Lately I’ve been reading the book Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities by Alain Bertaud. I’m only about a third of the way through, but already I can tell this read is very worthwhile. So, in this article, I hope to portray some of the key ideas that this book has given me so far, along with a brief characterization of the arguments that led to them. They are the following:

  • In general, the primary purpose of a city is to foster an efficient labor market. A good city is one that most effectively fulfills this purpose, within the bounds of environmental standards.
  • City design is the top-down design and regulation of urban constructions. City design is often misguided both in practice and principal.
  • From the perspective of regulating central authority, many pairs of urban-construction variables are intuitively viewed as causal in only one direction. Market-oriented explanations in terms of trade-offs are more accurate and insightful.

Purposeful Cities

To be clear, Bertaud’s thesis is not that cities should be completely without any design. In fact, he specifies a few roles that he advocates city designers to be more active/pro-active in. However on the whole, Bertaud leverages his experience in economics and the city-design bureaucracy itself to counter many of the tradition core positions of city-design advocates. The title of this article may provoke the counter that a “good city” is a purely subjective judgement, and that cities can be “good” in arbitrary ways that escape a useful analysis. The first bullet hopes to mostly address that concern by specifying what exactly Bertaud means by a good city, but the question is still relevant. Why is the purpose of a city to foster an efficient labor market rather than, for example, to foster a nice quality of life?

Any sort of acceptable alternative purpose to declare for cities is going to be something along the lines of “to be beneficial, in some way, for the people that live in the city, currently or in the future.” This is clearly the minimum standard - if the city is not beneficial for the people living in the city, then it will not last long (as long as emigration is allowed and the residence are not exclusively masochists). Bertaud, from the start, takes a city’s purpose to be relatively self-evident in an economic sense, but I think that as he goes into the details of how well-meaning city-design policies aimed at alternative purposes lead to situations that are not (relative to some version of not having the policies) beneficial the the city’s residents, the purpose of “fostering an efficient labor market” and “to be beneficial, in some way, for the people that live in the city, currently or in the future” converge very closely.

The Designer’s Perspective


Recognizing Trade-Offs