What should I ask Alain Bertaud?

He is an urbanist scholar at NYU, and also a lifetime practitioner, here is my review of his recent excellent book Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities.  Here is his home page.

This will be a live event in New York City, September 9, register here.

So what should I ask him?


As his opinion about the Shared-Space urban design philosophy, in which streets have no traditional road markings, signs or traffic signals, and the distinction between "road" and "pavement" is blurred. The behavior of its users is more influenced and controlled by natural human interactions than by artificial regulation.

In 1967, Sweden switched from left-hand driving (like the UK) to right-hand driving. Per Wikipedia: "fatal car-to-car and car-to-pedestrian accidents dropped sharply as a result, and the number of motor insurance claims went down by 40%. These initial improvements did not last, however. The number of motor insurance claims returned to 'normal' over the next six weeks and, by 1969, the accident rates were back to the levels seen before the change."

Novelty itself is what makes people cautious. But then the novelty wears off...

When cars were first invented, it was a "shared space" world by default. And yet, in that world, people did find it necessary to invent road markings, signs and traffic signals. Have these folks never wondered why?

On the other hand Captain Slime, we pay a price with every marginal road marking, sign, traffic signal (advertisement, shop sign), and roads are visually noisy and confusing. But each person adding some new road marking, has a story about why it's necessary, and the price is distributed for ever onto future road users..

In 1967, when Sweden switched driving from the left side to the right side, I was studying at a boarding school there. All us students were awoken at midnight and directed outside to move our bicycles from left to right. ☺

At least this "shared space" ethos provides a good reason to ignore the agitation for dedicated bike lanes.

how about -does he think that pretentious & obnoxious marxist democratic candidates like kirsten gillibrand(dartmouth1) who feel compelled to "re-educate" college educated women and the rest of us more likely to help get the donald re-elected!

1$ 54,000

In southern California, Los Angeles doesn't seem to compliment the growth of satelite cities, but rather absorbs them into the "greater Los Angeles area" now reaching almost to San Diego. Further, movement around Southern California is nortouisly difficult. This seems to be a method adopted by other cities in the US as well; Phoenix, Dallas, et cetera. Why would an urban planer chose horizontal spreading over vertical growth/densification, if it makes movement/ commerce around the city at large challenging. Is this merely a historical phenomenon, or is there an underlying beneficial reason, possibly because it's simply cheaper.

My sense is that Bertuad would respond by pointing out that mobility in those cities isn't really that bad by global standards. San Diego metro has one of the shorter average commutes in the U.S. at 70 minutes. Denver metro is even sprawlier, yet average commutes hover at 77 minutes. These are decent even by international standards.

Meanwhile urban legacy cities like Philadelphia and New York City have among the worst average commutes in the world (93 and 87 minutes, respectively) and even cities that have made recent substantial investments in transit, like Portland, Oregon, underperforms (90 minutes).

Once sea levels do begin rising globally and in earnest after polar ice melts, glacier melts, and permafrost thaws, how many of our seaside metropolises should be SACRIFICED (in toto) to permit population relocations away from threatened coastlines?

Which coastal cities most deserve to die because of the enormities involved in trying to "save" them? Which coastal cities might survive given the particularities of their coastal setting (geography, topography, et cetera)?

In our era of Technogenic Climate Change, what inland cities will face the most severe threats, and what might those threats consist of?

Tokyo was sacrificed to anthropogenic firebombing in a world war. They rebuilt it. Detroit was sacrificed to anthropogenic misgovernment. They haven't rebuilt it yet, but the rest of America has barely noticed.

If coastal metropolises are slowly inundated over a period of decades, people will just gradually move elsewhere and rebuild elsewhere. The world will shrug it off with nary a blip in the global economy.

Sea level rise is an attention-grabbing issue, but it's actually one of the least civilizationally-damaging effects of climate change.

