My Conversation with Alain Bertaud

Excellent throughout, Alain put on an amazing performance for the live audience at the top floor of the Observatory at the old World Trade Center site.  Here is the audio and transcript, most of all we talked about cities.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Will America create any new cities in the next century? Or are we just done?

BERTAUD: Cities need a good location. This is a debate I had with Paul Romer when he was interested in charter cities. He had decided that he could create 50 charter cities around the world. And my reaction — maybe I’m wrong — but my reaction is that there are not 50 very good locations for cities around the world. There are not many left. Maybe with Belt and Road, maybe the opening of Central Asia. Maybe the opening of the ocean route on the northern, following the pole, will create the potential for new cities.

But cities like Singapore, Malacca, Mumbai are there for a good reason. And I don’t think there’s that many very good locations.

COWEN: Or Greenland, right?


BERTAUD: Yes. Yes, yes.

COWEN: What is your favorite movie about a city? You mentioned a work of fiction. Movie — I’ll nominate Escape from New York.


BERTAUD: Casablanca.

Here is more:

COWEN: Your own background, coming from Marseille rather than from Paris —

BERTAUD: I would not brag about it normally.


COWEN: But no, maybe you should brag about it. How has that changed how you understand cities?

BERTAUD: I’m very tolerant of messy cities.

COWEN: Messy cities.


COWEN: Why might that be, coming from Marseille?

BERTAUD: When we were schoolchildren in Marseille, we were used to a city which has a . . . There’s only one big avenue. The rest are streets which were created locally. You know, the vernacular architecture.

In our geography book, we had this map of Manhattan. Our first reaction was, the people in Manhattan must have a hard time finding their way because all the streets are exactly the same.


BERTAUD: In Marseille we oriented ourselves by the angle that a street made with another. Some were very narrow, some very, very wide. One not so wide. But some were curved, some were . . . And that’s the way we oriented ourselves. We thought Manhattan must be a terrible place. We must be lost all the time.


COWEN: And what’s your best Le Corbusier story?

BERTAUD: I met Le Corbusier at a conference in Paris twice. Two conferences. At the time, he was at the top of his fame, and he started the conference by saying, “People ask me all the time, what do you think? How do you feel being the most well-known architect in the world?” He was not a very modest man.


BERTAUD: And he said, “You know what it feels? It feels that my ass has been kicked all my life.” That’s the way he started this. He was a very bitter man in spite of his success, and I think that his bitterness is shown in his planning and some of his architecture.

COWEN: Port-au-Prince, Haiti — overrated or underrated?

Strongly recommended, and note that Bertaud is eighty years old and just coming off a major course of chemotherapy, a remarkable performance.

Again, I am very happy to recommend Alain’s superb book Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities.


New city location sites are coming our way . . . SOON!

We'll be getting new coasts and coastlines, too: should we begin moving our pristine sand beaches inland? (to "help nature", of course)

Of course, urban design is not a fair fight: special interests, from developers to home builders to bankers to consultants to land owners to road construction to car companies, have an interest in sprawl, to cities going out not up. Houston, the model for letting markets determine city design, is a mess, not only sprawl, but recurrent flooding that will get worse. Why do retirement communities, built far from urban centers, have the highest rates of SDTs? Yesterday, Cowen's friend Scott Sumner compared Singapore favorably to Hong Kong, in particular with regard to affordable housing. Does it matter that over three-fourths of the land in Singapore is owned by the state? Sprawl and uncontrolled development is a form of "planning", the default that favors the special interests described above who profit most from such "planning".


All the land in Hong Kong is owned by the state and was so under the British. However there is well-established market in long-term leases that allow their owners pretty full usufruct rights, essentially private ownership in every except in ultimate name only.

People own apartments in Singapore on 99 year leases [what's called here in Australia 'Torrens Title'], after which the unit returns to the State.

Government builds sprawl. Without monstrous government investment in sprawl, there is no sprawl.

All those Walmart’s and DR Horton homes aren’t build on Walmart roads and off Walmart highways.

Without the DOT, mandatory parking regulations, multi lane government highways, and land use restrictions-sprawl can’t exist.

What? Tyler didn't throw Thiago a bone and post the interesting part about Brasilia?

Maybe it's just because I like urbanism but I though this was one of the more interesting interviews.

Yes yes.

COWEN: But Brasilia worked. It’s not perfect, but it’s a city.
BERTAUD: Yeah, but it’s a city of bureaucrats. You have no choice.
COWEN: But I’d rather live in Brasilia than Rio.
BERTAUD: You know, the people who went to Brasilia were not the same people who went to Shenzhen. They were moved, I would say even [inaudible] from Rio de Janeiro. So yes, and the taxpayers of Brazil paid for Brasilia entirely. Nobody in his right mind will decide to live in Brasilia just by choice. It’s one of the worst performing cities. It’s not just my taste. It’s the worst performing city...

There's more.

"I would say even [inaudible] from Rio de Janeiro."

Not true.

> But I’d rather live in Brasilia than Rio.

