Urban Planning 101


Former World Bank principal planner Alain Bertaud has performed an important service that should provide a much needed midcourse correction to urban planning around the world. Bertaud returns to the fundamentals in his "Cities as Labor Markets."

Bertaud begins by reminding us that without well functioning labor markets, cities will not be successful. This requires mobility, which he defines as "the ability to move quickly and easily between locations within a metropolitan area" and "the ability to locate one’s house or one’s firm in any location within a metropolitan area." This mobility, he maintains, is indispensable in facilitating growth of the city.

There is just one exception, according to Bertaud. These are retiree cities, which do not principally rely on mobility for their growth. Yet, Bertaud notes that these are themselves products of the much more numerous conventional cities, where mobility has facilitated growth and in which future retirees accumulate the resources that permit migration to the retirement cities.

There are also the planned cities for government, such as Brasilia and Washington. Bertaud contends that they have become successful because "more diversified labor market "was grafted " onto the government activities."Before that, however: "The ‘cost is no object’ concept presided over their construction and insured their initial survival as they were financed by taxes paid by the rest of the country." This should give pause to nations, especially in the developing world proposing to build and thereby divert resources from improving the lives of people (see;  Unmanageable Jakarta Soon to Lose National Capital?).

Imaginary "Urban Villages"

Bertaud insists on the importance of cities as unified labor markets. Metropolitan areas will be hampered in their development and innovation to the extent that they are fragmented.

He is particularly critical of planning attempts to create "urban villages" within the unified labor markets (metropolitan areas). He contends that: "The urban village model” implies a systematic fragmentation of labor markets within a large metropolis and does not make economic sense in the real world."

Bertaud does not accept the notion that:

"... everybody could walk or bicycle to work, even in a very large metropolis. To allow a city to grow, it would only be necessary to add more clusters. The assumption behind this model is either that urban planners would be able to perfectly match work places and residences, or that workers and employers would spontaneously organize themselves into the appropriate clusters."

He is concerned at the "prevalence of this conceit in many urban master plans," which he characterizes as "utopian trip patterns."

According to Bertaud, the urban village "model does not exist in the real world because it contradicts the economic justification of large cities: the efficiency of large labor markets." The cold water of reality is that "... the urban village model exists only in the mind of urban planners."

Uncontained Self-Contained Satellite Towns

He supports his claim. Seoul's satellite communities were intended to be self contained towns (urban villages), in which most residents both lived and worked. Yet, most of the workers employed in the satellite towns live in other parts of the metropolitan area. At the same time, most of the residents of the satellite  work in other parts of the Seoul metropolitan area. He cites Stockholm regulations requiring neighborhood jobs – housing balances as having no impact on shortening commute distances even when such a balance is achieved.

My own research using 2001 census data indicated that the London area new towns, also intended to be populated principally by people who work in them, had average work trip travel distances more than their diameter (See: Jobs-Housing Balance and Urban Villages in Southeast England). This means that large numbers of people were traveling to work outside the towns. In London as in Seoul, the planners can conceptualize the self-contained satellite towns, but it is beyond them to force the behaviors to make them work.

Similarly misguided efforts elsewhere, from the San Francisco Bay Area and other California metropolitan areas to Montréal and beyond are destined for similar failures.

Commuting and the City

Bertaud cites research by Remy Prud'homme and ChoonWong Lee at the University of Paris showing that the efficiency of cities tends to increase up so long as a large share of the commutes are less than 60 minutes, though optimal efficiency occurs at shorter commute distances. Lest there be any misunderstanding, American cities have average commute times of approximately 25 minutes, according the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, not the hour or two hour journeys of urban legends.

Defining the City

This large commuting radius makes it clear that Bertaud does not accept the distorted urban definition that would, for example, define the urban form to not extend beyond the borders of New York City, or worse beyond the Hudson, East and Harlem Rivers – the boundaries of the island of Manhattan. If the city is limited to dense cores, then the "half urban" world recently announced won't be here for many decades. The city is the metropolitan area – the labor market, which extends to the far reaches of the commuting shed.

The Bottom Line

According to Bertaud, 

"Increasing mobility and affordability are the two main objectives of urban planning. These two objectives are directly related to the overall goal of maximizing the size of a city’s labor market, and therefore, its economic prosperity." 

That brings us back to first principles. Cities are about people. Planning is justified to the extent that it facilitates the aspirations of people. The city requires prosperity, which Bertaud shows in a much needed first installment of Urban Planning 101.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.