Someone shall see and until then might anticipate that existing "natural" harbors along nations' shorelines, once capped by an additional twenty or thirty feet of sea level, will be "buried underwater" and made remote enough from new coastlines as to be unusable as port facilities. (This would not affect all the world's ports, but which ones, and how severely?)

I anticipate a lot of disruption and a lot of expense in "coping" with Technogenic Climate Change, and even more expenses expended as beleaguered humanity chases its tails frantic to "cope".

Sea levels have changed many times over the history of the earth. None of those past changes were due to SUV's or coal fired electric plants. There has been for about 1000 years or more a very tiny rise in sea levels. In spite of all the fear mongering there has been no substantial or threatening rise in the sea level. It may happen, next year, next century, next millennium, but if it does it will be a natural change and not caused by SUV's

News of the day does NOT help:


Wow! 11 billion tons! Lets put this in perspective: First the rate of ice/snow loss in Greenland is down for the last few years. I.e. there is more falling and accumulating than melting. So while 11 billion tons is a big number the amount falling on Greenland is much bigger. Second, 11 billion tons is an infinitesimal amount of ice and snow because if this rate of loss were to keep up with no additional snow falling on Greenland it would take 12500 years for just half of the ice and snow to melt away.
This is just another scare headline aimed it the low information voters.

The NYC coastline rose about a foot in the past century and no one noticed. Same will happen with the next century/foot.

Melting of the entire Greenland ice sheet would pose no direct complications necessarily, but contributing with other polar ice melts, glacial losses at all altitudes, and permafrost thaws, NYC (among other coastal cities) might well face more than only a foot or two sea level rise over the next century. (Think of sea level rise occurring conjointly with the increasing frequency of massive Sandy-like storms yielding cumulative inundations and widespread flooding, compromises to sewage and water treatment systems along the way, et cetera.)

Owning is mostly a residential phenomenon, while other human activities are predominantly based on rent (retail, office and manufacturing space). Does he think this difference is due to some atavistic human characteristic, or it is just the effect of State distortion (fiscal and regulatory treatment plus the inflationary effect of fiat money)? The city as a job market would not be more efficient if more people rented so they would be less resistant to moving when changing a job?

I remember meeting Alain once at a dinner party back in 2009. He claimed that limp biscuit was his fav band of the 2000's. He said he enjoyed them so much because that the lyrics of Fred Durst was embodied the sentiment of white suburban angst.

Maybe you could follow up on this line of thinking.

What does urban renewal look like in a post-retail world, particularly in smaller cities whose downtowns have become waste lands?

If the autonomous vehicle crowd is right, and the majority of households choose to forego vehicle ownership, what are the medium and long-run effects on urban planning?

Many key urban cores, at least in the US, make local policy decisions that are good for existing residents (or landowners), but push the problems onto surrounding cities. See: housing/transit in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, wealthy LA cities.

It’s disenfranchisement via a polity that enacts policies that hurt outside polities.

What are good ways to address this? Has it worked anywhere?

Why are coastal urban centers in the US unable to retain domestic migrants?

Relatedly, why do so many fewer Americans state they want to live in cities than actually do?

I bet those questions don't get asked.

1. What does high homeownership rate in metropolitan region in developing country, like Mumbai, show?
2. Will it be possible that in city like Mumbai where low FAR have been practiced for long, developers develop a business practice where they no singer require high increase in FAR?
3. Use of transferable development rights for urban redevelopment, again case of Mumbai, how much is the efficiency dost of such approach?

1) What are his thoughts on charter cities?
2) To some extent, we all know what some 'good urban policies' might look like, but few major cities (SF, NY, London etc) are really implementing them. What are the most effective/promising routes whereby his ideas might actually have a chance of being implemented in major cities?
3) What are his fav works of fiction?

(Relatedly, (4) What are the best urbanism works of fiction?)

& even before we get to what 'good urban policies' are, what are his examples of good cities, or good regions of particular cities, and why?

