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“Order Without Design”, a new guide to urban planning

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This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. This is how Jane Jacobs opened her 1961 classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. It wouldn’t be an inappropriate opener for Alain Bertaud’s upcoming “Order Without Design”.

While Jacobs was an observer of how cities work and a contributor to new concepts in urban economics, Bertaud goes a step further. His book brings economic logic and quantitative analysis to guide urban planning decision-making, colored by a hands-on, 55-year career as a global urban planner. His conclusion? The urban planning practice is oblivious to the economic effects of their decisions, and eventually creates unintended consequences to urban development. His goal with this book is to bring economics as an important tool to the urban planning profession, and to bring economists closer to the practical challenge of working with cities.

Maybe you have not heard about Alain Bertaud before: at the time I am writing this article, he has only a few articles published online, no Wikipedia page or Twitter account, and some lectures on YouTube – and nothing close to a TED talk. The reason is that instead of working on becoming a public figure, Bertaud was actually doing work on the ground, helping cities in all continents tackle their urban development problems. His tremendous experience makes this book that delves into urban economics surprisingly exhilarating. As an example, Bertaud shows a 1970 photo from when he was tracing new streets in Yemen using a Land Rover and the help of two local assistants who look 12 years old at most, a depiction of a real-life Indiana Jones of urban planning.

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In this book, mainstream urban planning “buzzwords” such as Transit-Oriented Development, Inclusionary Zoning, Smart Growth and Urban Growth Boundaries are challenged with economic analysis, grounded on empirical observations on how cities work in real life, despite what planners aim to create. Frequently mentioning about the unavoidable effects of supply and demand, Bertaud reminds us that command economies such as the USSR or China have failed many years ago and embraced markets for the allocation of resources, but for some reason that has been ignored by the urban planning field. “Planning future land use while ignoring the predictable land value based on location makes no more sense than trying to ignore gravity when designing an airplane” is one of his many claims in this direction.

According to Bertaud, markets are efficient in the production and allocation of private buildings such as housing and commercial real estate. From regulating minimum building standards to “masterplans” for urban growth, the attempt to “design” a city is not only futile but also have the worst consequences for the poor. Scrap masterplans that are only revised every 10 years with old databases: urban planners should become city managers that track urban KPIs on a daily basis, such as prices and quantities of housing, population density and speed of different modes of transportation. The role of planners should then “be limited to fixing streets rights-of-way and designing transport systems that serve the shape and densities created by markets.”

As authors such as Sanford Ikeda and Nolan Gray have pointed out, “Death and Life” and the work of Jane Jacobs was mostly a description of the emergent order of cities, and maybe a prelude to Bertaud’s new book. Unfortunately, current urban planners have interpreted “Death and Life” as a design manual: for example, Jacobs said that she viewed mixed income buildings as contributors to urban life, so we ended up with regulations mandating or incentivizing mixed income buildings. Thanks to her work, many planners today stopped designing strict zoning between commercial and residential or advocating for rent control, but adopted “lighter” but still pervasive regulations on “mixed use” or “inclusionary zoning”. “Order Without Design” makes the point of the emergent order of cities clearer and more defensible, and I hope that in the next fifty years it is able to be as relevant as “Death and Life” was from its release until today.

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