My Two Days with the Bertauds
By: Diana Petramala
October 18, 2019
The Centre of Urban Research and Land Development (CUR) invited Alain Bertaud, Senior Research Fellow at the Marron Institute at New York University, former Principal Urban Planner at the World Bank and author of the book “Order without Design” to Toronto to speak at three events over the course of two days. I was fortunate enough to attend all three talks given by Alain, and also to spend a morning touring the Financial District and King West area with Alain and his wonderful wife, Marie-Agnes, his collaborator in urban planning.
Alain Bertaud’s discussion at all three events focused on the key theme of his book “Order without Design”:
- It is people that shape cities, not urban planners.1
He believes that cities are largely labour markets and that the market (or economic forces) will drive their development, no matter what regulations are in place. Regulation, if not well thought out, can add additional costs and cause unintended consequences, such as (ironically) contributing to deteriorating housing affordability and congestion.
The idea that an understanding of economics and how markets function can help planners make better, more informed decisions was corroborated by Matthias Sweet (Associate Professor at the School of Regional and Urban Planning at Ryerson University), and Russel Matthew (Principal at Hemson Consulting), Alain’s fellow speakers at CUR’s event on Monday, September 30th.
(The presentations and a video of the event can be found on our website. We will also be making Matthias Sweet’s remarks available in a separate blog as they were quite insightful.)
At an event hosted by the Toronto Association of Business and Economics (TABE) on October 1st, Alain was joined by Paul Waddell, an urban data scientist from Berkley University. Here, Paul illustrated how he is attempting to put Alain’s theory into practice through the development of the UrbanSims model – an analytical tool for assessing the impact of urban planning policy decisions within an urban metropolis.
(Alain also presented at a dinner meeting of Lambda Alpha International’s Simcoe Chapter.)
The two days of events and time spent with the Bertauds taught me a lot and here is what I learned:
Cities (metropolises) are integrated labour markets, and the job of an urban planner is to make sure these markets functions well
While urban planners want to design cities as nice places to live in, in reality cities are a place where businesses come to cluster and people come to look for jobs. Alain argues that the best way to support the development of well functioning regional labour markets is to:
- Make sure everyone has the opportunity to access a variety of jobs within an hour commute; and
- Make sure all households can find accommodation that would not cost more than 35% of their income.
As such, the best thing urban planners can focus on is investing in transportation infrastructure, especially out to where land is available for affordable housing.
Markets will ultimately shape the design of cities and certain regulations can be counterproductive
In his work, Alain argues that markets, not urban planners, shape cities using two examples:
- Density patterns are similar across global major cities, despite differences in regulation. Alain uses charts of nine cities – three in North America, three in Asia and three in Europe (see Figure 1). They show the change in density as you move further from the central business district (CBD). While these cities have different regulations, they ultimately follow the same pattern as a result of economic forces – density is highest near the CBD and lessens as you move further away from downtown.