Note: Alain Bertaud's "Cities as Labor Markets," was published by the Marron Institute on Cities and the Urban Environment at New York University and is intended to be a chapter in his forthcoming book, tentatively titled Order without Design.

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It is accepted now, I believe even by the TCPA, that the New Towns failed in their ambition to be self-contained economic units, with sufficient employment for residents.

But the New Towns succeeded in providing settlements within the overall transport infrastructure from which people could reach a series of employers. I love New Towns for that.

You are right to point out that mobility within shifting labour markets is important, and that planners (which now includes architects as "masterplanners") delude themselves if they aim for self-containment.

However you are silent on the insufficiency of employment opportunities even for the workforce willing to be most mobile. There is no guarantee in capitalism that work will be anywhere, or well paid enough to support the migrant (and we are all increasingly migrating).

There is a feedback effect too, of course. The efforts at containment have (most notably in Britain) inflated housing costs in the contained urban areas. This feeds directly into the wage bills of employers in the form of rents and mortgage payments, but is not counted as general inflation. Housing cost inflation is ignored, unlike say food or clothing inflation, because it is also an asset.

Employers have gained from the ability of middle class home owners to subsidise their incomes through housing equity gains, which are then withdrawn as large costs need to be met. This reduces or obviates the need for savings, and boosts consumption. While the middle class have been able to gentrify areas that they commute from, the working class are economically forced further out of areas where work is to be found, increasing their need for mobility.

So the planned containment of urban Britain has had the opposite effect of economic self-containment. It has inflated housing costs and forced greater mobility both among the middle class who have colonised inner cities and the working class who have been priced out.

Ian Abley


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Good comments, Issues reflected in the US as well

Good comments, Ian.

Shouldn't this critique of "urban villages" be expanded to include the US suburbs? They have presumed to be self-contained bedroom communities different in lifestyle and with their own form of transport (cars) and housing. But that has meant a fragmented labor market, where the jobs are mostly created at the commercial centers. And so everyone is forced to commute long distances by car to participate in the benefits of the economies of the urban centers, which in turn suffer from the rush hour congestion brought in from the suburbs. To me naming, let's say, Houston as a Metropolitan Area like NYC is misleading. Houston developed mainly as two different urban lifestyles: a city core surrounded by suburbs with people that drive everywhere. Whereas in NYC, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, Staten Island as well as areas of New Jersey are much more similar to Manhattan in its urban development pattern than Houston is to its own suburbs.

Cities have expanded since ancient times (Rome, London, Paris, NYC, etc.). What has kept them successful is that the geographic area is connected through expanding its unified transportation systems across the greater met area (which includes walking and cycling but also trams, trains, buses)to give similar choices to everyone. And in addition, they have also maintained the same general urban form, allowing for variety of densities within but always mixed-use and with architectural styles that are compatible with each other and with the geography. This has lead to both a more coherent, and diverse development. This is best shown by generally less variance in the job/worker expansion ratio.

Wherever did you get those assumptions from?

No, you are 100% wrong.

Unplanned "Splatter" development as has occurred around US cities is completely different to planned new towns.

Because splatter "fills in" later, the best use of fragmented land is clearer. This is impossible with planned, rationed, incremental growth.

Dispersed jobs and mixed land use is actually a force for reduced commute times and reduced traffic congestion. It is planned monocentricity or even polycentricity that concentrates congestion and introduces steep land rent curves that "price out" workforces into longer and longer commutes according to their income level.

There are several great papers by Peter Gordon et al on this.

But the one I most like to refer people to, is Ed Glaeser and Matthew Kahn, "Sprawl and Urban Growth" (2003).

Very few urban areas have as much as 20% of their employment in the core any more. There are good reasons for this.

Agglomeration economies are not synonymous with centralisation at all. Agglomeration economies were only ever about "proximity" as long as transport and communications were primitive. "Access" has increasingly substituted for proximity, and communications have substituted for both. Agglomeration economies are of multiple types, and are maximised by having different types EVOLVE at as many locations as market freedom determines. Often, this is on fragmented exurban land.

Primary exhibit: Silicon Valley

It is commonly acknowledged in literature on urban economics that nothing like Silicon Valley can evolve under the UK's urban planning system. The UK also has the densest cities in the OECD, AND the LONGEST average commute to work times. It is all pain for no gain.

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