Unpopular opinion.
Rio may have its problems, but it's way more vibrant of a city.
And if you want to live in Brasilia in Rio, all you need to do is live in suburban Barra.

What explains TC's risible reaction here?

COWEN: Or Greenland, right?

TC is surely equipped with sufficient mathematical aptitude and analytic ability: what is it about climate data that has left him so dismissive?

Is it the (seeming) evidence of accelerating Technogenic Climate Change that he disputes? Is it a matter of finding the right weighting for disputed data and interpretations thereof?

--or do the accumulating data concerning Technogenic Climate Change simply come too late in his academic career for TC to renege on his prior commitments?

Technogenic Climate Change is a hoax, a fraud.

Tell that to the planet's warming oceans and melting glaciers, they'll be much relieved, no doubt.

It's becoming interesting already to see science devotees and science advocates minimize or dismiss the accumulating data compiled by dedicated climate scientists.

I can't even! LOL LOL

Tsk and tut--another sign that our planet's natural processes are NOT heeding all the inconclusive data floating about concerning them:

Makes you wonder why our marine scientists can't persuade our oceans to abide by our climatic preferences.

--but DO NOT tell the editors and publisher of The Economist, which just dedicated most of one issue to the evidence (compelling, to read their accounts) and the analysis.

The Economist and the WaPo are bad with science stories and this time is no exception. It might be because journalists don't have any science background. As with NY Times, they are using the completely unrealistic CH8.5 projections which assumes little innovation over the next 80 years, much more coal burning, a decrease in the ability for scientists to communicate new ideas to each other if in different countries. (I swear I'm not making that craziness up.) Even Cowen only thinks his Great Stagnation will last until the 2040s.

(RCP 8.5)

Of the four RCPs proffered by IPCC AR5:

RCP 2.5--THE MOST CONSERVATIVE PROJECTION--has already died the death and is already a useless projection, its assumptions up to 2020 have already expired.

That leaves only three of the original four RCP projections: viz., 4.5, 6.0, and 8.5.

Given that 2.5 has already died the death, 8.5 has not been shown to be wildly inaccurate, unless it too gravely understates the coming threats.

If RCP 4.5 assumptions die their own death a decade early, maybe we'll know by then whether it too gravely understated pending threats.

It's RCP 2.6 not 2.5 and the 2.6 has never been a realistic scenario without some kind of outside intervention to prevent the third world from building additional coal power plants after the year 2000.

Do you think it was worth starting a war over?

Granted, the first world could have followed the Japanese/French model and done a massive build out of nuclear power plants over the last 20 years. That might have done it.

This ignores potential sequestering. RCP2.6 is still possible.

I mean, by magic.

One sequestering technology has been shown to work at close to low enough cost that will make it possible to scale up if ever needed. There are various other methods as well.

Maybe you are thinking of Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law:

" Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Yet, none will be deployed. All the magical wands have failed and so will this one.

If emissions are cut fast enough the oceans will continue to draw down CO2 for decades to come. This allows for an overshoot of the approximate 421 PPM CO2 concentration required for RCP 2.6. But very rapid cuts in emissions will be required. At the moment we are looking at around RCP 4.5 and just under 2 degrees of global warming by the end of the century.

When scientists themselves, economists eager to build projections based on optimistic science reporting, and know-nothing journalists are all so cognitively impaired as to be UNABLE to make sense of duly generated data in a timely fashion, we are in desperate need of brand new cohorts and classes of Cognitive Elites who CAN pay attention.

Apparently, neither Iceland's (former) Okjokull glacier nor Mont Blanc's compromised glacier were notified that the data were erroneous or inconclusive: these glaciers should have been informed that the data do not support their melting.

A distinct shame the planet's glaciers are not abiding by the most conservative projections of disruptive climate data.

Burke, I assumed they were laughing at how the bigly stable genius leader of the United States wanted to buy Greenland.

"And my reaction — maybe I’m wrong — but my reaction is that there are not 50 very good locations for cities around the world. There are not many left."

I think air conditioning changes the game enough that you can't appeal to this kind of efficient markets hypothesis of city locations anymore. Look how rapidly Phoenix and Las Vegas and the Villages have grown in the US- I think that success could be replicated in other countries with enough money for A/C.

What a day for unhappy coincidences:

Once Davos becomes ice-free, maybe our aloof and illustrious elites will notice . . . or begin to complain.

No brand-new American cities needed, really -- we seem to be doing fine turning smaller cities/metro areas into much bigger ones (Phoenix, Denver, Austin, Seattle, etc).

I am teaching Urban Economics this semester at JMU for the first time in awhile, and I nearly tossed it as out of date, but glad I did not. It is a paper by Bertaud from over 20 years ago about land use in Moscow and how the transition was changing it. Basically under Soviet rule a lot of factories were built in a ring private markets would not have located in, and they were closing and the pattern was changing to look more western capitalist. By now that change has largely happened, but it is still an interesting paper.

"Cities need a good location."

The obvious follow up is

"What defines a good location?"

Isn't it?