Sea level rise likely means that coastal urban centers will have to move inland (or, more accurately, inland areas will move closer to the coast). Planning for this development now will have any number of advantages (certainly less disruption of the economy), but one in particular is infrastructure: by building infrastructure now, when land and other costs are relatively low, will avoid the dilemma America faces today, namely unaffordable infrastructure in densely populated urban areas with high land and other costs. Viewed from this perspective, rising sea levels presents a rare opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Should mayors in the US have more power or less? What city-level governance models work best and where?

What will be the next great American city? Will America create any new cities in the next century?

What are the dynamics driving migration to the top 6 cities relative to the the top 60? Are there ways to break the power-law and bolster mid-tier cities?

How does the Ostrom position in the metropolitan debate look in retrospect? Are economies of scale getting stronger? Will we see more regional / metropolitan merger? Do “smart city” technologies raise the value of high-level coordination, or create opportunities for more polycentricity?

What do Chinese urban planners do right that the rest of the world does wrong, and vice versa? What insights do they have unique access to?

Will projects like Neom fail for being too rationalistic and top-down?

Are suburbs under-rated?

Is the Smart City concept over-rated?

Will we see superstar firms like Google or Amazon create modern company towns?

How can cities resist Shelling segregation without being heavy handed?

Is it a problem that urban birthrates are so low, and if so, what is to be done about it?

(Sorry, above comment messed up formatting - feel free to delete)
Elsewhere, Bertaud concisely summarized the difference btw urban planners and economists as planners thinking mainly in terms of ideal norms (and letting those whose needs can’t be met to that standard fall to the wayside) vs economists thinking about trade-offs under conditions of scarcity. This aligns with my experience at a professional planning program, where students desperately wanted to make a dent in issues like housing affordability, but had no interest in entertaining the idea that markets can be part of the solution, and in fact had knee jerk opposition to it. I would guess this happens because planning students often come from activist or architecture backgrounds, and often lack basic training in approaches from economics - even if their required curriculum teaches Econ 101, this can easily fail to connect how these ideas are practically relevant to urban problems they care about. I’m interested in Bertaud’s explanation for why this gap has emerged, and its evolution through time. Does he think it has to do with education, ideological background, and self-selection in who tends to go into planning? Or a more deliberate body of thought that fundamentally disagrees with economics? Basically what explains why so few planners have come around to Bertaud’s way of thinking, when the problems in cities are (and have been) so obviously large and unresolved?

Monsieur Bertaud argues against Form Based Codes — regulating the architecture of facades, building heights — on the grounds that since we can't calculate the benefits of such regulations, and since their cost is clearly not zero, there should be no regulations.

But we know from experience that all else being equal, many people would prefer living in a city that has some element of uniformity in style and scale. Where, for example, each building is designed to humbly enhance its surroundings, not disrupt them.

Doesn't it mean that the benefit of top-down design is also not zero, and rather than condemning and seeking to abolish all top-down design and historic preservation, we should strive to create mechanisms to discover the better regulations via competition? Maybe bring these regulations to the neighborhood level and let neighborhoods compete for the tax base?

What does he think about the Placemaking movement and the early work in this area by Holly White? Does he believe the way Bryant Park in NYC was renewed has broader lessons for urban renewal?

Could there be a noise pollution tax and how would that work? How likely is it that parts of any major urban core in the US become car free?

What would you say to Robert Moses if you met him in 1920?


I think there is good reason to believe ressurgent Brazil is, or soon will be, #1. It is historically inevitable that Brazil will retake the place it deserves among the nations.

"It is historically inevitable that Brazil will retake the place it deserves among the nations."

Agreed. But that place is not #1. It's not even #20. Maybe #2 in South America.

Brazil in the 19th Century was arguably the most advanced society on Earth. Its literature was second to none. It almost alone defeated Paraguayn invasion, while America was recovering from the Civil War, and probably saved the world from sinking into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. In the first seven decades of the 20th century, Brazil was among the highest growing economies in the world.

