His key argument is that a city is, above all else, a labor market. Any design or plan that ignores that reality is doomed to fail.
The rule of thumb he operates by is that the labor market will be defined by the number of jobs that are available within a one-hour commute, making the success of the city a function of its density and its transportation system.
From an urbanist perspective, Bertaud’s arguments are welcome in the sense that they demonstrate the impracticality of radical plans like those of Le Corbusier, or less extremely, plans for “smart growth” or greenbelts around cities. In that sense, they favor markets and bottom-up processes like those that built most of the neighborhoods and cities that are the most beloved by urbanists today.
On the other hand, Bertaud’s logic entails an unavoidable clash with urbanists in that it calls for much denser cities, eventually, than could accommodate the kind of human-scale neighborhoods extolled by Jane Jacobs and others. It’s also a “mobility first” perspective that weighs in favor of major public works and investments in highways and transit to allow commuters to cross long distances in a regular commute. In other words, he sees a need for most cities to become like Shenzhen, not Paris.
Bertaud endorses regulations to limit externalities, but is skeptical of rules and designs meant to boost “affordable housing.” Having worked in developing nations, he sees rules mandating a certain standard of housing as untenable. He argues that housing, again, is necessarily tied to work, and that people who cannot get “affordable housing” near where the jobs are will simply get their needs fulfilled in the informal market.
Order without Design would be a good starting point for anyone interested in urban planning (I write as a beginner myself) because Bertaud walks through the logic of the economics very carefully, both through theory and data. In fact, I fear that he made this fairly comprehensive book too short-lived by including so many up-to-date statistics.
The book also contains many great examples, especially in the section comparing the affordable housing strategies of New York, Johannesburg, Shenzhen, and Indonesia.
A few notes:
- Rather than bulldozing informal settlements -- i.e., doing the kind of “slum clearance” that so many cities have done, Indonesia, starting in 1969, improved the infrastructure of its “kampungs,” or traditional villages, without removing or restructuring existing housing, no matter how small or inadequate. In other words, the government would roll up pipes and roads, but otherwise leave housing untouched. It was a successful strategy in terms of affordability -- no wait lists for housing.
- Shenzhen is an example of radical libertarian zoning. Homeowners banded together to create ultra dense “handshake buildings” so close together that dwellers could practically reach across the streets and shake the hand of their neighbors. The average interiors street width was less than 9 feet. The population exploded from from about 30,000 in 1980 to 14 million today.
- Housing was considering a factor of production rather than a unit of consumption in the Soviet Union and communist China. But egalitarianism is impossible even with identical housing, because some housing will be in better locations, meaning that the workers in those house will have higher consumption.
- Mies van de Rohe’s Seagram building, 1958, in New York, which has a plaza at the bottom, created new category of land use: Privately owned public space. NYC planners then thought they could replicate plaza using the regulatory tool of giving floor-to-area ratio bonuses to developers for including public plazas -- in other words, leveraging forced scarcity for their own plans. But instead they created a surfeit of plazas and plazas in places where no passerbys would naturally be.