If land isn't the only thing required to build a city, with a feasible means of supplying potable water, which even "desert" land has in aquifer for the few decades businesses can imagine considering in any feasibility study.

Even before trains, cities were built without water transport access. After trains as a government central planning priority, the US created large towns by the hundreds iin a few decades. And after government central planners focused on paved roads, thousands of large towns and small cities were built in a few decades. I was born at the peak of the founding of new small cities in the US, and in some areas have first hand knowledge of before the small cities were mostly farms. In New England, the farms were reverting to woodland because cattle don't eat saplings and goats and sheep fell out of favor. Today, all those farms are high population counties which look like woods, that a century earlier were free of all but a few trees.

In some cases, the cities were mill towns, but in most cases they were seats of local government and farmer market centers, because they were central, in the center of the political division.

My brother lives in Wichita which is the middle of nowhere, with the only defining geology being two commercially non-navigable rivers, creating a flood plain. It's like many cities in the Midwest that exist from building lots of railroads subsidized by government. Then by massive (50%+ of cost) Federal road and water infrastructure subsidizes.

Atlanta exists because government decided to build a railroad, making the land in the area suitable for a city. Government has kept building public infrastructure to make the city bigger.

Denvver is certainly one of the worst places to build a city, but government central planners got a rail line built after they failed to get big government planners to run the massively Federally subsidized transcontinental railroad run through Denver.

So, lots of good places to build cities.

Government in the 19th century was able to build trains. Now we have California that can't manage to build a single high speed train with 10's of billions of dollars.

Maybe we should think about how electric flight could affect things. The small planes used to fly in and fly out workers to Australian mines could go electric in a few years.

In Australia it means we'll have tourist resorts in areas of natural beauty far from any road and in developing countries with lousy roads who knows what may happen?

Wouldn’t it still be very expensive to get materials to those locations? I am thinking that even if the cost of fuel is negligible, the cost of the planes themselves won’t be, nor will pilot’s or mechanics salaries.

A good location is wherever people want to live, because of opportunity, convenience, weather, scenery, whatever. Market test.

"You see, we have to find a solution for this, and the solution is usually increased supply. Now increasing supply means increasing supply by removing absurd regulation. I’m not talking here, by the way, about fire regulation or sanitation regulation. I’m talking about regulation that the consumer can see: how large is a house, how large is the land it is using, and its location. Users should be able to make tradeoffs between those three things, and they are able to make it visually."

The housing scarcity in almost every metro area is for detached single family starter homes.

Rezoning from single family to multistory multifamily to allow tearing down multiple small single family homes will not increase the supply of detached single family starter homes.

To argue the solution is to allow the market, implying consumers, solve the problem is absurd. History makes it clear that central planners must build the housing complements of transport, water, public services (education) infrastructure. The only effective central planners are government.

The Levitt's of many times. built towns, but left all the problems of sustaining the development to government. Who had to central plan a rebuilding of the town, ie, redoing streets, water and sewer, etc.

The Florida coastal development was started by a Northern industrialist, Henry Flagler, all the way to the Keys, but it soon required big government to fix all the problems that he failed to pay to fix once he got his money from land sales, etc.

I don’t think the statistics on the share of households paying more than a third of their income for housing (or more than half) bear out your contention that the problem is an an undersupply of SF detached dwellings, as opposed to simply an undersupply of all dwellings. Remember, the slogan is “the rent is too damn high”.

It is funny how much he mentions Brasília and that the Tupiniquim capital has such a special place in his heart. It is indeed awful!

Alain is an amazing author. Being from the city of Casablanca, I found it strange that Casablanca could be his best movie: there is nothing about the city in this movie (that was shot in Los Angeles).

& 'Escape from New York' was filmed in Saint Louis, MO.

Have not been to Marseilles, but was in Paris when they played a soccer game. Their fans pulled to fire alarms on the Metro at every stop. Sometimes, they had another of their fans pull them all after they had been reset before jumping out of the station.
Have no desire to visit a city with those fans.

And many of us have NO desire to live in a city.

Cities used to be mostly about physical geography. River junctions and coastlines. Now much less. Thus the rise of Denver and Phoenix, not to mention China’s penchant for plopping new ones down hither and yon.

The problems with the New York City subway system comes a big part from MTA’s inadequate organizational structure. The following quotes are from

"When subway service began to deteriorate in 2013, leaving tens of thousands of passengers regularly stranded due to delays and disruptions, New Yorkers weren’t sure whom to blame. Was it the governor, who appoints the MTA chair and five out of the MTA’s 14 voting board members? Or the mayor, who appoints four board members? Or the MTA chair?"

"Its board and management nominally make decisions concerning how much to raise fares and which projects to fund, but they can’t really do so without the agreement of elected officials, particularly the governor."

"I think that if you build much more [in San Fransisco], and regulation allows to have a variety of building and building size, you could have a way where the poor outbid the rich by consuming less in a very desirable location. This is what you see sometimes in Paris, by the way."

„The poor outbidding the rich" seem to good to be true. I would like to know more about this successful projects in Paris.

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