good for jet lag, by the way. For instance, ,the other day we were in Toronto, and we were in midtown, the hotel was in midtown, and we wanted to see a Sidewalk Labs site.
Michael Hendrix: Sidewalk Labs is investment on the waterfront.
Alain Bertaud: Sidewalk Labs is investment on the waterfront. And we decided to just walk there, not to take Uber or something, in order to have a feel for the transition from midtown and this site, which was a little marginal thing. And just walking there-- we stopped on the way, had a little lunch and something-- that was an experience for me, for us, which is important. You have, in a way, a cross section of the city like that. What I often do, we often do, we take-- for instance in a big city of Asia, like Beijing or Singapore-- we take the subway and we go to the last station, to the suburbs,
Michael Hendrix: To the very end?
Alain Bertaud: To the very end. And then we go down there and we see what it looks like. Does it look terrible? Does it look nice? Do they have shops? And then we take the subway back, or the bus back.
Michael Hendrix: What does it tell you if you see nothing?
Alain Bertaud: Well, there's something wrong there, because obviously people want to have something. I will look at probably regulation, or maybe, in the case of Asia, China sometimes, the cities have a tendency to give contracts to very large developers in one go.
Michael Hendrix: So not incremental developments.
Alain Bertaud: Not incremental, they will give a hundred acres to the same developers in one go, which is convenient for the city, but it doesn't result in very pleasant environments because one developer usually would attempt to simplify his clients, so you will have a lack of diversity. Part of the attractiveness of New York and Manhattan is the size of the plots. There is a standard size for plots, which is rather small, in the metric system 7 meters by 25, I think. Those lots can be aggregated, of course, if you want to have a department store or CVS or something, but the basic unit is relatively small, and that gives you an enormous variety. People there are able to afford a very specialized restaurant or a type of cafe-- a cafe which has books, for instance.
Michael Hendrix: I'm a fan of that. I like that.
Alain Bertaud: So this variety can be done by people trying things. They can try things,
Michael Hendrix: And maybe fail.
Alain Bertaud: Of course. But if they can try at a small scale-- if you have to buy an entire city block before you can try something, you will not have so much trying, but if you can rent a ground floor in a brownstone, or in an old law tenement, maybe you will do something which is useful and pleasant.
Michael Hendrix: That actually seems like an important lesson for regulators: to allow for temporary use, more temporary. More food trucks, or whatever it may be.
Alain Bertaud: Yes. Fragmenting property, the uniformity,
Michael Hendrix: Popup shops. . .
Alain Bertaud: Just the opposite of the visionary cities of the 19th and 20th centuries. Le Corbusier, for instance, wanted for Paris to have a uniform number of towers. All the towers were similar and he thought that was what ultimate thing. And this is just the opposite. You want to fragment. Thousands of architects try their skills. Some will be maybe terrible, some would be wonderful, some would be just okay. And a city is made off of that.
Michael Hendrix: Well, I really appreciate the time with you both. I'm grateful for your work. The book, again, is "Order Without Design." Alain Bertaud, Marie-Agnes it's a pleasure to have you here.
Brian Anderson: Thanks for joining us for the weekly 10 Blocks podcast featuring urban policy and cultural commentary with City Journal editors, contributors, and special guests.