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Order Without Design

How Markets Shape Cities

Alain Bertaud | MIT Press (2018)

In this book, Alain Bertaud makes the argument that urban planning can be improved by using the tools of urban economics to make more informed decisions about the regulations and infrastructures of cities.


Book Summary

Chapter 1

The book begins by defining and contrasting the fields of Urban Planning and Urban Economics. Bertaud defines Planning as a craft learned through practice, a process of decision making that is generally rooted in subjective qualities like "livability" and "sustainability". He defines Urban Economics as a quantitative science based on theories, models, and empirical evidence, and as primarily concerned with publishing papers in academic settings.

He lays out the goal of the book as being a map to join these two fields that should be deeply connected, yet are not meaningfully collaborating in the real world. One has a loose and subjective process that makes a tangible impact, while the other has a strong quantitative rigor with only abstract outcomes. By uniting the fields, we could have a combined discipline where cities are shaped by a rigorous and analytical process.

To set the stage, he tells of one of his early experiences in the realm of urban planning, when he was responsible for signing off on building permits in Tlemcen, Algeria. Algeria was a recently independent French colony, and so it still used the French building codes as its legal document for what was allowed to be built. In his experience, he found that this document which was designed by and for the French countryside and all of its economic, climate, and cultural context, made for extremly poor outcomes in the city of Tlemcen, with a much different set of contexts.

By enforcing the regulations, I was forcing on local people an inadequate design and an inefficient use of scarce land in the name of abstract norms established long ago in a distant land with different climate and culture.

By following the rules laid out in the code, the majority of permits had to be denied for reasons that made no logical sense in the local context. He was dismayed that he was then responsible for slowing down the necessary construction of housing that was desperately needed at the time, and encouraging growth of informal settlements at the edge of the city. He ultimately met with the regional prefect to explain the predicament, and they both agreed to throw away the building code document and make decisions based on the author's professional judgement in a case by case basis.

He follows this story by explaining that this backwards approach to urban planning is still widespread today, in the form of zoning codes. While acknowledging that urban regulations are still a necesary tool, he takes issue with the fact that many modern zoning codes are barely modified from their initial implementation nearly a century ago, and that there are generally no guidelines or processes to review the impact that they have. As a result, many zoning regulations strangle cities without any quantitative way to assess or amend them.

Planners who design regulations that severely limit the extension of cities ... are often surprised by increasing land prices and attribute them to external factors for which they were not responsible.

Next, Bertaud tells the story of his first professional collaboration with an Urban Economist, Jim Wright. While working together in Port-au-Prince, Bertaud and Wright found their skillsets highly complimentary; Bertaud could process a dynamic city and generate useful, specific, and granular data about the functions of the urban environment, and Wright could analyze that data to create new insights based on models of urban economic theory. Together they were able to prove with enough evidence that Port-au-Prince could become more affluent if it were to grow rather than shrink (which is what the assumption had been before their work), and they were also able to show what infrastructures would be necessary to reach that outcome.

The next story comes from his time in China in 1983, where he saw the outcomes of what happens to land use patterns when there are no land prices. Essentially, because land couldn't be bought and sold, there was no way to signal better land use, and no way to fund its development. In a market economy, the potential higher rents from a better use can both signal and pay for the land's redevelopment. In the 20th century command economies, they ended up with cities where development is inverted, with industry and low density housing in the center, and newer buildings and more density growing out from it. Bertaud points out that during its period of reform, China adopted a market mechanism for its land allocations.

Some pressure groups would like a city to stay still; other groups would prefer to accelerate changes. Each of these groups has a valid point to make. In many cases urban economics could help provide a solution based on quanitative reasoning rather than on an arbitrary normative prference.

The first chapter wraps up by reiterating the strengths and shortcomings of both the Urban Planning and Urban Economics professions, and proposing the need for bringing them together to create better outcomes for cities around the world.

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November 24, 2023

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Through my work on /livable city advocacy in my home city, I've met a lot of people with different lenses on how to look at some of the core issues. One of those people has been one of the most analytical and data driven policy thinkers I've ever met, and while at first the approach came across as cold to me, over the course of a year it became harder and harder for me to deny how well informed his thoughts were and how clearly his approach reflected the reality I was seeing in urban policy every day. The book he would frequently bring up as a primary influence to him was "Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities".

As someone who is both highly critical of the economic structure of Capitalism, but simultaneously holding a worldview centered on holarchy and emergent complex systems, there is a deep tension around the notion of "markets". Markets are not strictly tied to Capitalism, but markets are integral to its broader philosohpy. At the same time, markets are the same shape as one of the key information channels in an emergent and distributed complex system. As I solidified my distrust in The Market(tm) and began to cautiously embrace lower-case "m" markets as a social communication channel, I began to finally read this book.

The first chapter begins by outlining the author's experience as an urban planner starting in the 60s, his first experiences that showed him the cracks in traditional planning logic, and his first meaningful encounter with an urban economist that gave him deeper insight as to what actually caused those cracks in planning logic. It immediately touched on concrete examples of issues around /zoning and land prices, which is something we are dealing with right now, and I think that I'll come out of this book with a much more grounded understanding of urban economies and planning policy.