Brazilians discovered the pion, invented the radio, the typewriter, the walkman and the airplane. Maybe we should respect Brazil, now a major non-NATO ally much more. It is dramatically underrated.

How will the future of transportation shape land use planning in cities? That is, if transportation will indeed result in a grid of automated drones moving people from point to point, what is your vision for cities in that reality?

ask him if he knows that John Prine will be playing at red rocks
in Morrison, Colorado on Thursday sept. 18th

After the fall of the Soviet Union, tradeable shares of the productive capital were distributed equally to the people who then sold them for cheap. Do you think they should have mandated everyone to keep 90% of these shares?

(Feel free to edit this question to make its spirit clearer).

Any comments about what Google's Sidewalk Labs is trying to accomplish with its "smart neighborhood" in Toronto?

Personally, I think Google was rather naive to go to Toronto, and the project will be stillborn. There's been a degree of NIMBYness since Jane Jacobs moved there back in 1968, and a lot of wokeness in the downtown core (a guy like Rob Ford only became mayor because several former suburbs were forcibly merged into the city proper in 1998 by the provincial government). So you have the same disadvantages of an American site, the same suspicion of big corporations, but on top of that you also have a significant degree of just plain anti-Americanism among the Canadian left.

Still, assuming the whole thing actually moves forward... any comments?

How should charter city developers think about the interplay between new legal frameworks and the physical infrastructure of a new city

Brazil is competing with Venezuela to be the #1 sh*thole in S. America. Economists have downgraded their economic forecasts for Brazil, whose economy contracted in the first quarter: "Incoming data suggests that the economy is struggling to gain momentum after GDP contracted for the first time since the 2015–2016 recession in Q1...Brazil’s prospects were cut for the fifth consecutive month in July [2019]. FocusEconomics analysts project growth of 1.1% this year, which is down 0.3 percentage points from last month’s forecast."

What business in its right mind would invest in a country that lets savage prisoners hack people apart with total impunity?

Ask him this:

Why was Bach so incapable of rhapsodizing when he should have rhapsodized, always falling back on philosophizing in the moments where he should have rhapsodized ...

was he a lot less gifted than one would think or is it simply a fact that none of us can measure up to the angels, even the best of us as measured by our talent in our chosen fields?

Also, which sitcom of the golden age of sitcoms - early 60s to the late 90s - featured the best architecture, from the point of view of someone who cares about architecture,
the way Judy Garland cared about music and pills,
the way the Apollo astronauts cared about their military resumes ....

just kidding, don't ask him, I already know the answers.

Have fun, these are all good talks, you are a good interviewer.

1. Does he agree that autonomous vehicles will be truly autonomous? ie to Level 5?
2. If so , what result? Any conjectures? More suburban expansion? More city in-filling? Both?

The human benefits of green spaces is well researched. What will be the most economically viable and effective means of providing green space in the next 10 years?

1) In Order without Design, Mr. Bertaud mentions The Three Plagues of Current Transport Modes: congestion, heavy pollution concentration and high GHG emissions. I'd be interested to hear his views on the social impact of modern transport, such as less serendipitous personal interactions in, and how we might factor those tradeoffs in evaluating urban and transport efficiencies.

2) What are Mr. Bertaud's thoughts on municipal golf courses, and lawns and swimming pools in single-family detached homes, in the context of urban land use and regulations?

3) What role do advertisements - such as billboards, storefronts, sponsor signage, and location-based digital ads sent to smartphones - play in the health and strength of a city? And, how should urban planners, mayors and regulators think about advertisements in terms of zoning and aesthetics regulations?

Thanks for the consideration, and looking forward to this talk.

Alain is a wealth of amazing stories. You should ask him about:
-The time he was arrested and jailed in Syria because they thought he was a spy.
-His time in Yemen: The traditional house he built from scratch. Hospitality culture. Having his appendix removed without anesthesia.
-Why he's blacklisted from traveling to China

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