Discover more from Vancouver Needs More Housing
Alain Bertaud, Order Without Design (2018)
Urban land economics for urban planners.
I recently read Alain Bertaud’s Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities (2018), on Albert Huang’s recommendation. It’s very readable, and Bertaud illustrates the concepts he’s describing with a wide range of examples from around the world, including post-revolutionary Algeria, Haiti, China, Russia, India, France, Yemen, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
Bertaud suggests that urban planning suffers from lack of knowledge of urban land economics. Basically, people don't move to cities randomly, they move to cities because that's where jobs are. And then within a city, at a location that's more centrally located, and thus has more jobs that are reachable within about 30 minutes of travel time, the price of land is going to be higher than at a location that's further out. You get a "gradient" where land is more expensive in a central location, less expensive as you go further out. (The steepness of the gradient depends on mobility, how easy or hard it is to travel within the city.)
As a result, what happens is that in a central location, people consume less land, by living in apartments instead of detached houses, and by living in taller buildings. If taller buildings aren’t allowed, you need to consume more expensive land to live in a central location, and only rich people are going to be able to live there.
(In Vancouver, this is basically the story of how the West End went from being a single-family area to having lots of high-rises. Today, though, it seems like local opposition to tall buildings is strongest in the city of Vancouver, especially on the west side, and it's much less strong in Burnaby, Coquitlam, and Surrey. So we're getting 80-storey buildings in Burnaby, and only 40-storey buildings in Vancouver. Basically opposition is holding down buildings in Vancouver, and it's like pushing down on a balloon: it creates more pressure further out.)
From chapter 1:
We are facing a strangely paradoxical situation in the way cities are managed: the professionals in charge of modifying market outcomes through regulations (planners) know very little about markets, and the professionals who understand markets (urban economists) are seldom involved in the design of regulations aimed at restraining these markets. It is not surprising that the lack of interaction between the two professions causes serious dysfunction in the development of cities. It is the story of the blind and the paralytic going their own ways. The planners are blind: they act without seeing. The economists are paralyzed: they see but do not act.
The main objective of this book is to improve operational urban planning, as practiced in municipal planning departments, by applying urban economists’ knowledge (and models) to the design and planning of regulations and infrastructure. Urban economists understand the functioning of markets, while planners are often baffled by them. Unfortunately, the very valuable knowledge that has accumulated in urban economics literature has not had much impact on operational urban planning. My aim is not to develop a new urban theory but to introduce already existing urban economics knowledge into urban planning practices.